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The Little Harley

Bert McClary

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Motorcycles have been an important part of my life. My main hobby, I suppose. Iíve been a motorcycle enthusiast, but not a die-hard motorcyclist.
I have little mechanical skill or knowledge. I donít ďRide to live, live to rideĒ or ride to the exclusion of other recreation or obligations, such as bicycles or mowing grass.
But when someone asks what my favorite pastime is, I have to admit that, other than my family, itís riding my motorcycles. Iím still riding at 77,
currently own a í92 Sportster and a í14 Can Am Spyder (plus several non-runners). The last two yearsí trips with my wife were 5,800 miles from Missouri to Nova Scotia,
and 5,700 miles to Washington state and Canada. I hit 400,000 total miles in 2019 after 60 years.
The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote in 2009, celebrating 50 years and 15 motorcycles: Fifty Years of Motorcycles ó A Third of a Million Miles of Fun.
I had an ownerís manual for a 165, but later learned that mine was a 125,
and many years later I believed it was a ďHummerĒ, so thatís what I have called it until last month when I discovered your website.


     Sometime in 1957 or 1958 things looked up a little. My good friend and neighbor Kenny Zimmerman bought a Harley-Davidson 125 through Gene Burke, who he worked with at the A&P grocery store. It belonged to a friend or relative of Geneís from Sedalia. It was much smaller than Cecilís Harley, easy to start and easy to ride (I presumed), and Kenny took me for lots of rides!
I knew it had only one cylinder and was a much smaller engine than Cecilís motorcycle, but had no idea what a two-stroke engine was or that the displacement was only about one-tenth of the big Harleys. It was black, had chrome doo-dads on the front fender, a chrome crash bar, mud flaps and a pillion (I think I learned that word reading about British bikes) seat on the rear fender for a passenger.
    Kenny added some pin-striping, colored plastic wraps for the cables, and a couple of cartoon-type decals. The passenger pillion had a grab rail around it so I didnít have to hold on to Kenny.
I started to understand the technique of riding better, even though I didnít get to drive it myself for a while. I didnít know what a two-stroke engine was, or a four-stroke either, for that matter,
but I knew you had to add oil to the gas when you filled it up. The gas cap had a built-in cup on the bottom to measure. The tank probably held about two gallons, and the cup had an indentation around the middle so you could measure half or full, I guess for one or two gallons. You had to press a little button on the carburetor until the gas ran out a little hole on top (many years later I learned that this is called ďticklingĒ the carb), turn on the switch on the tank, and give it a kick. I could tell it was easy to start, because Kenny didnít have to kick very hard. It started most of the time with one or two kicks, and ran very smoothly. It wasnít very loud and had a nice sound to it. But Kenny wondered how it would sound without a muffler, so of course he took the muffler off to see. Hmm, pretty good. So he got a big chrome tail pipe extension for it, which acted sort of like a megaphone. Wow, really loud! Obnoxious, I guess, to most people. It boomed. I think it had a little more power with the straight pipe, too. But he put the muffler back on before long.
     Kenny took me along quite a few times through the summer of 1958. It was a fun little motorcycle even though it didnít go very fast (about 50 on a downhill grade) and you had to downshift to second gear (of three) on any kind of an uphill grade with two persons aboard (or without). Mostly we rode around town, and out in the country occasionally. I remember riding to his cousinís (Kenneth Reeves?) house at Speed and to Fayette to the swimming pool. We never had a spill, or even a close call (that I knew about, anyway), but we did hit a dog on Santa Fe Trail. We were only going about 20 or 25, and Kenny didnít lose control. I donít think the dog was hurt muchóit didnít stop, and neither did we. We were limited in range because of a mechanical malfunction: the generator didnít work. So you had to charge the battery between rides, and hope it held enough charge to get you home on a long ride. I guess a long ride was three or four hours; I donít recall going any further than Fayette. Ride time was shorter at night because the lights would suck the battery down pretty quick. So Kenny experimented with adding a wheel-driven bicycle generator and headlight. It actually worked pretty well because you got enough speed to really put some power to the headlight. But it was more power than a bike headlight was built for, so you had to carry a spare bulb. They burned out if you went very fast for very long.
     One day we rode across the river and through the bottoms to Petersburg. On the way back we stopped at the Katy railroad crossing that led to the train bridge. Kenny decided to try to ride on the ties between the rails down to the bridge. That went OK, a little bumpy, but not too bad. So when we got there one of us must have said ďWhy donít we ride on across?Ē Without thinking twice, or about what we would do if a train came, Kenny started right on across. Bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump. When the bridge lift operator in the little house on the Boonville side saw us go by, he just shook his head. We were already across. He didnít need to tell us not to do it again. I would venture to say that Kenny and I are the only persons in the world who have ridden a motorcycle across the Katy railroad bridge over the Missouri River.

