All posts by George Petras

One Night in Tennessee

Old Weathered Mailbox

Sept. 9 | Day 3: We arrive after dark, the GPS giving me muddled directions, or maybe I was just tired and confused. Linda and I roll into the driveway around nine o’clock, I think.

And yet the woman I have come so far to see and her husband are still holding dinner, hugging us as soon as we get off the motorcycles.

“Forty years ago, did you ever think we’d be meeting like this?” she asks me, and I have to say, honestly, no, no, I did not.

Let us call her The Poet. She was a girl I’d known in high school, a true poet, a perceptive and heartfelt writer, a genius, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most Zen-centered people I’ve ever known.

She was best friends with The Artist, another girl I knew, a gifted artist and soulful poet and writer who dazzles me with her intellect, insight, empathy and clarity of thought.

We hung out together (as we used to say) but they were a binary star I orbited at a distance since I could not match their brilliance.

I admired both. I learned from them and remembered them — though it was less a case of remembering and more of never forgetting. After graduation we built our separate lives, fanning out across the country, across decades.

Forty years — what a mammoth block of time. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her and now she’s standing before me, and I’m with my wife and our motorcycles, the vehicles of my own time that brought us here, all on a dark driveway in Tennessee.

“Well, come in, come in,” they say. “Are you hungry? We’ve got dinner.”

Since we’re staying the night, I pull the bags off Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa and we go in to eat. Over savory bowls of Thai-inspired chicken-and-rice soup, we fill in gaps four decades old:

For me, a couple of wives and a series of newspaper jobs around the country. For her, a journey of self-discovery out West, meeting a wonderful man and having children. A deep-rooted faith in their Mormon religion and church.

The night runs late and the dishes grow cold on the table. I want to hear more. She speaks of how they ran their own family dairy farm, honest caregivers of the land, their lives entwined with those of neighbors, community, and church.

I want to hear everything and she tells us this:

Their first child is a loving and happy and intelligent son, and learns to talk and walk early, following them around the house. At age five, he begins fetching mail from the box across the rural road.

An avid talker, he tells his parents about an angel, saying to his mother, “Mom, I saw an Angel and I know what they look like.”

And one day…

“He was running across the road to get the mail and a motorcycle came over the hill,” she says. “He was hit and killed.”

Time stumbles as the shock ripples through us. I had not known, even after all these years. I struggle to focus and a somber voice in the back of my mind whispers I never thought we’d be meeting like this.

I can’t remember what Linda and I say beyond oh, my God and I am so sorry and such; it was inadequate anyway. Still and silent, we listen.

She tells us how she, her husband, their families and everyone they knew were devastated beyond comprehension. She says to her husband, sometime later, “I don’t see how we can survive this.”

And he, from a place of inner strength I did not know could exist, offers the most courageous and unforgettable thing I have ever heard.

He tells her: “We can be bitter, or we can be better.”

Slowly they take up their lives again. The church and community rally around them. They forgive the rider on the motorcycle, giving him back his life. They have more children. They rebuild around the awful loss.

It is very late. We all say good-night and are ushered into a guest bedroom. But it is hours before I sleep.

It’s impossible for me to reconcile the sweet girl I adored in high school and the pain of that day; they cannot exist in the same space. I’m in awe of the strength and courage of her husband, who gave them a way forward. I grieve for the wonderful child I will never know.

And how, dear God, we’ve come to their doorstep on motorcycles.

Time has lurched on, but I am forever haunted. We were only 52 hours into the mission, with 16 days, two thousand miles, and now the rest of our lives to go.

The next day I call The Artist long-distance after we shut down the bikes in Birmingham, Alabama. We talk and I weep a little and she, with her wisdom, pulls me back from the edge.

But Linda and I are subtly changed, tempered somehow, forced to take a different perspective. The belief we can be better takes up residence in my head1.

We’ll find the New Orleans motorcycle ride will be more intense, more deeply felt, than anything we’ve done before. All that’s ahead of us — the fall in Underwood, the stranger in Selma, the lonely sadness of Bryant’s Grocery and everything else — begins this night in Tennessee.

