My grandfather, Morris “Red” Ridnor, was a slight man, not much more than 5’ 5”, 100-pounds with screaming red hair, extraverted personality, and a mischievous streak, having been babied by his seven older sisters. He was a natural story-telling, finding humor in even dire situations.
He was also nuts about motorcycles.
Wanting to join the army, in the midst of World War I, he ate a bunch of bananas and drank copious amount of water so he’d weigh enough to get accepted. Once in the army, it became clear he was too little to be put on the front lines. When asked if he knew how to drive a motorcycle, he assertively said “yes.”
He was asked to chauffer an officer around the area. Unbeknownst to him, the vehicle was a motorcycle with a sidecar. The weight of the officer and sidecar was difficult to balance and within minutes, my grandfather plowed into a mess tent!
Decades later, when my grandfather was in his 70’s, he visited the family who lived across the street from us. They had boys, one girls, a couple of aquariums of snakes, and a small mini bike. Yes, my grandfather talked them into letting him ride it. There he was, 70-some-odd years old, zipping up-and-down the street on a bike meant for a kid!
My grandmother, Rose, wrote about my grandfather’s first and subsequent adventures on motorcycles.
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Ever since brother-in-law Hy gave him a bicycle for his Bar Mitzvah, Grandpa’s great dream had been to own a motorcycle.
He would make a nuisance of himself at the shop on 79th Street [Manhattan], inspecting the machine parked on the sidewalk, asking questions, asking prices.
Finally came the day he could enter the store with dignity befitting a man who had ten dollars cash in his pocket. It had taken a year of working to accumulate the few dollars not needed elsewhere; now they were burning a hole in his pocket.
For $45, $10 down, balance 60 days, Mr. Stein, the proprietor, let him have a 1917, on cylinder, pedal starter Indian.
Mr. Stein didn’t think to ask his age, evidentially assuming he was sixteen, so Grandpa didn’t volunteer the information he was only fifteen. But, with fingers crossed, he answered yes, his father did know of the purchase and approved.
A contract was signed, and into Grandpa’s hands was delivered a beautiful dream.
Had he ever ridden a motorcycle before? No, but that would be no problem, he assured Stein and himself. After all, he was a real pro on a bicycle.
Rarin’ to try out the symbol of his adult stature, he listened with impatient mind to a quick course of instruction.
“Foist,” Mr. Stein said, pointing out the various controls, “t’row out da clutch, den pedal until ya get rolling’. T’row in clutch, release spark on dis yere right handlebar; open gas t’rottle on dis yere left handlebar. Easy like, jest a toin of da wrist. And dat’s all. Da engine starts and ya’ rollin’,” he grinned and waved his hand triumphantly.
“Ta slow do’n, jest toin the gas t’rottle in opposite direction. Ta stop, shut off da gas, step on brake pedal, t’row out clutch. Dats all. Got it?”
Grandpa nodded vigorously.
“So get goin’. Go d’n East End, sving ‘round and come back. Get on. I help ya get started.”
With alacrity, Grandpa straddled the seat, fingers firmly gripping handlebars, feet on starter pedals.
Stein got alongside, hands holding onto the saddle and back fender, and as he ran along pushing and shouting instructions, Grandpa pedaled, ready to manipulate clutch and spark.
Suddenly with a quiver and shake, and a mighty RRoooMMPP… a-w-ay he went.
At first, it was a frightening sensation. The motor seemed a monster, headstrong and beyond control, bent on speeding him to destruction. And when it swerved a bit, Grandpa’s heart skipped a beat. He tensed, his fingers wrapped around the handlebars, his knees hugged the gas tank so tight he became as one with the machine.
But as he found himself still upright and rolling smoothly along, he relaxed. Now it became a wondrous, glorious thrill. He raised his head; the wind stung his checks, ruffled his mop of red hair.
Gaining confidence, he twisted his wrist to feed more gas. And more. And just a little more.
Now he was going too fast. Instinctively, his wrist turned in reverse direction. But nothing turned with it. He tried again.
Something was stuck. The cycle wouldn’t decelerate.
The harder he tried, the faster the cycle seemed to go. He was probably going no faster than 25 miles per hour, but in those days of slower pace, it seemed like flying, and the roar of the motor added to the feeling of speed.
