Iron Butt Association

World's Toughest Motorcycle Riders

Bob Higdon's Making a Mechanic Prologue

CLARENCE THOMAS AND ME: Or, Here Commences the Education of Absolutely the World's Worst Motorcycle Mechanic

© 1994, 1995, 1996, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois

Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute any of these documents, or portions therein, without the written permission of the Robert Higdon or the Iron Butt Association.

Written by Robert Higdon.

Editor's Foreword:

by Fred Rau of Motorcycle Consumer News

We've all heard of "natural" mechanics, and legends abound within the motorcycling community of some of the true "greats." Though practically unsung compared to great motorcycle racers or designers, we all know the value of finding a truly good mechanic to whom we can trust our most valued possessions. The perceived quality of the chief wrench and his minions can make or break a motorcycle dealership, either bringing in business from far afield or driving potential customers away in droves.

But the question remains: Are good mechanics made by good schooling and years of experience, or does one need to be born with some kind of innate mechanical intelligence before the process can even begin? This is the old "silk purse from a sow's ear" question that has been argued for years, and may never fully be answered. But MCN has decided to take a stab at running a little experiment to see how far professional training can go in overcoming natural ineptitude.

Our subject for this test is Robert Higdon, a fairly well-known and competent motorcyclist with no shortage of active brain cells. Bob is a recently-retired lawyer from a successful Washington, D. C. law firm. In an arena where mental acuity and outsmarting your adversary decides the winners and losers, Bob was a regular victor. So much so that he was enlisted to help on several of the AMA's stickier legal problems. And as a motorcyclist Bob has been active in the International Iron Butt Association, set the earliest finishing date on the Four Corners tour, and is the current vice-president of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America.

So we've established that Mr. Higdon is neither lacking in the gray matter department nor unfamiliar with motorcycles. Yet he carries one more attribute that makes him uniquely qualified for our experiment: An almost total ignorance of anything mechanical. This would seem nearly impossible for one who has spent so much time in the saddle, but is nonetheless true. We have sworn eyewitnesses who can attest to having had to help Bob add oil to his engine, because he couldn't figure out where to put it. The mere mention of words like "piston" or "crankshaft" would cause his eyes to glaze over. Trust us --- the man couldn't properly inflate a tire, even if he got lucky enough to find the valve stem.

So, to make a long story short, MCN has handed Mr. Higdon over to the teaching staff of the American Motorcycle Institute to make a "silk purse" of him. Can a total mechanical incompetent with reasonable learning skills be transformed into a quality wrench? Or does it require some inbred, natural ability that Bob is so obviously lacking? Psychologists call it the "nature or nurture" question. We should have a fairly good answer after about six months of following Bob's adventures.

--- Fred Rau


I intend to learn to be a wrench, though it is far from clear to me that an old dog can learn new tricks. I've never had an old dog; they all died before learning much of anything. I do know that you can't teach a cat any worthwhile tricks, no matter how old it is. For 14 years I've been trying to teach my cat, Bud, how to say "chain saw." But she's never said a word --- at least not while I was around.

The learning process theoretically is straightforward: You learn from your parents. My mother taught me that an orange necktie doesn't go with anything; my father taught me that if you want something done well, pay someone else to do it. Though admittedly this wasn't much with which to start a life, somewhere I discovered that people should always do as adults what they did well as kids. From my earliest days I was a gifted liar and thief, so it was taken for granted that I would eventually go to law school. And I did. For nearly 19 years I practiced law, occasionally getting it right, and sat at a clean desk on spring afternoons watching the blood drain out of my shoes. My life was leaking away, one corpuscle at a time. On Sunday nights, just as the TV movie about yet another victimized woman would begin, I'd notice my stomach cramping up.

It took me a year to realize it wasn't the movie that was turning my gut into a peptic Chernobyl; it was the prospect of going to the courthouse the next day, trying a case that Clarence Darrow couldn't win, and listening to more lawyer jokes, all of which were true.

It was enough. I told my partner that if I'd been convicted of first-degree murder I wouldn't have had to serve 19 years. Thus, at the age of 52.4, I retired, leaving the law in the grubby hands of sanctimonious ankle-biters like Joel Hyatt. To hell with him, I thought. I had a better plan. I would ride a motorcycle around the world. Not many people have done that. Those who did --- and I have talked with some of them --- usually had either lots of time or money. I had both. I could do it.

One little problem remained: After 352,000 miles and 33 years in the saddle, I still didn't know how to change a flat tire. When I take a trip, the owner's manual is always nearby; I worry that I may forget how to put gas in the tank. On really big trips I always try to carry Mike Kneebone with me; he's plugged my tires in barren deserts from Nevada to Australia. But asking him to drop his family, friends, and career for a couple of years to wrench me around the world could be a bit of an imposition.

