The Russian Time Machine

It's a Ural Sportsman. That's my boy, Ezekiel (Zeke) in the sidecar. Click HERE to learn more about these strange machines.

The Sportsman is now the Patrol, which doesn't have a limited-slip differential, but I digress.

Below is the beginning of my next book, "The Russian Time Machine." It's going to be about the Cold War and what it was like to grow up then. Nobody read my LAST book either.

The Russian Time Machine

On Wednesday the air raid sirens began to wail. I ran outside and searched the skies for Russian bombers. Surely the Russians were clever enough to strike on Wednesday when Civil Defense always tested the sirens. The Communists could dump their atomic bombs on the other kids who thought it was only a test. But they couldn’t fool me.

It was 1957 and I was nine years old, just starting the fifth grade. In October, the sneaky Communists launched Sputnik. Beat us into space, they did, and the very next day in school they told us it was ALL our fault. Why, the RUSSIAN kids our age could do calculus and speak a thousand languages. They did a million push-ups every morning.

WE were soft molly-coddled WEAKLINGS, and we needed to get with the program and catch up with the Communists. No more listening to stories and hugging your teacher at the end of the day. From now on, you do four hours of homework every night, pass classes and run laps. No damn wonder the Godless Communists beat us into space.

The word “competition” began to take on a new meaning, it had an air of sacrosanct, right up there with “Truth,” “Justice” and the “American Way.” It was years before I had ever even heard of “Social Darwinism” or “Survival of the Fittest,” but I got the message anyway. Molly-coddled weaklings would eat dirt and deserved little else.

Here’s how I learned about competition. Billy Elliott, the school bully, liked to beat up kids like me because we wore glasses and had voices like whoopee cushions. Billy was wiry and tough, always had a dirty face and never got enough lunch. Billy liked to throw me into snowdrifts and wash my face with special dog-pee enriched snowballs.

When I came home with broken glasses, bloody nose and missing band money, the Old Man decided it was time for boxing lessons. Night after night, it was left jab, right cross, hook, bob and weave until my ears were red. When I finally stood up to Billy the Bully, he grabbed my noble left guard and swung me into a snow bank for my dog-pee facial.

So I had to devise my own system. Simple. Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox full of gravel, accidentally drop the milk money in the snow. The Old Man had to pay the doctor bills, I had to sit in the Principal’s office, and I got a good butt-warming besides. Same with the rock-in-the-snowball and the bat-in-the-umbrella systems too.

But they worked. No more Billy the Bully. The four-hours-of-homework was a little different. Classic bell curve. On the left, the “good kids” actually did it. They pulled out their hair in little patches and had stomach disorders. The vast majority pooled their resources and cheated. I was in the small group that made homemade rockets and excuses.

Somehow, Momma and the Old Man gave me a deep respect for knowledge. But they had a cockeyed reverence for “work” I still don’t understand. If some twit spent half a day digging a hole in his yard and the other half filling it in again, this was a good thing because he was “working hard,” never mind that it accomplished nothing.

They believed, God rest their noble souls, that hard work got you “ahead.” In my childhood during the Cold War, I learned that “hard work” got you “hard work.” LUCK got you ahead. But that doesn’t mean you can sit on your butt and cry over misfortune. Somehow, you have a hand in making your own luck: right place, right time, right stuff.

The Cold War was a period of about 42 years when we all believed (and rightly so) we could be blown to smithereens any minute because of some global pissing contest. It changed the world and made us what we are. It’s the Russian Time Machine. The Cold War is supposed to be over now. And “we” supposedly “won.” Here’s what’s funny.

We could STILL be blown to smithereens any minute because of some global pissing contest.

The Communists

I was mighty sore at whoever was responsible for all this homework. And watching our rockets blow up on TV while their Sputnik went beeping overhead, you had to concede they must have something on the ball. They had more stuff than we did, and they were out to bury us. Ohmigawd! They’re already in CUBA, only 90 miles away! What’s going on?

In October of ’62 it looked like it was smithereens time for sure. By then, I was making homemade bombs out of dismembered shotgun shells I swiped from the Old Man’s closet (where he also kept his stash of Playboy magazines). To a pimply 14-year-old obsessed with loud noises and hooters, it was crazy. It should have been my first clue.

