ONE AFTERNOON WITH THE KING
You meet the strangest people in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky
"HOW YOU DOIN'?" I just nodded and smiled, picking through the wrenches I had rolled out on the seat of my Yamaha.
“This sure is some stretch of road. Been followin’ that river all the way from Memphis, and it had my Harley all twisted up and confused. Like a coon in a bunch of houn' dogs.”
He laughed at his own self-conscious country phrase, a lopsided grin that said. “Don't take me too seriously.”
I just smiled again and he clumped on into the general store, his black leather boots echoing on the old wooden porch. I've been riding this road along the Ohio River for nearly 15 years myself and I feel kind of protective about it. you know? I wasn't trying to be unfriendly, but this is—well, my road.
I've got an old SR500 Single that’s perfect for the twists and turns where the road follows the meandering river. I thump through the towns of Madison, Vevey and Rising Sun on the Indiana side, take a little two-car ferry and end up in Kentucky where there's a great, curv ing road that leads north to Cincinnati and south to Louisville, Evansville and. eventually, down the Mississippi to Memphis.
I always stop here at Stephen's General Store in Rabbit Hash. Kentucky. It's nothing special, just an old clapboard store showing every one of its 70 years. But it's a fine place to stop and get a Coke, sit on the front porch and savor the quiet of the river ... or in my case, tighten up an oil-cooler mounting bolt that likes to vibrate loose.
“Here. You look a little thirsty.” My new friend was back, extending a Coke. Stephen's is one of the few places left w here you can get a Coca-Cola in a bottle. I sat on the edge of the porch where I could see him leaning against his bike and drank my soda.
“Thanks. I was ready for that.” We both looked around at the day, the sunshine, the river, the road, sharing the universal motorcycle bond.
“That Harley must be kind of a handful on this curvy old road.”
“Yes, sir. it sure is. But I can't picture me on anything else. I’ve been ridin' Harleys since 1956, on and ofí. A Harley was always my dream. It's what a motorcycle is supposed to be . . . mean and nasty.” He said this last in a low. mocking growl, then grinned his lopsided sneer again.
Since 1956, I thought, that’s more than 30 years . . . this guy is-old.
His Harley was a dusty but obviously new Heritage Softail Classic. He had the windshield and the leather saddlebags, the floorboards and the studded seat with the leather tassels . . . he'd gone whole hog. the whole Fifties look.
"Your Harley must look pretty much like that one you had back in '56."
"Yes, sir. 1 have some pictures of me on that one, riding down the driveway of my Momma's house. 'Bout the only difference is back then I had to get it fixed a lot more often.
“I loved that Harley. You didn't have to wear a helmet back then. I had a hat, black with a white brim and a star on the front. 1 thought it made me look like Marlon Brando.”
“You mean, like The Wild One?”
He laughed out loud this time, kind of a soft chuckle that went with his Southern accent. Then he put on this mock-serious voice. “Back then. I wanted to be an actor, like Marlon Brando. Or James Dean. He was a genius. James Dean."
“Oh, I ended up in the music business.” He gave me the sardonic grin again and took another swig from his Coke.
I looked at him a little closer. He was a snappy dresser: black Levis, white dress shirt, black distressed leather flight jacket, dark aviator sunglasses. His hairline was receding, and he had a double chin. But his short-cropped hair was jet black-dyed, mavbe-and he looked to be in pretty good shape for a guy in his 50s.
“Well, sir, I lost sight of the Lord, and I got lost myself.”
He had a certain charm, this guy. For all his softspoken manner. I bet he'd been a real lady-killer in his day. And for all his down-home ways, he had. you know, charisma, an attraction that flowed out and grabbed you. He also had this awkward way of speaking, like he thought over everything, before he said it.
“My Momma raised me to be a religious person. I didn't drink. I didn’t smoke. I was just a young man when my Momma died. I turned to drugs. My marriage broke up. They took my daughter away. I was a prisoner in my ow n house.”
He had me. Fascinated. Hooked. Maybe he had been some sort of TV evangelist or something.
"Well, sir. I hit bottom. I had nuthin' to live for. I had to get away from the people around me. So I got on the Harley 1 had then —I was overweight and out of shape and I hadn't ridden that motorcycle for years-and 1 rode up this road you see right here. And I was saved.”
“Yes. sir. I was saved. That Harley-Davidson showed me what I'd been missing in my life. I'm just like every other man. and a man needs to get off alone where he can sort things out. The best place to do that is sittin’ on a motorcycle.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I rode up here to this very store, and I stopped and went in that door, and I bought a soda pop. You'll find it strange, but that was the first time in 20 years that I had gone into a store by myself.
“In this store was a rack of paperback books. I picked up a book, written by somebody with a funny name: Isak Dinesen. In it was a story about an opera singer, the best singer in the world. Her name was Pellegrina Leoni. Sounds like a name for an opera singer, don't it?
“In this story, she lost her voice, so she pretended to die. But she didn't really die. She went away, and she traveled and instead of living surrounded by phony people, she lived with the real people she met as she traveled. I figured that was a good idea. So I did it."
This was crazy. Here I was sitting on a porch in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, talking to somebody who’s telling me he faked his own death because of something he read in a paperback book. Seriously now, who is this guy?
“Wait a minute. How long ago was this?”
“Oh, maybe 10 years ago. now. Once I'd decided, I went back and did some concerts and records and stuff, and got everything in order. And I bought a new Harley. And one day I just rode out of there. Been ridin’ ever since.
“Yes, sir. I've been all over this country on a Harley-Davidson. 1 buy a new one every year from the dealer dow n in Memphis when I come back to do some business, collect enough money to see me through the next year. The rest of it goes into a trust fund for my daughter. I'm just coming from Memphis now. That’s what I'm doin’ here. It’s like a pilgrimage I make every year."
“Do you ever get lonely?”
“Lonely?” He laughed out loud and struck a pose that showed me his profile and minimized the double chin. He took off the dark aviator glasses. “You can't believe how' many lonely women there are in this country. Women who can't resist a travelin" man on a Harley-Davidson. No, I can't say as I'm ever lonely much.”
He got back on the Harley, thumbed the starter button and listened to it idle with that distinctive V-Twin burble.
“Well, been nice talkin’ with youse,” he said in a mock New York accent, and smiled. “I gotta be gettin' along here. Looks like we're gonna have a little Kentucky rain, and I want to get up to Cincinnati before I get this fancy jacket wet.” There was that mocking grin again.
“If you don't mind my asking, aren’t you ..."
And he rode off.
Rich Taylor, who is old enough to remember 1956 in stunning detail, is alive and well in Connecticut.