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     Kenny had a cousin or acquaintance who visited that summer from Rogers, Arkansas, who had a Harley 165 that was set up for ďdirt racing,Ē as nearly as I remember. He said it was for sale, and I actually obsessed over how I could rent a trailer and have Kenny drive me down to Arkansas to buy this machine. I even looked on a map to see how far it was to Rogers. I didnít think about maybe trying to find something to buy a little closer, because I knew where this one was and the owner had told me how nice it was. But the logistics of such an operation were just too much.


    I didnít actually get to ride the little Harley by myself until the spring of 1959, because I didnít have a driverís license and I didnít want to compromise my relationship with Kenny by pestering him to let me drive. I just enjoyed riding with him. But that spring I was anxious to give it a try, and maybe hinted, and Kenny asked me if I wanted to take it for a spin. Boy, did I ever! I fired it up and headed down LeRoy and around the same circuit that I had ridden with Mr. Hill on the Whizzer those many long years before. After all that time, I was finally riding a motorcycle! I was king of the hill! I think Kenny may have had an ulterior motive in letting me drive. He graduated from high school in 1959. Seniors always got out of school about a week before the rest of the grades, and I remember sitting in class on the second floor in the front of the building, with the windows open. I could see and hear Kenny riding up and down Main Street, as if he was laughing at me because I was still in school and he was free, ready to live the rest of his life. He had already made arrangements to join the Navy, and was scheduled to leave in just a few more weeks. But he also needed a bigger motorcycle to go with his new freedom and image as a man of the world. One day Cecilís motorcycle was parked out front, and Kenny and I were hanging around looking at it and talking to him. Cecil had to leave to go somewhere right away, so he asked Kenny if he would put it in the shed behind the house for him. This really pleased Kenny, and he cranked that big Harley up and rode it up the driveway and into the shed. I think that got him thinking that he needed one of those of his own. He located a Harley 74, an early 1950s model, that was available for $400. But he didnít have much money saved, and he would have to sell the 125 and borrow the rest. It didnít take much thought for me to decide to buy the 125 from him for $175, but he was having trouble coming up with another $200. I had saved a few hundred dollars over the past year, and felt pretty flush with cash, so of course I offered to loan him the 200. I needed that bike, and he would soon be getting a monthly check from Uncle Sam with nothing to spend it on. It was a no-brainer, even though we didnít say that in 1959.
     Well, maybe a no-brainer for me, but my parents were certainly not pleased when I told them. After I had already done it. It wasnít that they were worried about me riding a motorcycleóthey had never objected to me riding with Kenny that past year, and it would give me a method of transportation other than the family car. I had been a responsible kid, made good grades, didnít get into trouble and worked long hours through the last year even while school was in session. But Dad didnít make much money, we had five kids in the family, I contributed a little to the family expenses every week and was starting to save for college as well. Two hundred dollars was quite a bit of money in 1959, probably a monthís salary for my dad. And I was loaning it to a kid who just graduated from high school and was leaving town! So they sat me down and gave me a pretty stern lecture about that not being a very responsible act. I should have kept that money in the bank in case we had any family emergencies and needed it, and I couldnít really be sure Kenny was going to pay me back soon. I didnít really need a motorcycle and it seemed like a lot to spend on something frivolous. And since it was an important decision, I should have talked to them about it first. I was pretty young and hadnít thought about all the consequences of what I had done. As a matter of fact, other than deciding I wanted a job, I had probably not made any really important decisions in my life before then. And I really didnít think about asking them first. I didnít decide not to ask them because I thought they would object or refuse, I just wasnít accustomed to asking them for or about much of anything. I wasnít really prepared for how I hurt them by not asking, or for how bad it made me feel after I had done it. But Kenny came through and within several months he had repaid me, so all was well on the financial side. Mom and Dad didnít really mention it again. I had learned an important lesson.
     I had now joined an elite groupóI was a motorcycle rider and owned my own motorcycle. But this was not a large group in Boonville. Neither Kenny nor I had any friends or acquaintances in Boonville, other than Cecil, who owned motorcycles, and we had not ridden with any others over the last year. And I still didnít have a driverís license, so I couldnít ride it anyway. Legally. Kenny had kept it parked in an old vacant house on their property, and his parents allowed me to keep it there. This was two houses away from where I lived, so it wasnít too hard to sneak it out at night for a ride. I would turn the ignition on but not start the engine, roll down the driveway beside the Zimmerman house, pop the clutch as soon as I hit the pavement and ride away. And hope Mr. Zimmerman didnít hear me leave, because he was a city policeman. But for those two months or so before I got my license, he never mentioned it. I figured I was safe riding at night because the other police who saw me couldnít recognize me if they knew me, and couldnít tell as easily how young I looked! Mostly I just cruised over to my friendsí houses or to the A&W. But I thought a lot about riding itówhere I would go, who would ride with me, all the great fun I was going to have. I would lie awake at night thinking about riding, during work I would think about riding, at school I would think about riding, at church instead of listening to the sermon I would think about riding. For a few weeks before Kenny left for the Navy, I got to ride with him occasionally on the 74. This was better than riding double on the 125, because we had the power to really cruise on the highway and werenít limited in range. The big single seat on the big Harleys was fairly comfortable for two persons, but the way it turned up at the back, it had a tendency to push my billfold up in my back pocket. I lost it one day at the corner of Main and Spring Streets. I didnít know it of course, until Mr. Ford, the owner of the shoe shop a couple of doors down from Longís, called me at home and told me he had seen it fall out. There was only one other really memorable occasion from those rides, but it was a doozy! We had gone for a short ride or two with Cecil, and I remember him riding down the highway with no hands lighting a cigarette. He impressed me as a good rider.
