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The Christmas Clutch

Some of life’s lessons really stick with you and one of the most memorable for me occurred at age seven, when I learned how to use a clutch.  It was Christmas Day and my father had procured a deserted parking lot so I could practice with the most exciting present of my life – a brand new miniature Benelli motorcycle.

Santa Claus had miraculously delivered the little Benelli to our living room on Christmas Eve and it was everything you’d expect a Christmas bike to be: candy-apple red, shiny black knobby tires, and a chrome gas tank.

Christmas morning was bright, brisk, and windy so I was dressed appropriately for my first official outing on the new motorcycle – pink floral jacket, bright white helmet, white Go-Go boots, and white gloves. The classic garb of a tough biker.

At seven years old, I was already comfortable around motorcycles.  My father had been riding forever and in recent years, had taken up dirt-bike racing. Many weekends were spent in remote, damp locations with Dad out conquering the slippery hills and swollen creeks of cross-country motorcycle races called “Hound & Hare Scrambles.” My mother and I participated by hiking the courses, attempting to see as much of the race – and my father – as possible.

My mom would say, “Here comes Daddy!” and we’d cheer as he roared past us in a torrent of flying mud and two-stroke engine exhaust.  He was most often in the lead, and soon the mantel above our fireplace was filled with tall trophies, each one adorned with a golden motorcyclist suspended in a victorious wheelie.

My father was happy to share his enthusiasm for the sport; teaching me to “drive” his bikes at a tender age.  He’d sit on the back, putting me in charge of throttle twisting and steering.  It was a big deal, made even more so by my father’s affect. Being the perennial show-off, Dad would ham it up on these rides by striking a nonchalant pose. Totally relaxed, he’d clasp his hands behind his back and appear to be nothing more than a casual sight-seer, utterly confident in the abilities of his tiny tour guide.

With all this experience under my belt, I considered myself to be a super savvy biker, equipped with all the skills required for my debut on “Ben” Benelli in the parking lot on Christmas Day.  Still, Dad insisted on explaining every excruciating detail of basic motorcycle husbandry: he went on about brakes, gears, clutch, throttle, kick-start, and safety.  It was as if he’d completely forgotten that I was a veteran motorcyclist!

Due to our family’s tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, “Ben” and I had been together for a good 12 hours with no action.  In my opinion, we needed to dispense with the formalities and commence riding.  I feigned attentiveness during my father’s tutorial while the inside of my head buzzed, “Yeah, yeah, yeah just let me at it.”

Finally, the lecture was over.  Ben and I were about to be set free! Thanks, Dad. See ya. 

I guess he felt the need to hover around for more coaching, because just when I thought it was time for my solo, he went and perched his 6’ 3” frame on the seat behind me.  The “sight-seer” was in position. I was at the helm…so excited I could hardly stand it.

“Okay,” he said.  “Give it a little gas and sloooowly let the clutch out.”

There was nothing “sloooow” about what happened next. Drawing upon my vast motorcycling experience, I did what I always did: I twisted the throttle. The engine revved but nothing happened, so I twisted a little more. Then I let go of the clutch.

Ben’s front wheel shot straight up in the air, executing a perfect, near vertical wheelie before dropping to the ground.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t all that dropped to the ground. The force of Tsunami Wheelie had ejected my normally nimble father and deposited him onto the pavement with a thump.

It was the first time I’d seen my dad, with his cat-like reflexes, fall down. Or fall off.  In fact, until that moment, I hadn’t even seen him so much as trip.  He was like Superman and thanks to me, he’d just been bucked off a mini bike.

Adding to the tension of this calamity was the potential storm of his infamous, volatile temper.  I looked down at him, sprawled ingloriously on the blacktop, and braced myself for the worst.

He got up, dusted himself off, and reclaimed his seat on the back of the bike.

“Don’t. Ever. Pop. The. Clutch,” he snarled through clenched teeth.  “Let’s try it again.”

So, we did and it must have been successful, because all I remember from that moment on is all the fun we had.

The gift of the Benelli was so much more than a motorcycle. It was the gift of time, my dad’s time, as we spent countless hours riding the hills of Shasta and Trinity Counties in the years to come. It’s safe to say my seventh Christmas was the best… the Christmas by which all others are measured.

Thanks Dad.