Stone cherub praying


Note: It took more than a year for me to write this story. I’ve shown it to my two friends; they have kindly given permission to post. I could not have done so otherwise.
Addendum: In later correspondence, she tells me, “Following his death I imagined his sweet spirit running across the road into the arms of an Angel while his earthly body was waylaid and left behind.”
1 — Where it stays to this day. And I will testify his words helped me deal with Steve Wargo’s death, 164 days later.
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And Yet Motorcycles Were a Part of It

“We either make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

— Carlos Castaneda

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Sept. 4 | Day 5: So we weren’t traveling by motorcycle, but naturally I couldn’t stop thinking about leaving Terra Nova behind and wondering (in random moments) how to prevent it from happening again.

Besides the obvious remedies of sensible packing and taking time to properly load the bike, I started fixating on other motorcycles, ones more suitable for long-distance, two-up travel. Perhaps that was part of the answer.

I started with Harley-Davidson, of course, since we were seeing so many of them on the highway. Harley touring bikes are big, heavy, and comfortable.

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They’re also stable on the road. I remember riding through terrifyingly heavy wind on our way back from Mount Rushmore in 20101 — “It was like someone was trying to kick the bike out from beneath me,” commiserated a fellow rider at a fuel stop2 — and seeing Harley tourers ride through that wind unaffected. It was their weight, low center of gravity, and long wheelbase that helped.

Big, heavy, and comfortable. And expensive, as we found during impromptu visits to Harley dealers3 starting in Hays, Kansas, and continuing during our sweep back and forth across the country.

As noted during our 2015 visit to Premont H-D in Quebec, I like Harley shops — the bikes, the tools, the garage signs on the walls. So we started looking at Harley touring bikes.

Expensive. I liked the Road Glide with the fixed fairing4 but couldn’t countenance the double headlights5. The Street Glide was next, and I liked it, though the fairing is on the forks. The Road King wasn’t bad, either.

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But they are expensive, starting at $19,000 and soaring northward. So buying new is no-go, though there were some interesting used bikes, priced to inflict mild dysrhythmia instead of full-on cardiac arrest.

So we paused at Harley places in Golden, Colorado Springs, Durango, and a few more, where I casually inspected bikes and nonsensically started collecting H-D poker chips, a Harley thing6.

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Since returning home, I’ve looked at other bikes, sport-tourers like the BMW R1200RT, a really nice touring bike with final drive reliability issues, just like my Endurance. Alas, I found Triumph no longer makes the Trophy motorcycle.

Yamaha’s FJR 1300 and Kawasaki Concours are other, less pricey, possibilities.

I’m not sure if I’ll actually get another motorcycle. But I am thinking about it. And looking at bikes while Terra Nova languished at home took some of the sting out of driving a car while we should have been on a motorcycle.


1 — It really was frightening, more so than the Sierra wind blasting across U.S. 395 as I rode Endurance home to Reno from San Diego. I had to pull over and wait out that one.
2 — We met two riders from Pittsburgh at a South Dakota gas station and naturally we talked about the wind. It was somehow comforting to know they were as unsettled as I was.
3 — No matter how you regard Harley, it has an unmatched widespread dealer network. Most of them are located just off interstates, which (while perhaps putting them in a locale class with McDonald’s) makes them easy to find while you’re on the road. In comparison, there’s like one BMW motorcycle dealer in all of Montana, last I looked.
4 — In which the wind-cutting fairing is attached to the frame instead of the front forks. It lessens the effect of wind on steering, since a fork-mounted fairing wants to take the front wheel with it.
5 — It gives the bike a deal-killing space-shippy appearance, at least for me.
6 — Look, I don’t know why. At one to two bucks apiece, they were probably the least-expensive souvenirs of the mission. And there’s a nice tactile pleasure in clicking them together in your hand. Lots of Harley riders collect them, apparently.

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Fizzle, or: How I FUBARed the Mission Prep, Killed Our Long-Distance Motorcycle Ride of the Year, and Pissed Off Myself for the Rest of My Life

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“I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it.”

— Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Aug. 31 | Day 1: It isn’t easy to admit1, or even remember, but here it is: We ended up not doing a motorcycle ride this year — the motorcycle ride, the thing I long for the most, every year.

Ah, it was my fault. All that work — getting the bike in perfect shape, installing a new saddle, bolting on highway pegs for me, fitting a passenger backrest & longer footpegs for Linda, extending the luggage plate — all for naught.

The cause was simple: I did not allow enough time to pack the bike.

In a series of events too tiresome to list here, we weren’t able to leave until literally 1:30 a.m.

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And then, when I finally get everything aboard, and Linda climbs on, Terra Nova is way too heavy. We take a couple of turns around the block and she handles like the Exxon Valdez.

In the dark, I shut down the Yamaha, stare at it, and force myself to rationally consider the options:

1) Full abort, no ride at all;

2) Delay another day and try and make it work;

3) Take the bike solo, and leave Linda home;

4) Take the bike myself, with Linda following in her car;

5) Leave the bike and take her car to Colorado.

The first is right out, as the Monty Pythoners say. This trip is essential, I’m carrying the memory of an old friend who has died, and Colorado was special to him.

The second is tempting but carries no guarantee. We’re already running late and we have a mission itinerary in which the first few days depend on us being somewhere. Each miss puts us farther behind.

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The third is a complete no-go because I love my wife and we do these things together. It wouldn’t be fun without her.

The fourth is ridiculously, sinfully, wasteful.

The fifth reluctantly wins the day. We have to unsuit — I even had the Camelbak on, filled with two liters of icewater — dock Terra Nova in back of the house, throw the bags (sans motorcycle-related gear) in the back of Linda’s Honda Fit, and drive off.

I seethe for the first few days, until we cross Kansas and get into Colorado and the mountains rise up in front of us. We have places to visit and people to see.

Still, for the entire trip, I can’t help but notice lots and lots of motorcycles on the road. And not one of them is mine.


1 — Which explains why it took me so long to write this.

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The Next Ride, Or: Salvaging An Awful Year

Open Trans-Canada Highway Canadian Rocky Mountains

It started Feb. 19 with the death of Stephen Wargo, one of my oldest and best friends, continued with my mother unexpectedly dying in a hospital on April 15, and persisted with a motorcycle-riding colleague getting killed June 8 while riding a bike.

All those dates, now etched in marble somewhere. An awful year.

Emotionally detached, I went into near-stasis for weeks, focusing on what only needed to be done at that moment. Just numb, no energy or desire for anything else. Everything pretty much went to hell.

Straight to hell, including the motorcycles, which waited silently as I tried to figure out what to do. The covers never came off Linda’s scooters. The battery aboard Endurance flatlined from lack of use. I think I commuted to work on Terra Nova exactly once.

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The one thing we had to do was not give up our annual motorcycle ride. Linda and I have been doing long-distance rides since 1999, with an unbroken string since 2007.

We rode two-up for years, but started riding our own separate bikes in 2013. The only criteria is that we go someplace we’ve never gone before. Someplace with meaning.

At first we looked overseas, with thoughts of renting a bike in Vietnam, Australia, or the U.K.

The U.K. took the lead for a while. I even put up a Michelin map of Great Britain in the hallway and circled destinations like Dundee, Scotland, where Scott and Shackleton’s ship, the RSS Discovery, is now a floating museum; and Dorset, England, where T.E. Lawrence lived at his Clouds Hill cottage.

I highlighted Portmeirion, the tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales, where Patrick McGoohan filmed The Prisoner back in 1966.

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And RAF Fairford, an air base not far from London where my father was stationed in the early 1950s while he was in the Air Force.

But Linda underwent extensive foot surgery in June and the recovery process was slow and painful; she did not think she could safely ride her own bike. Then other circumstances intervened and we regretfully decided it was not prudent to go overseas this year.

That left a domestic ride, with us going two-up on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. But where to go?

And that’s when I started thinking about Wargo1, though I’d never really stopped thinking about him.