     One Saturday I took the afternoon off and Kenny and I were going to ride with him out to Choteau Springs, and have a fun day of riding and swimming. It was a hot day, back in the days when motorcycle safety gear consisted mostly of engineer boots and a black leather jacket, if you could afford one. Helmets were just leather aviator caps. I usually wore jeans when we rode, because I wore jeans most of the time. But when it was hot, I sometimes wore Bermuda shorts. So on this hot, sunny afternoon Kenny and Cecil were wearing jeans, but I had on my shorts and tennis shoes. We headed out Highway 40 up Golf Links Hill and around the corner by the Rod and Gun Club, cruising along at maybe 30 or 35 miles per hour. Cecil was ahead of us setting the pace, and I was looking over Kennyís shoulder at the road ahead. As we passed the Rod and Gun Club and were approaching the bridge over the railroad tracks below (now the Katy Trail) I noticed Cecil ride past what looked like a patch of oil in the middle of the road, and fleetingly hoped that Kenny saw it and was going around it also. But as quickly as I thought that, we were upon it, and not going around it. The front wheel hit the oil and immediately started to slide. Kenny lost control and the motorcycle fell to the right. Kenny and I both fell off the right side and I clearly remember sliding down the left side of the road on my right thigh and hip. Kenny slid on his left foot and right knee. The bridge had a metal surface with some loose gravel and debris on it. Kenny planted his left foot and came up running while I slid to a stop on my side. The motorcycle was spinning slowly around and around in the oncoming traffic lane. I felt a burning pain on my thigh as I stood up and realized that the right leg of my shorts had been torn completely through, and I had to hold my shorts together at the waist to keep them from falling down. I guess it would have been comical, except for the circumstances. I saw Kenny run over to the bike and shut off the ignition so it stopped spinning. Cecil had apparently watched in his mirror as we hit the oil slick and had seen us go down, and he turned around and came back. My glasses had fallen off, and due to my poor vision, that was the first thing I looked for. I found them and limped over to where Cecil and Kenny were picking up the motorcycle. Kenny was a little shaken and had a hole in the right knee of his jeans, but otherwise seemed OK. I was able to motivate, so we got back on and headed home. As clearly as I remember the accident itself, probably from reliving those few minutes so many times, I donít remember exactly what I did after. I believe someone took me to the doctorís office at the medical clinic uptown, and then I got some gauze bandages and tape at Longís and went back home. I was a little sore for a while, but donít have any scars. My parents didnít make me sell my motorcycle, and Iím sure I was a little more cautious riding after that.
     There was an ownerís manual that came with the motorcycle, for a Harley-Davidson Model 165. So I thought it was a 165, until many years later I happened upon some information about the two-stroke Harleys of that vintage and learned that it was a Hummer 125. I'm glad I didnít know at the time it was called a Hummeróthatís not a very manly name for a motorcycle. Even though it didnít have much power and didnít go very fast, it was still fun. As Johnny Bond said about his Hot-Rod Lincoln, ďThe tires are good and the brakes are fair.Ē I had to apply the brakes well ahead of a stop, especially with a passenger or going down West Street hill, so it's probably a good thing it didnít have much power and didnít go very fast. It was pretty reliable, except of course for the generator/battery issue. I wore out one battery. And the gas from a leaky carburetor gasket ran down on my left shoe. I had helped Kenny cut a new gasket for it once, but I guess we didnít do a very good job. The engine ran good, considering I knew nothing about two strokes and lugged it, and sometimes let it idle for long periods of time. As far as service was concerned, I always remembered to put oil in the gas, oil on the chain, air in the tires and juice in the battery. A couple of times when it ran irregularly, Cecil tuned it up for me. I probably could have just cleaned the spark plug, but I didnít know that trick. I took it to Joe Dietz, the Harley dealer in Columbia, for service once and to inquire about repairing the generator. But that was too expensive for my budget, so I just kept charging the battery. While I was at Joeís in 1959 I saw some posters advertising the Harley-Davidson Sportster. Thatís the bike I wanted, not one of those big, heavy 74s. But I had to be satisfied with my little 125 for the time being, although I did remove the muffler and put the chrome extension back on it for a while. Wow, it really echoed when I rode down the alley between Longís and the Casino Theater. They knew when I was coming to work! Then Mr.Arnold up on McRoberts Street, who was also a city policeman, stopped me and told me I needed to put the muffler back on. I rode to work and to school when the weather was decent. I didnít ride if I knew it was going to rain because I didnít have any rain gear. And I didnít ride much in cold weather because I didnít have any really warm riding clothes. I had a special parking place across from school, on a spot between the curb and the sidewalk where Kenny used to park his car. It was vacant now because he had graduated and no one else parked there. I didnít put the key on my key chain because my drug store key and car key bounced around and scratched the top of the tank. I had a special place to hide the key when I parkedóI stuck it between the cushion and the frame of the passenger pillion. I'm not sure why I didnít just put it in my pocket. Maybe I was afraid I would lose it when getting change out of my pocket, and I only had one key. I just assumed no one noticed that I put I there when I parked and had to retrieve it every time I was ready to leave. I could sit on the driverís seat and reach back discreetly with my right hand to retrieve the key. I didnít think anybody would steal it anyway, even if they knew where the key was. People left their keys in the car a lot of the time, and almost always left their houses unlocked. Someone did steal my dadís car once about ten years later. Part of the riding gear that I did not have was engineer boots, a heavy leather jacket and a helmet. I had engineer boots for a couple of years when I was just a kid, but had not had any for a while. My winter coats were a heavy cotton and a suede leather, both bomber-style. They worked fine for short trips, which was all I took in the winter. I rarely wore a hat of any kind because they werenít compatible with my duck-ass hairstyle. I did have a cool-looking straw hat that I bought at the State Fair, but I lost it one day when riding across the Missouri River bridge (the car bridge, not the train bridge).
     Speaking of The Bridge, it was a challenge to ride across even if you werenít worrying about your hat blowing off. As anyone who ever drove across it in any kind of vehicle knows, it was very narrow and the floor was steel grate. Certain kinds of tires caused vehicle weaving, and all motorcycle tires caused vehicle weaving. Sometimes you would see strangers to the area riding motorcycles across at about ten miles an hour with both feet down, terror in their eyes and a white knuckle death grip on the bars. The best way to ride it was just to relax your grip and let the tires wander back and forth, one or two sections at a time. It was a strange sensation, feeling the tires jump back and forth, your arms going one way and your butt the other, but you got used to it. And I never did hear of anyone actually falling over.
     After Kenny left I didnít have any friends here who were interested in motorcycles, or at least who had one. There were a couple of Cushman scooters in town, and I rode with Gary Korte a couple of times, but we werenít really good friends. I also had an acquaintance, Ralph Stegner, in Jamestown, about 25 miles south on Highway 87, who had a Harley 165. Grandma Gerhardt told me he is a distant cousin, but I donít remember the connection between us. I had met him at church camp and we wrote a few letters back and forth. I saw him one night in Boonville when I was riding, and he told me he had a motorcycle also. He rode to Boonville a couple of times for the afternoon.


