December 19, 2020•2562 words
The big story this week was discovering Punkin's origins, so I'll just tell about that thematically and then mention other notable things that happened this week. On Saturday morning I was in the garage early and ran into a problem extracting a screw from a new part. I thought an impact driver might do the trick but was having trouble finding one when I heard that distinctive k-k-k-k sound coming through the woods. Following it to its source, I found EG and someone I didn't know doing some framing on a large shed. I borrowed their driver, which didn't work, but EG managed to extract the screw with a good screwdriver and some skill. The guy I didn't know asked what the part was and in the ensuing discussion it turned out he was SF, the guy who had given the motorcycle to me just before taking off on a vacation to Mexico (they actually wound up going to Arkansas and Texas). I thanked him for giving it to me and he thanked me for getting the damn thing out of his tiny workshop. Then he started to relate Punkin's origins, which were more interesting than I expected.
Someone named C had found it at a Chatham County "swap shop", which is a little shed at the dump where people leave stuff that's up for grabs. It was actually running, but not very well. Then he gave it to a mechanic in Pittsboro who wanted to restore it as a side project. The mechanic thought it needed new piston rings, which turned out to be incorrect, but he managed to get as far as removing and disassembling the engine before the project languished in a corner with the removed parts in boxes. Then the mechanic moved his shop and wanted the bike gone, so C came back to pick it up and moved it into the sheep shed at Shakori Hills. From there, SF picked it up and took it to RM's garage, where it sat for a year and didn't get worked on. Last spring RM wanted to clear some room so SF took it back and stored it in the middle of his shop, until RM picked it up and brought it back to his garage for me to work on. Some of this I actually heard from LM, who was dropping by BH Farm on Sunday to quote a paving job. SF also knew of another old 90cc Honda that a friend of his in Moncure had found in a dumpster with no engine, right next to a dirt bike that ran perfectly. He offered to bring it to me for spare parts but it turned out that Punkin's less fortunate cousin was not in very good shape. Somehow, just a couple months after fantasizing about fixing up an old C90 or CT90, I had stumbled onto this strange little network of dumpster bike rescuers.
But there was a hitch. Although SF thought there had been a title with the bike at one point, it was nowhere to be found. I riffled every page of both shop manuals and the owner's manual, where he said he might have stuck it, and he searched the file folder where he kept vehicle titles. No luck. Without a title I couldn't register the bike, and without registration I couldn't get the plates that would make it street legal. I researched the process for getting a title and filed an LT-260 online (which reports an abandoned vehicle) in the hopes that it might get some kind of official ball rolling. But on Wednesday when I finally got to talk to the Lee County inspector for the License and Theft Bureau, there was some bad news. "You can't claim an abandoned vehicle unless it was abandoned on your property, that would be fraudulent. There's no finders keepers." And also if a vehicle is abandoned you can't get a bonded title, which is the other common way to deal with this situation. I tried to explain how leaving something at the swap shop wasn't exactly abandonment nor was taking something from it theft, but she seemed pretty clear that there wasn't a category to fit this situation. "So basically all I can do is junk it?" I asked. "Yeah, pretty much," she said, "but maybe when the Chatham County inspector gets back in January he can help you out. I don't really understand this swap shop thing you're talking about."
This news came on a very cold and very wet day, and I was alternately feeling very anxious and very sorry for myself. Had I been wasting my time and money? I was also pissed that the system was going to force me to throw away a perfectly useful machine... well that or lie. But I had already submitted a form telling the truth and there was no taking it back, so lying might introduce more complications at this point. After it got dark, the rain let up a little and I headed over to the garage. Just fiddling with Punkin's electrical system and talking to people made me feel better, not to mention the heat from the roaring rocket stove and the cup of hot tea that RM brought me. I decided to go through the boxes again to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Well the original bill of sale had miraculously made it through all the moves, but I hadn't given it much thought since it didn't carry any legal weight. Although maybe the way forward wasn't legal at all but social. The bill of sale had the buyer's first and middle initials and last name typed at the top... sold to AC on March 20, 1968 for $350. I could find human connection rather than trying to wrestle with an uncaring legal apparatus, and even if it didn't work out, it might at least be more rewarding. I searched for the buyer's name online and immediately found a very likely match. He lived in Pittsboro and was involved in lots of civic organizations. I found clubs he was in and what church he went to. He was in his eighties and has been a professional Santa for decades, even writing a book about his experiences. When I read in an article that he likes to name his vehicles, I felt sure this twinkly old man would be willing to help me out.
So on Thursday at lunch I walked over to my parents' house and we started shaking the Chatham County phone tree. There were lots of mutual acquaintances to try, although mostly I was leaving messages. We got his landline number but it didn't work anymore. Finally we got his cell number and I left a message. A few hours later, I got a call back that went straight to voicemail. It was a 10 second message: "Goodbye. And don't call my number again please, goodbye." My heart sank, this was going to be harder than I thought. Would I have to beg a favor and get a mutual friend to intercede? But then I realized... my phone had been glitching when I tried to leave a message so I actually called three or four times. Maybe he was responding to the missed calls, or thought my message sounded like a scam. Maybe he was just an elderly person confused by his cell phone. I steeled my resolve and called back.