The WHOLE WORLD is obsessed with loud noises and hooters. Because I didn’t know how bluster and biology worked, I tried assembling some kind of rational explanation from the parakeet-droppings peedled out by the usual institutions, church, school and my pals in the alley. Who ARE the Commies? And why do they want to blow us to smithereens?

Clearly, it was time to do some reading. In spite of the rote hole-digging homework, I learned to read anyway and began to get some hint about primary sources. While None Dare Call it Treason was the generally accepted screed about Communism, I managed to get my hands on the Marx-Engels Manifesto. What an eye-opener.

It seemed these guys believed that in spite of all the advances in science and self-government, the Fat Boys on top would keep on exploiting the grunts and then take a dump on ‘em. Talk about “self-evident” truths… much more evident than Mr. Jefferson’s dream about all men being created equal. Tom obviously never went to Boy Scout camp.

I’m not knocking Tom Jefferson, a brilliant man and millennial visionary. I’m not fit to carry his antique jockstrap. Equality is a just and righteous dream, and God willing, someday we’ll make it real. But as far as self-evident empirical evidence, the truth of the Fat Boy position wins hands-down. Next it was the Bible. Katie, bar the door.

Word-for-word, page-by-page, starting with Genesis, ending with Revelations. Try it. If you can sort out the difference between Faith and the Religion Business, you can see the difference between political and economic systems. All text should stand on its own merit before the individual reader, whether it’s the Holy Scriptures or the Three Little Pigs.

Am I right, Tom? Is that egalitarian or what? Mr. Jefferson actually believed that a literate population would be impossible to hoodwink. How was he to know? It had never been done before. Four score and seven years later, Mr. Lincoln had to modify that postulation. “You can’t fool ALL of the people ALL of the time.”

But you CAN fool SOME of the people all of the time, and apparently that’s enough. The ponderous and inefficient military bureaucracies launching bombast at us from all points of the chump-ass had as much to do with “Communism” as the lacquer-headed religious hucksters had to do with “Christianity.” Truth is the first casualty in any war.

The idea that “Christianity” and “Communism” should even be perceived as opposing ideologies should keep academic footnote wonks busy for centuries. The idea did serve to keep the Great Unwashed burning books and baskets on the home front for years. In the late ‘60s a whole generation of “Students” hit the streets and were pissed off.

We were aware that we had been raised on a steady diet of white bread and crapola, and weren’t very happy about it. We had cute little demonstrations and waved signs and stuff. We got whacked on the head with sticks. We all got sucked into the war in Viet Nam, one way or another. Except the Black Panthers. They were simply framed and shot.

Nasty times for sure, and all because of the damned Communists. To this day, I’ve never even met one. Oh sure, there were those twits in black waving their little red books and carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. They couldn’t even get any decent dope, let alone take over the world. So I dropped out of school in 1970 and went to Florida to play music.

Some 30 years later I had to try and explain all of this to my kids.

The Motorcycle

So here I am, 50 years old, fading fast and trapped in Korporate Amerika. It’s a velvet prison, the pay is good and the work ain’t hard. For thousands of years, the great minds of the world have pondered, “why are we here, what is our purpose?” We finally figured it out. We exist to create “shareholder value.” No more, no less, Bubba.

Is this not the great Free Market Emerald City of tomorrow? Get a clue, Dorothy. We ain’t talking about Grandma with her 50 shares of Class-Z Common. We’re talking about Bigbucks Fatboy Jr., CEO, and his hundred thousand shares of Class-A “Preferred.” He’ll be floating away on his parachute when Grandma’s living in your basement.

What’s this got to do with motorcycles? Any biker will tell you there’s something visceral and free about his putt. Well, only if he’s taken some classes and drinks too much beer. Or, she may frame the idea more eloquently. Twist the throttle, and shareholder value and insurance and all that lousy paper somehow gets blown away in the slipstream.

You feel the temperature drop when you dip into a valley. You smell the ribs cooking when you blow by a barbecue. You get a 360-degree view of the world you just can’t get in your air-conditioned four-wheel hamster cage. It’s about something you’re born with that you piddle away all your life until you don’t even know it’s gone: freedom.

I don’t know how to tell a 10-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy about freedom. Somehow, I have to SHOW them. They need to learn it’s their God-given birthright, the most precious thing they’ll ever have, and once it’s lost it can only be purchased again at a terrible, terrible price. OK- enough of that. Now to find a vehicle.

