The Blue Groove Father’s Day Edition For Morley Graham 1922-2008

One nice Father’s Day post from The Blue Groove

Free Range

Man and Machine

Some men talk. Other men get to work

Unlike hobbyists—and, alas, writers—he was not sentimental about machines. It didn’t matter if it was a rock crusher at the cement plant were he was a machinist or his motorcycle. They were all the same. They were built to come apart and made to go back together. 

In the photograph, from the mid-’80s, we are at a decommissioned military airport running in a freshly rebuilt, but as yet unpainted, Triumph twin. We (and when I say we, I mean he) had rebuilt the Triumph into a functioning motorcycle from a $50 basket case. The previous owner had separated every piece that could be unbolted from anything else (the valve guides, even, had been driven from the head) and had tossed everything into a dozen Wiser’s Deluxe whisky boxes, which may explain why the bike never came together again.

I ordered parts books and rebuild manuals and sent them from the city down to him, but the telltale signs that they’d been used (greasy thumb prints) were missing. I asked if he’d opened them. He grinned. What I didn’t understand at the time (which was pretty much everything—I had just left my teens) was that all mechanical devices are essentially the same. A bearing is a bearing, and a transmission gear for a Cockshutt tractor does the same duty as a gear from any other transmission. 

I’d phone or visit on weekends and he’d have notes for me. “Third gear on the layshaft needs to be replaced.” I knew better than to ask for a part number. That was my department. When it was finished it started on the third kick. The idle was too high but a few turns of the in-line adjuster in the throttle cable brought it down to a nice burble. I jumped up and down like I’d won the lottery. He hunkered down and checked for oil leaks. 

I could be finicky in those days. Everything had to be perfect. Or as perfect as I could make them. I spent hours making the aluminum primary case cover shine like chrome. My father found this fussing amusing, though he never said anything about it directly. But a month or two later, after a friend of his died, he told of going to the estate sale and finding everything that this man had coveted lying on tables to be sold to the highest bidder. His point was made, though it took another decade for the lesson to sink in. 

Ten years ago I wanted to show him the mid-’90s 900SS Ducati I’d bought. I rode to the senior’s home where he was living and in the parking lot he circled the bike. It had been used for track days and was a little rough, but he didn’t see the dents and scratches. He poked his head down deep into the fairing and asked me to explain the specifics of the desmodromic valve system, which dispenses with conventional valve springs. He marvelled at it, and we talked about flatheads and about long-forgotten sleeve valve engines and about how, in the old days, you’d set valves on an engine not with feeler gauges, but by the sound they made when the engine was running.

It was the last significant conversation I had with my father. Four months later he was dead.

Object of my Affection

Tools for Life

Even a humble ratchet has a story to tell 

After his death, I got the tools. It’s all I wanted, and I wanted them because I needed them. Micrometers and taps and dies and saw files and feeler gauges coated in oil and tucked into Sweet Caporal tobacco tins. And homemade wrenches beaten and welded into odd shapes and meant for hard-to-reach nuts for who-knows-what. In a notebook, neat hand-drawn diagrams noted dimensions for tools to be spun up on the lathe: spacers, sprockets, and punches to drive rumbling bearings from their races. The toolbox could be a museum. Luckily, it isn’t.

Good tools are expensive, and my father, with a punch ground to an extra sharp tip, initialed the most expensive so they wouldn’t migrate to someone else’s toolbox. Occasionally, it’s his first and last initials—MG—but mostly it’s just G. These are the first tools I ever used. I’ve never known them without the G. And because I’m a G, too, I don’t usually notice the inscriptions. When you’re in the midst of taking the shock off a Ducati 851 and worried the bike may tumble onto its flank, there isn’t time for rumination.

It’s difficult not to make the dead even more dead. Shrines on a shelf (a few dusty photographs, a framed certificate or two, an old watch) reduce a life to lifeless. But my father’s tools are always on the go. They’re with me at road races and they get knocked into the grass after dark at dusty flat tracks. They even tagged along last fall beneath the seat of my VW bus on my honeymoon to Cape Cod.

Last Wednesday, near midnight, with Copeland’s Appalachian Spring crackling in from an upstate New York NPR station, I was in the garage. I was putting the front end back on the 851 after last season’s clavicle-snapping crash. Just as I was about to tighten the steering stem nut, my thumb, which was coated in grease from the headstock bearings, slid up the body of the Snap-On ratchet. As my thumb travelled over the G punched into the tool’s body, it was like reading braille. I was startled into fresh awareness of what had become familiar. I imagined my father resting the tool in a V-block and punching in his initial 40 years ago. And then I imagined him, after seeing me pause mid-way through a task, saying, “What’s gotten into you?” That snapped me out of it. On went the triple clamps and back onto the front wheel stand went the Ducati. Stability—for all in the garage that night—had been regained.

The Lowdown

There Will Be Blood

When he was working on a motorcycle, part of him stayed behind 

He was trim, in 2002, at age 80, he was the same 165 pounds as he was in 1939, the year he enlisted in the army. He was just shy of six-feet tall—not a big man. Except for his hands. His knuckles were broad, his fingers long, and the meat of his paw had the heft of a bear’s. Try finding riding gloves for those hands.

Before the Internet, to find anything motorcycle related (or anything) we were entirely dependant on local shopkeepers. If a store didn’t have what you required—or the interest in doing the legwork to help you find it—you called dealerships and hoped someone would help. Sometimes you just couldn’t get what you needed. Like a pair of really large gloves.

For my father, gloves marked large were laughably small. Extra large gloves—if he could get them on at all—would stretch to where they looked like rubber gloves overinflated with water. He rode with gardening gloves, and, during a luckless period when we couldn’t find anything that fit, welding gloves. But then, at the back of a motorcycle shop, I found a pair of new (and filthy) Craig Vetter branded gloves from the ’70s. They were astonishingly ugly. Pink and orange and yellow and brown and magenta leather scraps quilted together. They weren’t retro. They were regrettable.

I tried one on. I lowered my hand to my side. The glove fell off. I knew I’d found them. He was thrilled. He didn’t care how they looked. He appreciated the cut of a fine suit, but the notion that motorcycle gear could be stylish held no interest to him. Together with his two-tone leather jacket (light leafy green and deep forest green) he was a sight. In the presence of other motorcyclists, I always expected someone to make a quip—good-natured or otherwise—about his gear, but no-one ever did. It took me years to register that my father, even as an old man, had a physical presence that discouraged criticism.

The hands lost little of their strength as he aged, but his skin became as thin as tissue paper. At the least provocation they would bleed. Just handling a piece of emery cloth could cause blood to seep out. A genuine cut caused a bloodbath. He’d never stop midway through a task, but later I’d see bandages on his hands. Only once or twice did he curse under his breath about the frustrations of growing old.

Through those hands and forearms he could summon great amounts of torque. I’d have all my weight on an 18-inch breaker bar and not be able to make a nut budge. He would clamp his hands down directly over mine and lean into it. And, always, a drop or two of blood left behind. Sometimes, after he’d gone back into the house, I’d see blood on my hands, and think I’d cut myself. But the blood I’d thought was mine, was his.