He’d hitchhiked to Colorado in 1978 or thereabouts, an epic adventure, with two high school friends. They went to see Wargo’s older brother George, who left Ohio for the adventurous Rockies, made a life there, and never looked back.

I remembered the last conversation Wargo and I had in person, in November 2017; I was getting ready to leave and we were standing outside in his driveway, saying our good-byes. He was talking about Colorado and how much he loved it and how he wanted to retire and move there.

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“It’s like nowhere else, dude,” he said. “It’s beautiful. I really want to go back.”

I thought, well, maybe that’s a trip we could take sometime, and I said something to that effect, and we laughed and nodded and said yes, maybe we could because we stupidly thought we had time.

And then I went home and three months later things started falling apart and I found myself at his funeral in February, giving his eulogy, being his pallbearer, and remembering everything we talked about, especially Colorado.

Colorado. Linda and I crossed the state while traveling from Reno to Washington, D.C., but never spent significant time there. Going two-up on Terra Nova meant we could go farther, even travel cross-country as we did before.

And so the ideas gradually came together and hammered at me: Wargo. Two-up. Farther. Colorado. Of course. Why did I not see this before?

We’ll leave Aug. 31, burn west across I-70 and see what Wargo saw back in 1978. We’ll go to Golden, where Wargo’s older brother George lived, pay homage at George’s grave in Arvada, ride to the summit of Pike’s Peak2, and then loop south through the San Juan Mountains up to Montrose and visit Wargo’s nephew Stephan (George’s son).

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I’ve contacted Stephan to let him know we’re coming and I’ve let Wargo’s sisters know of our plans. I’ve reached out to Wargo’s friends and the two guys who were with him on that epic hitch-hiking odyssey 40+ years ago; I hope to talk with them soon.

Terra Nova is at the Yamaha dealer for full maintenance and new tires. I’ve ordered a new, more comfortable Sargent saddle. Brackets for the passenger pegs have arrived from Ringe, Germany. We’re finally, finally in motion again.

The ride will be a bit of a challenge; we haven’t ridden two-up since 2012, when we went to Glacier National Park aboard Endurance. We’ll have to pack super-light. We’ll be in the Rockies so we’ll have to prep for heat, cold and rain.

I’ll take a framed photograph of Wargo and leave it with his brother George. And I’ll find one rock, just one, from the Colorado mountains and leave it with Wargo when I visit the Northfield-Macedonia Cemetery.

I’ll try to see Colorado the way Steve saw it. I think it won’t be difficult, because — like the Third Man in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land3 — he’ll be there with me.

And while this Colorado motorcycle ride won’t restore what we’ve lost, it will make 2018 just a bit less awful.

1 — We most always called each other by our last names. It was just one of those things.
2 — I started thinking about Pike’s Peak while considering Colorado; I’d read “Across America by Motor-Cycle,” a 1922 book by C.H. Shepherd, an RAF officer who rode a motorcycle from New York to San Francisco after World War I. Linda and I visited Steve in July 2016, the first time I’d seen him in years; he was wearing a Colorado T-shirt. I went looking for a photo of that shirt (for the top of this page) and was surprised to see Pike’s Peak there, too. It conferred further blessing on the mission.
3 — “Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?”

Two More for McCray

raleigh

June 2: It’s not precisely motorcycle-related, but I’m wandering the magical Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on a brief photo recon for a dear friend — photographing scenes of distant memories for her — when I stumble across a memory of my own.

It’s a 1970s-era Raleigh Grand Prix bicycle, white with black trim, the exact same bike owned by a couple of my high school riding buddies, Tom McCray among them, I believe1.

It sits there like a thunderclap from the past, loosely chained to a bike rack. I circle it in delight, thinking, “McCray has got to see this.”

raleigh.front

It has the same three-armed cottered crankset, DiaCompe centerpull brakes, chromed front forks, high-flanged hubs and Simplex derailleur group. I can’t get a good look at the rear derailleur without moving the bike, which I’m loathe to do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Prestige2.