He picked right up, I explained the situation, and he was intrigued. I heard his wife in the background confirming they'd left the bike at the swap shop "years and years ago". I offered to officially buy the motorcycle from him for $50. "Maybe you don't know this but I play Santa," he said. I told him I'd read about that on the internet and he chuckled. "Well let this be my Christmas present to you then." I thanked him and asked if he had any stories about the motorcycle. He told me it had what they used to call "mountain goat gears", and that the manual, translated from Japanese, claimed it could carry 400 pounds of games. We laughed at the image of a huge pile of board games on the back. "I had a name for it," he said, "it was called The Red Baron." "Like the pilot?" I asked. "Yes, like the pilot." I told him that, not knowing this, I had renamed the bike Punkin. "Ohhhkay," he said, clearly not impressed. But when I told him that I was planning on riding the bike around the country, he said, "that really makes my heart soar to know it's going to keep running like that. I hope you have a wonderful time with it." At the end of the call, he said "Merry Christmas" and as I hung up I could hear him delivering, I kid you not, a hearty "ho ho ho".
So that's my little Christmas miracle this year. And I think if Santa rode a motorcycle, this would be a fitting one, all red and silver with white trim. It originally came with a seven horsepower engine... what's that come to in reindeerpower? I'm willing to bet it's at least nine, reindeer being less muscular than horses. Although as RM pointed out, magical reindeer can hardly be compared to earthbound beasts. A nice side effect was getting calls back from the messages I'd left and catching up with some old friends; I had lovely conversations with MB, my parents' accountant, and MH, a local author and creative writing teacher who related some stories from her own motorcycling days. "Riding a motorcycle really puts you in your body," she said, "it's a very tactile experience." And I couldn't agree more, I think that's what I love most about it.
On Saturday night, GB and AP made a delicious dinner and at 52 degrees it was warm enough for an outdoor movie. We watched License to Drive to celebrate me getting my license, and although my expectations were low, the movie was pretty hilarious and we all enjoyed it. Fair warning: it depicts some sketchy treatment of a drunk person without their consent. But while Heather Graham, in her breakout role, was abused on film and went on to have what seems like a great life and career, The Two Coreys in the starring roles were abused much more brutally in real life and went through some very difficult times. I'm glad we've reached a point where more light is being shone into these dark places, and I hope show business continues to become less cruel as a result.
Walking back from the garage on Sunday, I ran into AP and TC shooting a music video and waited for them to finish their shot. They had borrowed a 1972 Buick Riviera from RM, who had fixed it more quickly than expected and was holding it until the owner found a place to store it. It's an unique looking car, imagine a beige batmobile and you won't be far off. The driveway was lit up like a little movie set and the artists were taking turns on each side of the camera, dressed in various sports gear in creepy combinations. They finished their shot and we stood around chatting. The last step was to shoot the car driving, but how? They needed a driver for the Buick and another for the follow car, so I got pressed into service as the cameraman. I went back to my tent for my power supply, and we used it to run an LED spotlight pointing out the open hatchback of TC's station wagon, where I sat with the camera. To get an action shot of the back of the Buick, the cars were positioned back to back with TC driving skillfully in reverse (echoing a plot point from License to Drive). We drove through an atmospheric fog, the Buick slewing between the lanes and glowing like a low-flying UFO. Nobody saw us but it would have looked mighty strange if they had, and I returned to my tent savoring the unexpected surrealism.
Over the week I made substantial progress in the garage, reassembling both wheels, getting the brakes functional again, mounting the new engine and carburetor, completing the fuel delivery system, restoring the electrical system, and installing turn signals and mirrors. I still need to install the chain, which I plan to do over the weekend, and some wiring which is waiting on USPS to deliver a package that's been sitting in Greensboro for a week. The other big project is the exhaust system. RM and I decided to attempt to make the original exhaust work because it looks so freaking cool, but fitting it to the new engine is going to require some very careful cutting (which RM has offered to help with) and welding (which SF has offered to help with). With their expertise I'm hoping it will come out nice.
And I got to catch up with more old friends here and there. I talked with MP about adventures, healing from breakups, and the generation gap. I talked with JS who just got back from Russia with her husband and baby and is in the process of moving to Asheville. And JP was back from his long-extended tour in Paraguay so I got to catch up with him around a bonfire and meet his girlfriend LS. AP, JP, and I have been friends since we were babies crawling on the floor, and it was comforting to talk about old memories and the ways things have changed and continue to change. So many local landmarks only exist in our memories now, and we say "A's house" as if she still lived there. I must say I'm quite enjoying getting older, it's the only way to see what's going to happen next...
Things I Learned
- In certain conditions when I'm trying to light my stove and I put the pot on top to force air up the chimney, the fire goes out and stops smoking. If I remove the pot it smokes up the tent, but if I just leave it alone, it often manages to start a draft, which blows the smoky fire back to life. I guess it's one of those cases where it's better not to fool with a process and just let it do its thing.
- The boiled-down extract of a San Pedro cactus tastes like "the bile of a homeless man" according to CW.
- The weather has been so damp that things never get all the way dry if I hang them in the tent. But I can dry out my socks by putting them in a drybag with a canister of silica gel. The canister is marketed to people who want to dehumidify their gun safes, and what's cool is that when it absorbs all the water it can, you can easily recharge it by heating it up.
- Watching vultures circle the thermals as the morning sun crept over the field.
- Eating some hearty but bland Tex-Mex indoors after days of unrelenting cold.
- Getting some of RM's leftover birthday cupcakes right when I was starting to get really hungry.
- Being so absorbed in a project that bedtime came as a surprise.