A few months ago, I made a promise to myself to read more books. The piles of magazines that arrive at my house, along with the distraction of television, movies and other entertainment, kept me from reading as many books as I once enjoyed. I was determined to make a change. A book in the saddlebag is always a good thing on a motorcycle trip. You never know when you’re going to find yourself holed up in a diner, waiting for the rain to stop so you can continue on your journey. A book can be a great companion.
This spring, I took John J. Newkirk’s The Old Man and the Harley: A Last Ride Through Our Fathers’ America along with me on a road trip. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
Newkirk’s non-fiction book traces his family’s roots, with the spine of the story being his father’s cross-country journey on a 1930 Harley-Davidson VL. In 1939, Jack Newkirk bought a bike in Upstate New York, and set out to ride to the World’s Fair in New York City and the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. That ride would be an epic one today, on a modern bike with smoothly paved roads. In 1939, it was a staggering undertaking. Young Newkirk — he was 19 years old at the time — took on the challenge with gusto, and learned more about his bike (and himself) than he ever expected to in the process.
If that wasn’t enough story for one book, Newkirk weaves the story of his uncle, also named Jack Newkirk, who was training as a fighter pilot at the same time. “Scarsdale” Jack Newkirk the pilot also undertakes a challenge, as the United States gets drawn into World War II.
Add in surprising links with Glenn Miller, Aaron Copland, the Tuskegee Airmen, Eleanor Roosevelt and other historical figures, and John J. Newkirk paints a vivid picture of the grit and gusto of the Greatest Generation.
A framing device, where John J. Newkirk recreates his father’s cross country ride on a modern Harley-Davidson, even picking up his dad for a stretch from Montana to Sturgis along the way, is somewhat less inspiring, as the author injects his heavy-handed interpretation of “The Biker’s Code” into the stories that he encounters along the way. The contemporary ride pales in comparison to the 1939 journey. Newkirk is a better storyteller about others than he is about himself.
Quibbles aside, The Old Man and the Harley is a compelling read for riders and non-riders alike. I recommend tossing a copy into your saddlebag before your next trip.
What are you reading right now?