     I took a few friends for rides, but the only one I remember who really seemed to enjoy it was Joe Pyles. I rode over to New Franklin a couple of times and took Judy for short rides, and I think the battery died on one of those. I remember that Beth and I got stranded twice, once at Harley Park with a dead battery and once a few miles out on Highway 98 with a flat tire. I pushed it to the closest house and parked it beside the driveway. No one was home and we started walking back toward town. Joe Walters happened along and picked us up, and offered to haul the motorcycle to town the next day in his truck. That evening as we were eating supper Calvin Price, our local Highway Patrolman who lived three houses down, walked up to the back door and asked if that was my motorcycle out on Highway 98. He said it was in Lloyd Geigerís driveway, and Lloyd had called the Highway Patrol and wanted it moved. So I called Joe, and he met me there with his truck to retrieve it. As much as I loved the little motorcycle, it didnít seem very practical to take it to college with me because of the battery problem, and I still couldnít justify the cost of repairing it. It would be an expense to keep it running, and I really didnít need transportation at school because I would be living on campus. And I needed the money, so sometime that fall or winter I sold it to Allen Schneider. He had an interest in motorcycles and said he would replace the generator. I assume he did, and I saw it a couple of times around town after that, but I never did talk to him about it. Then I didnít see it any more, and assumed Allen had sold it. Maybe a year or two later I saw it parked on Broadway in downtown Columbia. The cartoon decals had been removed, but it was very obviously my old motorcycle. I looked at it for a few minutes, but I was with friends and couldnít hang around until the owner came back. Sure wish I could see it again. Iíd buy it in a minute, just like I did the first time.

