Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Motorbikes

When a young man (or woman) joins the military, regardless of his field of interest, infantry or aviation, communications or cook, his parents still consider him ‘marching off to war.’ And with his announcement of enlistment (invariably quite poorly received) soon comes a wave of sentiment to the effect of “you’re going to go to war and die!”

Every man who enlists experiences this – most frequently from parents and other family members, but soon thereafter from other older associates, and then from one’s peers. “You joined the Army? Well, you’re going to die.” The remarks are, indeed, usually this blunt – reflective of an unintellectual leap that assumes all soldiers will, in fact, go to war, be fired upon, and immediately be gunned down.

When I enlisted I dealt with this general expression of horror – and I understand the majority of it, since military service does tend to place one more directly in harm’s way than, say, working at a law firm. Yet the presumption that we all march as a single, faceless mass to our death is a false one.

What I have found most surprising, however, has been the similar reaction from my peers when I purchased a motorcycle. I didn’t get a large one – not a Harley – but a smaller Yamaha Virago 250. Great to learn to ride on, but big enough to still take on some larger roads. Yet the assumption has been resoundingly uniform: “You bought a motorcycle? Yeah, you’re going to crash it and probably die.”

But this response hasn’t been exclusively from close friends and family. It has been everybody. For some strange reason people feel an overwhelming need to relate. When I joined the military I became accustomed to “my little brother’s god daughter’s uncle’s brother served in the Navy on a submarine. Yeah, man, I know about military service.” But this was people’s valiant (and oft times not so noble) attempts to relate, to understand, to agree that they, too, had some familiarization with the military. I understand this desire to relate to military service because it remains in America a mostly revered, respectable decision – to voluntarily lay aside personal aspirations and serve one’s country (at least in its purest definitions).

But a motorcycle? Why must one relate? I have been inundated with bad news and horror stories since I bought my little bike. “You got a motorcycle? Yeah, I just had a patient who ground his entire lower body to a nub when he skidded off his bike doing 100mph on a back road. Have fun riding.”

“You got a motorcycle? Our prayer requests in Bible study yesterday were for the surviving family of a man killed when playing on his motorcycle on his farm.”

“Motorcycle, huh… ever seen that video of Evil Knievel hitting the pavement after his jump? I think he broke every bone in his body – at least twice. It was heinous. He looked like a rag doll.”

“Yeah, my cousin bought a bike, but he crashed it on his first ride and now he’s in a wheelchair.”

“One of the neighbor’s kids used to ride, but then he wrapped his spine around a tree and died. I think he was about 20.”

“Well that’s a nice bike, but I’m too afraid to ride. I’m terrified that somebody will open a car door and I’ll go flying off. You see that movie where there’s this scene….the guy landed in an intersection and got run over. It was pretty cool. But I don’t want to ride a bike though. Too risky.”

Well folks, I want to clear something up. I do not speed, I do not perform tricks, I do not forget to put on my helmet, I do not drink and drive, and I also recognize that I am a new rider. I am petrified of other drivers, of cars, of big rocks – even the bugs that seem to attack my face shield and obscure my view. I have a healthy respect for the fact that I am sitting on a small car engine mounted on two wheels and that I am pretending to be in control of it. I recognize my limitations.

And I do not appreciate the hearty attempts to convince me that I will, as a matter of course, fillet myself on a guard rail or run my head through the back end of a semi trailer. I would like to think that I am a little more intelligent than to do this. Sure, none of us plan or orchestrate our untimely demises, but there are things we can do to prevent it.

“Dude, you just survived 3 tours in Iraq. Now you come back and buy a motorcycle? Do you have some sort of death wish?”

Quite the contrary. I have a life-wish. And my philosophy is this: I refuse to spend my life avoiding things that terrify me. If I am governed by my fears, I will never leave the house. I will never take risks, and rob myself of the opportunity for the serendipitous. I will readily grant that some things are inherently dangerous, but I think that would be a race car driver, a Alaskan snow crab fisherman, an underwater welder, or a heroine addict. And I will avoid such things – because I think they have poor reward for a potentially costly investment. I am uninterested by them.

But for heaven’s sake, if I want to ride a motorcycle, please refrain from telling me how many times you’ve seen people dashed to pieces against cars or road signs. I am perfectly aware of the dangers involved with what I am doing, and I am willing to accept them. I am unwilling, however, to be overwhelmed with “you’re going to die” remarks because I purchased a motorcycle. Just be glad it wasn’t a crotch rocket, a jet-powered boat, or an ultra-light aeroplane – which tend to fly into mountains. My hobbies could be far worse.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Knew a guy once who milked Rattlesnakes. He liked the rush!

  2. will you take me for a ride sometime?

  3. I just saw the Patriot Guard go by this week for a local soldiers homecoming. do have a whole new respect for those who ride.

  4. Ha ha. I like the turning point from death wish to not being governed by your fears. That is why it's always unfiltered for me now, baby. Bring it on.