View from the back row: Drôme de la mort

This is why I recently attached a sidecar, known to bikers as the “chair”, to my antique Triumph motorcycle; but, first, I have to tell you the story.

When I was a little boy, a medium sized traveling carnival would come to Lumberton almost every fall and set up on what is now the football field. Many years ago, when the great virgin timber was cut, this field had been the mill pond for one of the largest sawmills in the south, containing thousands of logs before they were floated in the saws of the south. mill.

I was just a “spectator,” a face in the crowd, a poseur, drawn to the noise, the flashing lights, the smell of fried onions and cotton candy, and the energy of paying customers. Unlike most kids, I never paid much attention to the Ferris wheel, the bumper cars, the merry-go-round, or even the bearded lady; I have always been intrigued by something much more exciting: the “Drome de la Mort”. By definition, a “drome” is a place of racing or racing, as in “velodrome” for bicycle races, or “hippodrome”, an oval stadium for horse and chariot races in ancient Greece. In this case, the drome was for motorcycles.

Although not all carnivals have one, I can still see it in my mind: a silo or barrel-shaped structure, constructed of wooden planks, about 36 feet in diameter and about 25 feet. from above. It usually came in halves, on two tractor-trailers, like the double-width house trailers you see coming down the highway; and they would bring them together to make the velodrome. Spectators would ascend to an observation stand encircling the summit via exterior stairs, and the cyclist would enter through a door at the bottom of the structure. Quickly gaining speed at the bottom of the silo, the rider then climbed the nearly vertical walls of the structure at high speed for the duration of the show, circling and around, often approaching a few inches from the spectators at the top.

Although it would take a long time to get into one of them as a paying customer, which just happens to be the one at Coney Island Amusement Park in New York City, I got it right away. that the only real danger to the “daredevil” rider was initially climbing the wall – centrifugal force would hold them down until they ran out of gas. To be honest, the “Drôme de la mort” is a bit of a misnomer. It was probably one of the safest operations in the whole carnival. The rider could literally bend over the handlebars and take a nap. Once he left it was like a dog chasing his tail.

My interest at 10 or 12 quickly turned to pilots and their machines. Before each show, while the reel gathered a crowd, the rider would sit on his bike in front of the ticket office; dressed in jeans, white t-shirt, leather jacket, motorcycle boots; unlit cigarette hanging from his lips; disinterested scowl on his face; his obvious sense of joie de vivre; projecting what I later recognized as the “James Dean” look, even though that was way before that actor’s time. Was it any wonder that Elvis Presley portrayed such a horseman in his 1964 film, “Roustabout?”

At the time of the show, the carnival runner was throwing the cigarette, stood on the Triumph’s starter several times (and it was still a Triumph Bonneville); there would be a roar and a puff of smoke; then he would push the bicycle out of his police station and launch himself into the open door of the death drome. I desperately wanted to be like him: brave, confident, sure, unresponsive to no one. And to speak of pure “theater” – for me that was Shakespeare; it was Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera; it was Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” (1931); shoot, it was a seat behind this little blonde girl in fourth grade who never bothered to talk to me.

I grew up wanting my own Triumph – they had panache, an old world European charm that Harleys never achieved in my book. The very name, “Triumph,” meant the same thing in several romantic languages. No wonder they were Steve McQueen’s vehicle of choice in “The Great Escape” (1963), where he jumped one over the stalag fence; Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones” (1951), where his biker gang took control of the sleepy city of California; Elvis, in “Stay Away Joe” (1968), arguably his worst film; and even more recently Brad Pitt in “The Curious Benjamin Button Story” (2008). I don’t know what Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was driving when he had his fatal accident on the side of the English road in 1935, but, even money, it was a Triumph. Instead, they run those Lucas electronic problems, whom the mechanics call the “Prince of Darkness.” Like most Britons I have ever owned, they “cry” or leak various vital fluids.

Like the rest of the British motorcycle industry, Triumph went bankrupt in the late 1980s. In addition to social unrest in England, British cycles like Triumph, Norton and BSA (British Small Arms) were killed by the lack of an electric starter that was common on Japanese bikes such as the Honda Nighthawks in the early 1960s. I once put a Nighthawk 305 on the street directly across from a girls’ dormitory at Mississippi College in 1964, which I admit was not a very good place to try a mobile pear tree for the first time. But I received a lot of attention and sympathy.