It has to be someone’s daily commuter bike, and — aside from some surface rust and the handlebar tape starting to unravel on the left drop — looks pretty good for being 40 years old. The brake cables even have clamped metal caps on the ends, to prevent the cables from fraying, a nice touch.

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That was the highlight of the day until, searching for the location of the former renown Coventry restaurant earth by april3, I walk into the Bottle House Brewery and Meadery on Lee Road and find a beautiful Colnago on the wall.

Ah, Colnago, the high-end Italian racing bicycle. And this one, a 12-speed Nuovo Mexico from 1982, is perfect. Hand-made steel frame, all Campagnolo components (rear derailleur looks like a Super Record) chrome front fork, tightly-spaced Regina 13-20 freewheel, flawless paint job, just beautiful.

campy1

Just beautiful. Seeing it clamped to the wall as a decoration is revolting, but this is a seriously expensive and relatively rare bicycle. Maybe it’s safer inside. Still, it seems a shame it’s not being ridden; that’s why it was built.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, bicycles were a precursor to motorcycles for me. Both are vehicles of freedom, taking you farther than you thought possible.

So I remember our bicycling days with gratitude, to the extent that if the Grand Prix owner had appeared on Coventry Road, I would have made an offer for the bike, for the memories of where we’ve been, and the promise of where we’ll go.


1 — Eric Blemaster was another Grand Prix owner.
2 — Grand Prix bikes came with Simplex Prestige rear derailleurs, which are notable because they were the first with parallelograms built of delrin, a hardy plastic that could be finely machined. Unfortunately, delrin was not as durable as metal.
3 — It’s earth by april, no capitalization, since the name was taken from the 31st line of the e.e. cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town. The restaurant closed decades ago but is still fondly remembered. It was located, not in the space occupied by the brewery, but at the corner of Cedar and Lee streets. The Cedar-Lee Theatre has expanded into the building.

 

En Passant

wargo.2017

En passant (in passing): In chess, a French termfor a special pawn move allowing the capture of an opposing pawn on the fifth rank.

We met, not on the fifth rank, but way, way back in the fifth grade, at a school where I was new and alone and kinda scared.

I’ll never forget him turning around to look at me as we were identifying ourselves in class and how he caught up with me later and introduced himself. We were mates, as the English say, after that.

Thus began my decades-long friendship with Stephen Wargo. I became friends not only with him, but with his entire family — his parents, his brother George, and sisters Kathi and Barb, who always made me feel welcome. Wonderful folks, all.

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From left: Barb, Stephen, Kathi and George.

I never called him Stephen, though I did call him Steve, but most times it was just Wargo or Dude. Or (rarely) Pišta, the Hungarian nickname used by his family. He called me Petras, of course.

We hung out together a lot, into high school, where we ran together on the cross-country team (though neither of us was very good) and we did a few epic bicycle trips to Punderson State Park and camping rides across Ohio 87 to Pymatuning State Park on the Pennsylvania border.

Those trips are important because they fired my desire for travel and eventually evolved into long-distance motorcycle rides2.

Wargo.First

Steve and I drifted apart after high school, long before I got on motorcycles. He was ahead of me in doing some amazing courageous things, like hitchhiking Jack Kerouac-style to Colorado to see his beloved older brother George3.

Hitchhiking — I’d dreamed about doing something daring like that but could never work up the nerve, could never get past the danger. But Steve just went and did it. He loved skiing and fishing and Colorado and the West.

“Once you cross the Mississippi, you’ll never want to come back,” he told me. I thought about that in 1995, while I was driving from Ohio to Nevada for a newspaper job in Reno.

I was in a Ford Ranger pickup pulling a 5×8 trailer with Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, stuffed inside. I wished he could have seen me then.

I saw him briefly on a visit home to Ohio in 1997 but we didn’t see one another again until 2016, when his sister Barb found me on the Internet.

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My wife Linda and I visited Steve that July. His mother had passed away in the previous November, I think, and it was obvious he was still deeply in mourning. But we were very glad to see each other and it was as if the time had not passed, or did not matter.