Incompetence at my level doesn't come cheaply. It takes a lifetime of real work to accumulate enough money to pay other people to do everything all the time, generally at time-and-a-half, because among my other faults I'm also impatient. But I did it. I'd taken my father's advice and I'd learned to pay. And now, when the survivors of World War III begin crawling out of their holes to rebuild their lives, I'll just remain in my fallout shelter and die quietly. With the banks and my VISA card reduced to radioactive dust, I'd be more belly-up than fish on 42nd Street. Rebuild a carburetor? Hell, I can't rebuild a good burp.

Unfortunately, with a proposed world jaunt, I have come up against a wall that I cannot buy my way over. When the bike crumps in Wadi Al-Zahir, 14 kilometers from the epicenter of the Gobi Desert, there may be nobody around to pay. What then, Bobby baby? Calamity has struck better men (and women) than I. Ted Simon changed a piston in the Sahara; Steve Attwood, the '93 Iron Butt winner, fixed ten flats in one month alone in India; Tabitha Estabrook, during a monster ride with her fiance, Wall Street financier Jim Rogers, hand cut a set of cylinder studs borrowed from a Russian tractor in central Siberia. Rogers, who freely confesses that his mechanical ability is no better than mine, stood on the far side of the road, looking in vain for someone to take his money.

Two years ago I discovered a possible way out. ln an article in Motorcycle Consumer News, Vince Iorio described a school, the American Motorcycle Institute in Daytona Beach, that claimed it could take almost anyone and in 20 weeks transform the subject into an entry-level mechanic. The operative word there is "almost." AMI hadn't met me, and I wasn't sure it would want to.

Although I am morbidly shy, when desperation strikes I can occasionally force myself to move off of bottom dead center. Thus, last March, during the Total Raging Hell of Bike Week, I rolled up to the front door of AMI and asked to speak to an admissions officer. Before I could panic and flee, Larry McCarthy showed up and introduced himself.

After a brief tour of the site, we sat down. I admitted that I couldn't stick hose clamps end-to-end; I'd tried once, I said, and I had witnesses who are still laughing about it. Once on a group ride with six friends, when I took a screwdriver out of my tool kit to tighten a bolt or whatever, four of them grabbed their cameras and took pictures. No one had ever seen me use a tool without stabbing myself in the face.

"Not to worry," McCarthy said. "You don't have any bad habits to unlearn."

"l don't have any habits at all," I moaned. "I'd pay anything for a good habit."

Some weeks later, I sent in the application. If there was a question about hose clamps, I didn't see it. If I did see it, I didn't answer it. If I did answer it, I lied. Having crested the tender age of 55, it is increasingly difficult for me to deny that middle age is right around the corner. But other leopards with significant lifetime accomplishments have changed their spots --- Albert Schweitzer abandoned a career as a university scholar and world-class organist to enter medical school in his thirties; Michael Jordan is now trying to slam dunk outside curve balls; Jeffrey Daumer has modified his diet. I'm a little older, but the principle is still valid, I hope.

And it's not like there's much riding on this, either. Not like the PGA golfer some years ago who supplemented his income by robbing banks. "You think you know what pressure is?" he said as they led him away in handcuffs. "When Nicklaus lines up a putt, he knows that if he misses it, it'll cost him $50,000. I'm thinking that if I miss this damned putt, I'll have to go out and rob another bank."

So in a few weeks when my learning curve begins to describe a flat line (or worse), and the AMI instructors are drawing a chalk outline around my body, who'll know, aside from maybe 75,000 people? It could be worse; I could be Clarence Thomas.

The day is warm. A storm rises miles out at sea. I am sitting on my bike near the front door of AMI, thinking about the last time I appeared to argue a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, a farm team for judges on their way to the Supreme Court. Warren Burger came from that bench; so did Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.

Sitting on the panel are Harry Edwards, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Clarence Thomas. Destiny is awaiting Ginsberg and Thomas, though they don't know it. She will skate right up the Big Court, being a Gyno-American with no dirty laundry, but Thomas will spend days defending his taste in porn movies to a captivated audience the length and width of the globe.

I glance at my watch. The first class of the first day starts in five minutes. The butterflies in my gut begin to flap about. It's always the same. The heavyweight lawyers say that you should start worrying when the butterflies go away. Just get the first words out without mangling anything: "May it please the court . . . "

Change places with Clarence? Live that life? Feel the shoes filling up with blood again? Sunday night cramps?

I don't think so.

I walk toward the front door of the school.

Next Report, Days 001-025: The Motorcycle: What Are It? (90k)

For more information on the Iron Butt Association e-mail [email protected] or send snail mail to: Iron Butt Association, 6326 W. Grace Street, Chicago, IL 60634 U.S.A.

© 1994, 1995, 1996, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois

Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute any of these documents, or portions therein, without the written permission of the Iron Butt Association.

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