My old ’76 BMW R90/6 sat in the barn covered with bird poop. I hadn’t ridden her for over five years, and somehow all the ignition keys had mysteriously disappeared. Even restored to her former glory, she couldn’t carry two little kids. What I needed was a sidecar, and like a good computer wonk I researched sidecars on the internet.

There it was: the Ural motorcycle, economic spoil of our “victory” in the Cold War. Manufactured in Irbit, in the Russian Ural Mountains, it was almost an exact copy of the sidecar motorcycles the Wehrmacht used in their invasion of Poland in 1939. It had a 650cc horizontally-opposed engine, a steel sidecar and a driven sidecar wheel.

The Red Army admired the versatility and utility of these machines. They got some Swiss fellows to buy several, reverse engineered and began to copy them. Later, to keep the motorcycle factory out of range of German bombers, they moved it to the mountain range on the edge of Siberia. These little machines have been made there ever since.

In the early ‘90s, some American entrepreneurs were in Russia arranging to trade in dried potatoes or something like that. They noticed these 3-wheelers everywhere, used for transportation, utility, tinkers’ wagons and God knows what else. They decided to bring them to the U.S., putting up the money to modify and make them street-legal here.

The closest dealer was in LaPorte, Indiana. I took a test ride and was hooked. This cheap and efficient vehicle could take two soldiers, all their gear and a machine gun to where you’d want to put such things. Surely it would transport our two little punkins and me across the time and distance it would take to explain. I bought a ’95 Ural Sportsman.

The Ural reminded me of the Triumph and BSA motorcycles I had nearly 30 years before. You have to tweak, tinker, ratchet and mess with it constantly to keep it running. But it’s worth it. Throughout April, May and June of 1999 I learned basic maintenance and operation of the 1995 Ural Sportsman, sidecar and all.

It was our very own Russian Time Machine.

The Journey

Kids around conversation are like a wall around a food fight. You never know what’s going to stick.

About being a Dad (sort of)

(this is what I think so far anyway)

Guys usually don't talk about stuff like "Fatherhood." It's one of those things like "getting in touch with your feelings." No, my feelings got my home address, my work number, my favorite bar and the keys to my car. They know where to find me, whether I want them to or not. Generally I try to avoid them smeggers. I admit I haven't understood how cars worked since '68. That's all you're getting out of me.

The other thing is, you don't want to speak for other guys. I know how I felt when my little girl showed me her very first Easter Bonnet and when I put her on the bus for her first day of Kindergarten. I remember the day she got her ears pierced, and when she rode a horse at full gallop all by herself. Man just got something in his eye is all, so just pay attention to something else until he gets it out for Chrissakes.

Yeah, the bathroom thing. The boy was three when he told me he couldn't go there with Mommy. Is there a problem, Son? We're guys, Dad. Sat the toy piano and the toy saxophone and the three drumheads in a semi-circle. This is MY band, Dad. I really can't say how other guys might react, pushing the mower on a scorcher day, turning around and seeing him following with his own toy mower. What're you looking at?

Yeh I did the classes. Scoffed to myself when they tried to describe "trauma" to those young girls. Is that anything like a motorcycle accident? A knife in the ribs? Then I watched herself bring each of those two into the world. Did you see, "Patton?" Where he visited the hospital after his men were in battle? George C. Scott got nothing on me, man. And I wasn't acting. You can't imagine the respect and admiration but again, that's just me. You got a problem with that?

I could tell you all about my year as "Mr. Mom," how the baby slides off because we don't have hips. I could tell you about how every day ended when I just wanted to hear an adult voice speaking English and I felt like I'd been in a crash. I could tell you about standing in line at the pharmacy with the rest of the moms to get the pink stuff during cold season, and how I swore if I ever heard another dude wonder what his wife did with the kids all day I'd break his face, but I won't. That's just me, I guess.

None of the guys I know have ever talked to me about being a Daddy and it would be kind of weird if they did. I mean it would be ok if they wanted to and everything like that, but if he were to talk about his little girl's first solo or his boy's first field goal-- or hell-- the other way around-- and if he were to get something in his eye in the telling of it, why I expect I'd just notice something on my shoe, that's all.

And I don't care what kind of badass he is. The first time he heard somebody call him "Daddy," I bet you could hear his heart melt a block away. But hey- just my opinion.

To each his own.