Telling himself not to panic, he concentrated on unsticking the throttle, and completely forgot he could apply the brake.
Now he was approaching the intersection of East End Avenue, beyond, which stretched a planked walk with a foot high wood curbing on the piers over the East River.
He decided to make a right turn into the avenue….. a wide swing… but heavens preserve us, look….!
Down the avenue, heading into the same intersection, clippety-clopped a team of tremendous draft horses, pulling a huge wagon.
Grandpa’s mind whirled. He couldn’t slow down, too risky to jump off; a right turn might miss the horses, but smash him into the wagon; straight ahead he’d plough right into those animals, couldn’t miss.
Either way, he was a goner. What to do?
Too late. Time had run out.
Gluing his seat to the saddle, his fingers to the handlebars, neck into shoulders, forcing his eyes from the approaching team, he braced himself for carnage.
There was a whizzing blur, the sound of distant shouting, and whoosh, he shot across the intersection missing dooms by a split second, continued racing on, still tensed up, and WHAM! With a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling jolt, the front wheel of the cycle hit the curbing, releasing and ungluing the rider at all points, and beyond.
Without pause, up rose the cycle’s rear wheel standing it on end. Up, over and out, like a human cannonball shout out of a gun, soared Grandpa into space. Over in a somersault, out into a flat sprawl, and spa..l..ash… a bellyflop into the cold wetness sending a fountain of water into the air.
Another splash and the cycle hit the drink. Both sank like stones, but after a moment Grandpa rose to the surface sputtering and spewing.
He didn’t panic. He was no stranger to the waters of the East River. When he was about ten and lived on 9th Street, the river was the ‘ole swimming hole.
There they would come, a whole gang of barefoot 9th Street kids, to escape the stifling heat of the tenement streets and luxuriate in the smelly, dirty coolness of the river.
Stripping down to underpants, the ‘affluent’ would have swim trucks, they would pile shirts and pants on the ‘chiggy’ boy. Each boy took turns being “chiggy.’ It was his job to stay topside and at the first sight of a cop holler ‘chiggy’ and run with the clothes.
The swimmer would either hide behind the pillars or swim further downstream until the ‘menace’ had gone. Swimming in the river was now permissible, but the kids took their own permission.
They learned quickly the art of staying above water. They had to. There was no lifeguards around, or shallow water, and the tide was strong. You either swam or else.
When a non-swimmer came amongst them, the swimmers would go down first, string a rope from pillar to pillar. The beginner would then slide down the ladder, grab the rope with one hand and practice strokes with the other.
The others would climb the ladder pack to the planking, hold their noses and jump off, or execute what they thought were fancy dives or just plain plop in.
There were always a few older… 14 or 15 years… boys around. They were protective of the smaller ones, hauling them back when they ventured too far, keeping down horseplay, making sure they did not exhaust themselves.
There was no lack of activity on the river. Boats, large and small, barges, tugs, paddle wheelers, constantly on the move, up-and-down, hooting, wailing, and whistling.
Sometimes, they roughed up the waters, other times they created gentle rollers, and it was fun to roll along with them.
Every so often there would be cries of ‘goldfish’…. Excrements from the sewer outlet below… but, that didn’t faze them.
It is a wonder they didn’t come down with all sorts of plagues, but evidentially, they built up immunity.
So now when Grandpa found himself in the East River, he just took his bearings, swam with the current to the first ladder and lumbered up to the landing.
Shoes squishing, clothes dripping, he made his way home, climbed the five flights of stairs, opened the door, and met his father.
That old gentleman took one look at him so soggy and forlorn and exploded in alarm, “What happened to you!”
“I was swimming.”
His father stared incredulously, “With all your clothes on?”
Grandpa nodded numbly and squished into the bedroom.
There came a loud knocking at the door and an angry Mr. Stein strode in. But he was not half as angry as Grandpa’s father when he heard his son had been sold a motorcycle.
After six tries and coming up daughters, he finally sired a son. Trying again, and missing again, the fates called a halt and the count remained at 7 to 1. So Grandpa’s father looked with no favor upon any contraption that might deprive him of one for whom he so persistently labored.
By the time Grandpa’s father had told him off, Mr. Stein, beating a heavy retreat, was grateful he would not be sued for endangering the life of so precious a son.
