I can’t remember when I first wanted to ride a motorcycle. It might have been after Bobby Santolla bought the old motorcycle.
Bobby was the father of my best friend, Robbie. They lived across the street from where I grew up in Pearisburg, Virginia.
Bobby worked at the local manufacturing plant. He made pretty good money most of the time, and Bobby liked to spend his money on toys — generally, guns and vehicles.
Over the course of my childhood, Bobby owned a variety of obscure vintage cars, a Corvette, a four-wheeler and 1949 Harley-Davidson panhead — a big, loud monster of a motorcycle whose engine shook the windows of my family’s house every time he started it up.
The Harley was a wreck when Bobby got it. He spent a season or two tinkering with the bike in his basement, made who-knows-how-many trips over to the next county to order parts and got the bike on the road.
Bobby rode the Harley intermittently for about a decade. Sometimes, he was on the motorcycle every day, but then it would disappear into his basement for six months or a year.
Eventually, he sold the thing and I kind of mourned its passing. Some part of me had hoped that I’d scrape together the money to buy it from him, but my mother never would have gone for it.
I’ve often thought that I should have a motorcycle. I like the romantic notion of hitting the road and just heading out into the unknown, barely looking over my shoulder.
I could do the same thing in a Chevy Cruze, I suppose, but it just lacks the same thrill — even if my Cruze comes with heated seats, a satellite radio and place to charge my phone.
Generally, what’s stopped me from learning to ride is a little bit of circular logic: I don’t own a motorcycle because I don’t know how to ride. I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle because I don’t own one.
I can’t really afford a bike either. Netflix increasing its monthly rate is a budget crisis at my house.
But then I was talking to some friends at West Virginia Public Broadcasting who ride motorcycles, and they told me I didn’t have to outright own a motorcycle to learn. There was a program through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation where potential riders could get the experience and knowledge to maybe get the motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license.
It sounded like a start.
My first problem was finding a program that fit my One Month schedule. There were several classed scheduled in Kanawha County, but none of them were soon enough.
This led me to Black Sheep Harley-Davidson in Huntington.
They had a weekendlong intensive program at the beginning of the month, and they were glad to have me drive up — provided I got my hands on a helmet and a motorcycle learner’s permit.
My lack of experience wasn’t a problem. They had bikes set aside for students in the class.
“I likely have a helmet you can borrow,” Todd Clay, a marketing associate at Black Sheep Harley-Davidson, told me.
But I had to have the learner’s permit — and that worried me.
Three years ago, my Chevy Impala needed to be replaced after a new round of warning lights on the console. One of the ball joints was beginning to go again. The car needed new brakes, front tires and a new alignment.
I was also a week past due for my inspection.
I had no idea what else the garage would turn up, but replacing a ball joint, brakes and tires wasn’t in my budget. So, I went to a local car dealership. After some predictable hemming and hawing, I ended up with a contract for a car.
All I had to do to drive off the lot was sign a few papers, give proof of my insurance and let the dealership make a copy of my driver’s license, which turned out to be expired — expired for months.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d known this, but when renewal had come around months before, I’d been busy and then just forgot to do anything about it.
The car couldn’t leave the lot until I could legally drive the car on the street.
With the contract for the car loan waiting, I went to the DMV the next day and explained my mistake to the clerk, who nodded appreciatively and told me, “It happens all the time.”
But because six months had passed since my license renewal, I had to retake the driving test.
I filled out a form. She gave me a number and, after a few minutes, the DMV computer sent me to a window to sort it out.
At the window, I joked about how I’d been dumb, but how this all seemed unnecessary. I’d been driving for decades and hadn’t been pulled over in months.
The clerk at the window shrugged and said, “It happens all the time.”
Then he directed me to a computer where I handily flunked the computerized written test.
The clerks at the DMV told me not to take it too hard.
“It happens all the time,” they said, and then one of them gifted me a learner’s manual of my very own.
I could retake the test in a week.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t supposed to drive. My weekend plans were canceled. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the dealership, and I had no idea how I was supposed to get around.
Sure, I could have driven without a license. It had been no trouble at all to drive without a license for months, but now my inspection sticker was dead, my car was ailing and it felt like my luck had been pushed to the breaking point.
So, for a week, I bummed rides and caught the early morning bus a couple of times to get to work.
I also buckled down and studied. When I went back to the DMV, I sailed past the test with no trouble and even aced the road test — including the parallel parking, which has never been my strong suit.
Getting around without a driver’s license had been an inconvenience. If I’d flunked a second time, I could have just shuffled on for another week (or two) until I finally passed.
Bill and the DMV — Part II
Time wasn’t on my side for the motorcycle learner’s permit. At best, I could only get two tries at it. If I blew the test the first time, I could retake it, but the second test would put me perilously close to deadline.
I’d only have a single weekend to start another project for May, and alternates weren’t really coming together. Several people I reached out to were interested in having me around, but not in May.
Finally, I decided that I would only take the test once. If I passed, then I could move forward. If I failed, at least I had a few more days to work out an alternative. I was motivated — more motivated than I was as a beer-soaked slacker muddling through a college math class.
At work, I downloaded and printed out the 70-page learner’s manual. Then I spent four days reading and re-reading the loose pages. I thumbed through the papers in the morning at breakfast before I left the house. I flipped through them once again before I went to sleep.
I looked at them at my desk at the newspaper.
This had to work. It just had to.
At the DMV again, I explained how important this was to me, how my life depended on getting this license.
They told me to relax, but just as I was about to hand over my forms, I had to ask what would happen if I failed. If I failed, I expected I’d have to retake the test in a week — but was that it?
“You’re not going to take my regular driver’s license if I screw this up?” I asked.
“No,” Matthew, the clerk at the desk, told me patiently. “We’re not going to take your driver’s license away from you.”
I explained that I’d been studying for days but had never actually driven a motorcycle. I’d only been on the back of a motorcycle maybe twice and that was a long time ago. Was “driven” even the right word? Do you drive, or is it just ride?
He sighed and added, “Just take it easy. You’ve got this.”
And I did.
You only had to answer 19 questions out of 25 to pass. It took me 20 questions to get my 19 right answers.
I crushed the test, got a new license with a new picture and, honestly, I thought it looked pretty good.
I was on my way.