The British Labor Party’s experience with socialism in the 1970s not only wiped out the motorcycle industry, but the automobile industry as well. All of the famous and iconic former British brands are either bankrupt or sold: MG (now made in China); Jaguar (owned by Tata, an Indian conglomerate); Mini Cooper (owned by BMW in Germany), etc. You can still buy a new Triumph motorcycle today, but most of them are made in Thailand. Never forget what Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said about socialism: “It works until you run out of money for other people. ”

I finally got my own Triumph, a used 1973 Bonneville 750, when I was in Rhode Island around 1985, and I still own it. My first real motorcycle, however, around 1960 was an old Italian Moto Guzzi (Italian for “Guzzi Motorcycle”) that I bought from a farmer, when I lived in France. I used to go up and down the French Riviera, the Rivera, from Nice to Monaco. I remember he used more oil than gasoline, and I never managed to plug all the oil leaks (The rule is: if it leaks, it has oil) . I loved walking the winding ledge along the coast, where Grace Kelly later had her fatal car crash.

A few years ago I decided I needed a sidecar on this bike. It was mostly in self-defense; I knew that as I got older, I no longer had the sense of balance that I once had; I could fall and end up inglorious doing a header on a twisty stretch of the asphalt highway. I was surprised to learn that they are not that easy to find. One day I was reading the Coast Daily online and saw an ad for a brand new Veloce (Italian for “very fast”) sidecar for sale in Ocean Springs, and the price was only $ 1200. $. I was familiar with this brand, which was made in Czechoslovakia, but I knew it normally sold for at least $ 4000; therefore, I thought it was probably “hot” and possibly stolen. Nonetheless, I thought I’d better check it out. I had called ahead and when my son and I arrived at the address listed I rang the doorbell and was greeted by an older man, hooked up to a portable oxygen ventilator on wheels , smoking a cigarette. He invited us in, and there was the sidecar in the living room – fully assembled, sitting in front of the sofa, covered in magazines, and serving as a coffee table.

He explained that he retired from the Air Force, Keesler being his last duty station, and was recently diagnosed with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In fact, the doctor had recently told him that he only had three months to live. I spoke with him for a while and learned that he was a longtime motorcyclist, but that he was trying to “work out the details for his wife before he died”. To be honest, I felt bad about the price, because I knew how much the sidecar was worth; however, he said he had acquired it in an “exchange”.

On the other hand, being a major in philosophy, I have always tried to live my life according to the principle of “Occam’s razor”. William of Occam (1287-1347) was an English Franciscan brother and philosopher. Its “law of parsimony” is the problem-solving principle which basically says that the simplest explanation is usually the best – or, when faced with competing solutions to a problem, choose the simpler. So, I kept my mouth shut as I loaded the chair onto my truck and headed back to Oak Grove.

I’m certainly not the only one who thinks philosophically about motorcycles. In fact, the basic rule of the motorcycle, “Keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down”, has philosophical overtones. In a purely commercial sense, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” (1974), by Robert M. Pirsig, is the best-selling philosophy book ever written. In a novel of self-discovery, reminiscent of the film “Easy Rider” (1969), the narrator engages in a discussion with his own past which is called Phaedrus, after Plato’s “Dialogue”.

Using examples of motorcycle mechanical problems on a trip from Minnesota to California, a focal point is a carburetor malfunction around Miles City, Montana, which gives the author the opportunity to summarize two basic approaches to life: the romantic and the rational. The “romantics” live in the moment (do not maintain their motorcycles), and the “rational” approach life through the application of careful analysis, vis-à-vis a competent motorcycle maintenance. That sounds like a pretty straightforward message for a book that has sold over 5 million copies; however, it’s pretty deep when you think about it.

Although I’ve been to over 100 countries in my life, all with Uncle Sam’s nickel, looking back most of these trips seem pretty pointless – much like those motorcycles circling around the drome of death – a lot of noise and excitement, therefore a lot of noise and fury, “sturm und Drang”, but not going anywhere. It also seems to me that most of the important choices and decisions in my life have oscillated between the romantic and the rational. And that’s how I chose to add two additional wheels, a sidecar, to my bike. Consider the alternatives and the possibilities, look “cool” or fall and die on the freeway – this is the rational thing to do.

Light a candle for me.

Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired US Navy captain. Visit his website,, or email him: [email protected]

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