It was quite a while before Grandpa ventured to own another motorcycle, and this time, Mr. Stein had no fault to find with payment. In the interim, Grandpa learned to ride expertly, through the generosity of his friends in lending him their cycles.
More often he’d ride the buddy seat, and occasionally when someone had to drop out of a planned trip, he’d fall temporarily heir to the cycle.
That was how late that summer he was the ninth member of a group on a weekend run to Albany. His first long run, about 150 miles. He was thrilled. The Great Adventure. And it made an excellent starter for the week vacation from his job.
Off they started this early Saturday morning for the Albany Post Road. Everything was going a-okay. The road may not have had the smoothness of roads today, but neither was the traffic as rough.
If anyone remembered that the speed limit was 30 miles per hour, no one mentioned it. With cut-outs wide open, creating an ear-splitting clatter, which may have been music to their ears, but startling to the drivers of cars going by (which I suspect is precisely why they did it), they gunned motors and competed in outracing and out-passing each other.
They were chewing up the miles and having a ball.
Grandpa was third from rear when the end cycle roared alongside and instead of a challenge to race, the driver was jabbed an urgent finger toward the rear. Then the other cyclist roared past also pointing to the rear. Grandpa took a look….. the law!
Quickly he joined the pack. Hunching over, heads down, they put on the speed… 35… 40… 45… 50…
When they were overtaken, one of them dared to look back. The officer was turning down a side road; he was giving up.
They slowed and shouted in glee. They had outrun the cop. He had a new Indian Chief cycle, more powerful than any of theirs, and he had chickened out. They felt triumphant, exhilarated, congratulating each other on superb riding.
Feeling pretty secure they formed into position, continued on but at a more moderate speed; only five miles above limit.
Some miles later, coming into Marlboro, there seemed to be an obstruction about a quarter mile ahead. It looked like a line of yellow ribbons fluttering across the road. One the side stood a small knot of people.
They slowed down. A bright light of comprehension slowly dawned in each mind. As they crawled up, there it was… a road block. A constable and two deputy sheriffs waited.
So the cop hadn’t chickened out after all. Why wear himself out chasing when a telephone call would do the job for him. Chalk up one for using the ‘ole noodle.
Making a great show of dismounting, they sauntered over to the welcoming committee. After answering a few questions without evasion, no sense trying to bluff it out, they followed the constable’s car to the courthouse in town.
As they rode, one assured the other that certainly no one would take seriously a bit of innocent fun by a bunch of young exuberant kids, especially since they were out-of-towners. The most they would get would be a severe tongue lashing.
Quiet and respectful, they stood before His Honor the constable, judge and jury. He recited a list of charges. Came the pronouncement… ten dollars or ten days. Each!
Ten dollars! Each!! Was he a joker or something? If they pooled all their money they could scarcely come up with ten dollars, let alone ninety dollars.
Ten days it was. Into the backroom they filed. The courthouse was a store building. In front, the sheriff’s office; in the rear several cells with barred windows looking out onto an alley.
But they were downhearted. Young, the eldest only seventeen, without cares or worries, they thought it would be fun. The Great Experience. Something to boast about to their buddies hogtied to those dreary tenements.
And it wasn’t too bad. Word about them got around town, and in the evenings young girls would come to the windows brining ice cream cones, candy, the makings for rolling cigarettes.
The talk, wisecracks, bragging would flow fast and furious, as with young folks anywhere. The boys went all out trying to impress the girls with their worldliness. After all, they did come from the Big City.
The evenings went quickly, but the days did not. Farmed out to pick currants, they were driven to the fields at seven in the morning, returning at five. Pay, a dollar a day. Fifty cents went to the sheriff for transportation and lunch, the rest to the boys.
It was sun-scorching, back-breaking work even if they made sure not to overwork, and it did them no harm. The fresh clean air sharpened their appetites. They were fed plain, but wholesome food, so that on return Grandpa’s father was well pleased with the way he looked, and the weight he had put on during his weeks’ vacation with a farmer in the country.
The field were not worked on Sunday so the constable lopped a few days off and they returned to life as usual.
But all through the year, Grandpa kept remembering the farmer’s invitation on that last day. “Iffen any you fellers wanna come back next year, you come right along. And bring ya friends.”