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October 13, 2020

Four-tenths isnít really an impressive fraction, even when its four-tenths of a million. It doesnít have that special milestone meaning like other fractions, such as one-third or one-half or three-fourths. Some fractions even have really special meanings, like half a dollar or half a dozen donuts. It would be more impressive if it was half a million of something. But itís not likely that I will celebrate the half a million. I once thought maybe, but that was quite a while ago, and it was just a dream even then. I could have done it if I had been serious about it and applied myself, and I would have really enjoyed it. It would have only taken two more motorcycles at 50,000 miles each. The average number of miles I have ridden each of my seventeen motorcycles so far is 23,747 miles, but that includes some low-milers such as my dirt bikes and the three Harley-Davidson Sportsters, which are not known for long-range comfort. There were ten years from 1961 to 1971 when I did not own a motorcycle, so I celebrated another 50th anniversary last year, fifty ownership-years and fifty riding-years. My current average miles per riding-year is 7,916 miles. Almost 8,000. Ten thousand would have been a nice round number. The four-tenths milestone mileage achievement also occurred sometime last year and I didnít even realize it until today. Eleven years ago I wrote a fifty year remembrance of motorcycling, Fifty Years of MotorcyclesóA Third of a Million Miles of Fun. The introduction to that story is still applicable today: Since I have become ďolderĒ I have been writing occasional stories about things that I remember, especially things that happened 50 years ago, such as starting my pharmacy career at Longís in 1957 and meeting Beth there in 1958. Well, 1959 was pretty special too: I got my driverís license, was introduced to my first date, Judy, by my best friend Benny, and was introduced to two new best friends, Floyd and Jim or Jim and Floyd, I donít remember for sure who was first, by my best friend Larry. I was a real pop music fan, and just last week was the 50th anniversary of ďthe day the music died.Ē And because of my grandson, Stevie Coltrane McClary, I noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the best-selling jazz album of all time, ďKind of Blue,Ē with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, et al. Oh, and one more thing, another musical memory: There was the sound from another kind of instrument that was music to my ears, the sweet sound of the little two-stroke engine on my first motorcycle. The one I bought from my best friend Kenny. Fifty years ago this spring I bought that little Harley-Davidson Hummer 125. I rode it for two years, and sold it when I started college because I needed the money. It was ten years before I felt like I could buy another motorcycle, but Iíve had one (or more) ever since.

If you have any interest in the full story of my motorcycles, you can find it on my website:

Bert McClary
Boonville, MO
October 2020

  Last updated: October 20, 2020 Up