…so another thing you need to know is, at that particular point in my life I’d never rebuilt a master cylinder. This was well before my 2 or 3-year stint as a Harley mechanic, and whatever I knew about wrenching on bikes I’d taught myself, which ends up being true of most things anyway. So I’m fumbling around with numb fingers on this gravel lot, trying to decide which tiny part goes where in the grand scheme of things (when I disassembled the mc, the spring on the inside made for an effect somewhat similar to the guts of the thing just exploding in my hands, so no reverse-engineering for me). Fortunately for me, master cylinders are pretty simple devices: the little metal slug in the round hole goes back and forth and pushes liquid out the tiny hole in the end, and bang-zoom-voila, stopping power. You can put the piston in backwards, but it ain’t hard to tell that you’re screwing up when you attempt it. My biggest fear was bunging up a seal and having to go back to that goddamned parts counter and drop another twenty bucks on a ten-dollar-list miscegenation of parts that cost the manufacturer all of about 2 bucks to produce. No, no, Nanette; this could not be allowed to happen.
As I finished bolting the thing back onto the bike and was bleeding the brake, the rain decided an encore was in order. I really didn’t care that much by then; how much wetter was I gonna get, anyway? What bothered me most was the fact that there was now no way I’d make New York before about 9:30 or so. By the time I tromped the kicker again it was about 4:30 or worse. I’d left so early precisely because I wanted to get to NY early. But after the day’s misadventures, delays, and SNAFU’s it just wasn’t going to happen.
I donned my layers of soggy outerwear while contemplating cruising through the mountainous area near Allentown in the misty musty dark. Lots of deer in them thar woods – you can’t drive that stretch of I-81 without seeing a whole slew of ’em lying on the side of the highway after having been violently disassembled by trucks. I remember once seeing seven of them – that’s seven, with a capital 7 – on the shoulder in a single mile-and-a-half stretch. A 6-point buck deciding to find out for himself why the chicken crossed the road at the particular moment I happened to be breezing by would most certainly put a real capper on a memorable day. I’m kind of paranoid about deer/vehicle clashes anyway; being on two wheels didn’t help my confidence much.
Back on the road and everything seems to work. Amazing how you just don’t fully appreciate things like brakes until you’re forced to slow down from 75 mph in a hurry and have only the soles of your boots to do it with. People talk a lot about the power of prayer, and it may be so, but I can’t recall ever hearing of it stopping a Harley at freeway speed before. I’ll take my prayer with a side order of discs and calipers, please, and hold the leaky master cylinder.
When I crossed into Pennsylvania a really funny thing happened. Somehow, the sky seemed to get a little brighter. The air feeled somehow…warmer. I also noticed that the stinging little needles that are raindrops hitting your face at 70 were no longer peppering my cheeks. The goggles were clearing up. Did I mention how truly neat brakes are? Add being able to see where you’re going to that list. What the…hmm. Then it happened: about fifteen or so miles out of Carlisle, the sun decided he’d join the festivities! Wow. I’d just about forgotten the existence of it. This calls for a celebration.
I just had to stop a moment and enjoy this. I pulled over on a rural stretch, coming to a halt on the far side of a little overpass. I got way off over onto the grass so as to be a bit sheltered from napping truck drivers by one of the bridge’s support columns, pulled off the gloves and whatnot, and just sort of squatted by the rear of the bike and soaked up that lovely sunshine. It occurred to me that I still had that half-joint left over from Roanoke, and this might be an apt time for re-upping the mild euphoria. So I fired it, hit it once or twice, and looked up to see a Pennsy State Trooper going the other way looking at me and locking his brakes. Christ on a crutch.
I tossed the funny cig on the grass and ground it to pulp with my boot heel as he was cutting across the median. As he pulled up behind me and hit his lights, I straightened and put on my best yes-sir no-sir smile. He got out of the car, strolled up in that way they have, and I took the opportunity to give him the once-over. An older guy, one of those classic copper-types with the gray flattop and everything. This is usually a good thing; it’s always the younger, inexperienced types I have trouble with, and I am not the kind of guy who ever ever allows myself to have trouble with police. I believe firmly in picking my battles, and that means fighting only the ones I at least have a chance of winning. Discretion is the better part of valor, that’s what I always say.
So I was glad to see that this fellow appeared to be a been-there-done-that type. He says howdy (well, not howdy – it was Pennsylvania after all) and is there anything wrong? I told him I was just stopping to unlax and rewind a minute; I’d been on the road since slightly before dawn in the cold rain and was just happy to soak up a bit of sunshine while it lasted. He said something about the breakdown lane being for emergencies only, and then he got to the meat of it: “The reason I really stopped was (cringe on my part) I wanted to check out that bike.”
Heh. So this prayer thing really does work in some circs, eh? Cool. Within moments, the guy had his wallet out and was showing me pictures of his Harleys – all three of em. Then the wife, then the kids. I ended up sitting there for an hour and a half with the guy, and we had a great old time too. He even bummed a smoke off me – the regular, commercially-produced kind, of course. Nice fella – he gave me his number and said if I ever ran into any trouble like I’d had earlier in his neck of the woods, I should give him a shout and he’d be glad to do whatever he could for me. I did the same – it turned out he had family down in South Cackalacky, and then we were both off to whatever strangeness was waiting for each of us around the next curve.
There’s really not much more to tell, not that there was in the first place. I broke out of the Holland Tunnel around 9:45 (by some miracle I don’t even begin to understand) and beelined it to Avenue B between 13th and 14th like Old Scratch himself was at my heels. I rolled the bike into the hallway of the ground floor apartment that would soon be home and was met at the door by two smiling, beautiful women, one of whom was looking at me as if I was some unearthly mix of Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Tarzan all rolled into one. It’s a good way to be looked at by someone you’ve come to think of yourself as a nice amalgamation of all the best qualities of Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, and Donna Reed (circa It’s A Wonderful Life, when she just happened to be the most beautiful woman ever to grace this cold hard orb – feel free to substitute Natalie Wood if you must). The girls had chicken soup all ready. After the longest, hottest, and most blessedly delicious bath I ever took before or since, we sat around a bit with some Kentucky whiskey they’d picked up for me and chatted. I was that good, happy kind of tired that you feel way down deep in your heart and bones, and a nice soft bed was sounding pretty good just then.
Of course, these were New York girls. We ended up getting back home around 8 the next morning, and that was just fine by me too.