We had a lot of laughs and we talked about the bicycle rides and the hikes and the cross country team and our crazy rubber raft ride down the Chagrin River. I’d gotten some sort of two-man inflatable raft as a Christmas gift and he and I took it on the river through the Cleveland Metroparks.

It was really a stupid-ass thing to do. The river still had ice on it and we managed to slice open the underside of the floor chamber. The raft still floated, though.

Then Steve dropped one of the two paddles and the current took it away and I ended up crawling out on the ice to retrieve it. If the ice had broken, I would have gone in and probably risked hypothermia.

Good times. A link to the 3-minute video I did for him is here.

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Somewhere, in the jungle of our attic at home, I have a photo of us carrying that raft. I also have pictures from our other adventures, the bicycle rides and the hikes.

I came away from our 2016 reunion seized by the idea of us retracing one of our grand bicycle rides, because it seemed like he was so steeped in grief about his parents and I wanted to get him out of the house and back on the road, or something. You know, something fun.

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I wanted to recapture the magic, the special feeling that’s endured from those rides to the motorcycle adventures Linda and I had later.

I kept talking to Steve about it (putting myself at risk of becoming a pest, I’m afraid) but I think maybe he was getting used to the idea or I was wearing him down; the last time I saw him, in early November 2017, we visited a nice bicycle shop, and looked at a Fuji Touring bike that was really sweet. So I like to think we would have eventually done the ride.

But we didn’t. Steve died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 19, 20184. The last time I saw him was Nov. 4, 2017.

I’m trying to remember every moment, everything Steve and I talked about. It’s like I want to account for every minute. Since Steve didn’t have email, I was writing physical letters to him once or twice a month and calling at least once a month, or more.

It’s so easy to let friends drift away; life crowds in, as they say, which is so true. I didn’t want to let Steve drift away again.

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And now I have to find a way to cope with his death. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that. I think of him often, and I smile at many of those memories, and sometimes laugh out loud, and that helps a little.

I’ve talked to Linda and Tom McCray, another good friend who was a part of those bicycle rides, about recreating Pymatuning. That may happen.

But even if it doesn’t, I think I need to see Ohio 87 and Pymatuning again, on a bicycle or aboard Terra Nova. Either way, I know Steve will be there.

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1 — It literally does translate to “in passing.” Phonetically, it’s pronounced “on pass-on,” in case you were wondering.
2 — Hence Wargo’s inclusion in a motorcycle-travel blog, though he himself did not ride a motorcycle. He’s mentioned elsewhere in Motorcycle Days, and I printed out and mailed him a couple of the travel stories since he disdained computers and was not online.
3  — George was a just super guy, the cool older brother I always wished I had.
4 — We knew Steve was sick, but I suspect the correct diagnosis came too late. I put together a video for his funeral, gave the eulogy, and was one of his pallbearers. God, I miss him.

 

Clarksburg’s Piece of Pearl Harbor

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Sept. 25 | Day 19: They say the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor at dawn in 1941 hear a Japanese children’s song — Menkoi Kouma1 sung by a teenaged girl — as they follow a Honolulu radio station broadcast to their unsuspecting targets ahead.

The pilots listening to that sweet song are carrying death to the battleships, destroyers and other ships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The carnage defies description.

More than 2,400 people2 die in the attack. Three battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — are sunk. Eighteen other ships are damaged.

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One of them is the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). One hundred and six of her crew are killed. The ship is later raised, repaired and sent into the Pacific theater. It earns five battle stars.

I’m thinking of the West Virginia as our motorcycle ride to New Orleans comes to an end. This is our last day on the road and we’re about 230 miles from Falls Church. We’ll be home this evening.

But first we’re stopping here in Clarksburg, W. Va. I’ve researched the West Virginia’s history for a story that was published on the 75th observance of Pearl Harbor and there’s something from the ship I need to see.

Linda and I park the motorcycles on West Main Street and cross over to the Harrison County Courthouse. It’s a typical county government building, except for its art-deco entrance, which favors two fierce eagles that look uncomfortably close to something you’d find at a Nuremberg rally.

