A while back I wrote about the death of my wife in a motorcycle accident. I wrote about the risks we all willingly assume in order to live the way we choose, and the irony implicit in the simple fact that the harder and more fully you live your life, the more likely that life is to end sooner than it might otherwise. That irony is central to biking; anyone who has been riding for long is very likely to be on more intimate terms with it than they probably would wish. Heartbreaking examples of it abound, and in some way they touch all of us, whether we’ve lost a loved one to a tragic accident or not. For almost all of us who ride, it’s more a matter of “when” than “if.” And after a few years, it’s more a matter of “Dammit, not again.”
Well, yes, unfortunately — again.
Clifton “Click” Baldwin, owner of Carolina Harley-Davidson in Gastonia, North Carolina, was one of those guys who seemed to know absolutely everybody. Whether you were rich as Croesus or just some poor biker slob living in a tumbledown three-room shack, subsisting on a steady diet of beans and cornbread in order to support your Harley habit, Click knew you, and always had a hello, a smile, and a hearty laugh for you. He was one of those guys who was so full of piss and vinegar and joie de vivre you could see and hear him coming across even the most crowded and noisy room.
He came by being a biker honest, since his dad was a Harley guy from way back. A childhood photo shows him perched on his old man’s Panhead, his feet barely reaching the tops of the rocker boxes, hands on the fatbob tanks for support, grinning like a merry fiend. He ran his dealership the old-fashioned way, always ready to head out in the pickup in dead of night to pick up a stranded biker by the side of some dark back-road and bring him and his machine back to the shop for repairs.
He made a shit-ton of money in that dealership, and he was smart enough to know how to enjoy all that hard-earned dough. For a good while there, he used to charter a DC3 from a local outfit, load up six or eight friends and their bikes, and fly the patched-together crate down for Daytona’s Bike Week
festivities every year. That lasted until around ten years or so ago, when, almost immediately after take-off, the plane lost an engine and had to circle around quick to land, almost literally, on a wing and a prayer. As the grey-faced and shaking bikers scrambled out of the rickety old bucket, Click was, as always, laughing.
He was definitely an old-school Southern wildass; a partier and a scrapper, easy to get along with, but no one to trifle with at the same time. He died the week before Sturgis, flying down the highway with his fellow Hamsters. And his passing touched literally thousands of people, bikers and non-bikers alike, from all corners of this great nation. For proof, point your computer to the Gastonia newspaper’s Guestbook website at http://www.legacy.com/GastonGazette/GB/GuestbookView.aspx?PersonId=114501951 and have a gander — it’s 125 pages long at this writing. And it’s merely the tip of a pretty damned big iceberg.
When they brought him home from South Dakota, I was among over two hundred bikers who paid their respects by escorting his body from the airport in Charlotte to the funeral home in Gastonia. There were bikers of every warp and woof in that procession: weekend warriors, patch-holders, RUBs; Harleys and Beemers and Jap-crappers; average joes and hardass one-percenters alike rode side-by-side in tribute to another fallen brother.
I expected a huge turnout for the ride, but what I didn’t expect at all was to see the shoulder of the four-lane thoroughfare absolutely jammed with people. They poured out of the offices and factories and little mill houses along the route to stand by the side of the road, many of them holding rough, homemade signs expressing their sympathy to the family riding at the head of the procession in a funeral-home limo. Every last cop from the several small towns along the route stood ramrod-straight beside their parked patrol cars, caps doffed and held over their hearts. The firefighters at a Lowell firehouse had their flag at half-mast, and the firemen stood proud and sad at the curb.
They waved, they openly wept, they gave us the raised-fist biker salute in solidarity — even the ones who had never swung a leg over a Harley in their lives and probably never will, and who couldn’t possibly fathom the deep joy and meaning riding offers those of us who accept the risk, reap the reward, and bear the cost. They may not understand biking, but this once, they understood our loss, and the ten miles or so of road between Charlotte and Gastonia was as crowded with them as any Fourth of July parade ever was.
It was one of the most gutwrenching, and heartwarming, things I’ve ever seen.
We’re all used to the sneers, scorn, and even fearful looks we get when the wolfpack goes roaring by a crowd of squarejohn citizen types, in a blast of straight-piped exuberance and near-anarchy. We’re used to sometimes open hostility from people who just don’t get it, and never will. But once in a while we get a reminder that, in the end, we’re all more alike than we are different, and that grief and loss isn’t anybody’s exclusive property.
It’s a terrible thing when we lose a brother or sister to the harsh realities of the open road. But it’s an unquestionably good thing when the wider world unexpectedly opens its arms and hearts to comfort us, and to lighten our load by sharing our pain. And we all owe sincere thanks to those folks who stepped up that day to remind us that when one of us is taken too soon, we’re all diminished.