A Small Triumph
Some men talk. Other men
get to work
Unlike hobbyists—and, alas, writers—he was not sentimental about machines. It didn’t matter if it was a rock crusher at the cement plant were he was a machinist or his motorcycle. They were all the same. They were built to come apart and made to go back together.
In the photograph, from the mid-’80s, we are at a decommissioned military airport running in a freshly rebuilt, but as yet unpainted, Triumph twin. We (and when I say we, I mean he) had rebuilt the Triumph into a functioning motorcycle from a $50 basket case. The previous owner had separated every piece that could be unbolted from anything else (the valve guides, even, had been driven from the head) and had tossed everything into a dozen Wiser’s Deluxe whisky boxes, which may explain why the bike never came together again.
I ordered parts books and rebuild manuals and sent them from the city down to my father, but the telltale signs that they’d been used (greasy thumb prints) were missing. I asked if he’d opened them. He grinned. What I didn’t understand at the time (which was pretty much everything) was that all mechanical devices are essentially the same. A bearing is a bearing, and a transmission gear for a Cockshutt tractor does the same duty as a gear from any other transmission.
I’d phone or visit on weekends and he’d have notes for me. “Third gear on the layshaft needs to be replaced.” I knew better than to ask for a part number. That was my department. When it was finished it started on the third kick. The idle was too high but a few turns of the in-line adjuster in the throttle cable brought it down to a nice burble. I jumped up in astonishment. He hunkered down and checked for oil leaks.
I could be finicky back then. Everything had to be perfect. I spent hours making the aluminum primary case cover shine like chrome. He found this fussing amusing, though he never said anything about it directly. Instead, he told of going to the estate sale after a friend of his had died, and finding everything that this man had fussed over lying on tables to be sold to the highest bidder. The point had been made.
Ten years ago I wanted to show him the mid-nineties 900SS Ducati I’d bought. I rode to the senior’s home and in the parking lot he circled the bike. He poked his head down deep in the fairing and asked me to explain the desmodromic system, which dispenses with conventional valve springs. He marvelled at it, and we talked about flatheads and about long-forgotten sleeve valve engines and about how, in the old days, you’d set valves on an engine not with feeler gauges, but by the sound the valves made when the engine was running.
It was the last significant conversation I had with my father. Four months later he was dead.