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A flagpole from the West Virginia is supposed to be here. We check the two poles outside the building, one with an American flag, the other with a state flag, but don’t see anything special about them. I carry my helmet into the courthouse to find someone to ask.

Inside, I find three uniformed sheriff’s deputies ensconced behind inch-thick plexiglass and a heavy duty metal detector.

Speaking though a hole in the plexiglass — it’s like shouting down a well — I tell them why I’m here and ask where I can find the relic from the West Virginia.

The deputies look at one another, puzzled. “I’m not sure,” one says.

I thank them and go back outside, determined to look at the poles more closely and check the perimeter of the courthouse.

One of older deputies comes out and motions us over to the American flag pole. Ah, he’s made some inquiries and has come to find us. Good man.

That’s when we see the plaque at the base, plain as day, maybe 15 inches wide.

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The West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes port side, began to burn, and threatened to capsize. The crew counter-flooded the starboard side and the ship sank upright into the harbor, its main deck nearly even with the waterline.

Fire crews extinguished the flames aboard ship and preparations were soon made to raise the vessel and take her stateside for complete repair.

That’s when the salvage workers started hearing noises, a banging sound, coming from inside the ship, below the waterline. They realize there’s someone still alive on the ship, trapped below decks, making noise in hope of rescue.

There’s no way to get to the trapped men. The harbor water is still thick with diesel fuel; cutting with torches could cause an explosion. There’s a risk of explosive decompression if the hull is breached below water. There’s no way to get to them.

The salvagers keep working. The banging sound continues. Legend has it that the men on guard duty at night put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing it.

The West Virginia is refloated on May 17, 1942, 162 days after the attack. In a dry forward storage room, workers find the bodies of three sailors, Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.

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There’s an eight-day clock with them, and a calendar with days crossed off in red. The last day marked is Dec. 23, 1941. The men had survived 16 days after the attack.

A Navy officer retrieves the storeroom calendar and sends it to the Pentagon, where it is lost and never seen again. The eight-day Seth Thomas clock was saved and is now on exhibit at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, W. Va.

The families are never officially told how the three sailors died. Their grave markers have Dec. 7, 1941, as the date of death. The story slowly seeps out to relatives, other sailors in the Navy.

After extensive repair at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., the West Virginia takes part in significant battles in the Pacific, including Leyte, Mindoro, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The battleship is also part of the massive Navy presence in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally sign documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The West Virginia and the light cruiser USS Detroit3 are the only two ships from Pearl Harbor that are in Toyko Bay that day.

The West Virginia was decommissioned in January 1947 and sold for scrap in August 1959. Her jackstaff4 was given to Harrison County in 1963.

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One of the three: Clifford Olds, right, with shipmates Jack Miller, left, and Frank Kosa on the night before Pearl Harbor. Kosa was killed in February 1944.

I think about Pearl Harbor as Linda and I wheel away from Clarksburg. The attack is a story of tragedy, horror, courage5 and profound grief, and America does its best to honor it.

But I believe history would’ve been better served if the documents of surrender had been signed aboard the West Virginia instead of the Missouri6. The ship paid a heavy price at the war’s beginning; she should have been the setting for its end. The ship and her crew — especially Endicott, Olds and Costin — deserved it.


1 — Which translates to Come on a Pony.
2 — The official count is 2,403.
3 — The Detroit was not damaged in the attack.
4 — The flag pole is the West Virginia’s jackstaff, the pole in the bow of the ship.
5 — Doris “Dorie” Miller, a cook aboard the West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism — he fired an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese planes and helped injured men to safety when the ammo ran out. He was the first African American sailor to receive the medal. (If you need further reference, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”) Miller was killed on Nov, 24, 1943, when his ship the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a torpedo near Butaritari Island.
6 — They say the Missouri was chosen because Harry Truman was from Missouri and had a personal connection with it; his daughter christened the ship. But it was also the flagship of the Third Fleet and served honorably in the war. You could also make a reasonable case for other ships. I can understand that, but I still would have argued strenuously on behalf of the West Virginia.