American Odyssey II

In the summer of 1939, on the eve of the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen, 16-year-old Jack Newkirk drove a battered Harley-Davidson motorcycle across America. After serving honorably in the Pacific, Jack returned to raise his family in Evergreen, Colo. More than six decades later, his son, John, resolved to recreate his father’s journey and find the innocence the country surrendered so long ago.

atlasA meticulous man, John prepared meticulously. Scouring eBay, he obtained a 1939 State Farm road atlas and a collection of 66-year-old state road maps. He carefully studied the histories of the 1939 World’s Fairs, exhaustively cataloguing their visions, their compositions and their objectives. He amassed hours of music – American, European, Japanese – that had been popular on the eve of the 40s and became thoroughly, remarkably versed in the social, economic and political conditions that existed in America and the world during the golden summer of 1939. He intended to make the journey as authentic as 21st century realities permitted.

Allowances had to be made, of course – his riding gear was new. For his trip, John collected a pair of thick leather chaps, stout leather boots and a heavy leather jacket. If the heat became oppressive, he would switch out the jacket with a leather vest. In place of goggles, he bought a strong, visored helmet and instead of army blankets he obtained modern outdoor gear.

pandaBadgeWhile his jacket offered excellent protection against a fall on rough asphalt, it was also emblazoned with patches, like talismans to invite good luck on his way, or give perceptive passersby clues to his mission. On one shoulder was a circular patch bearing the likeness of a panda, the unit badge of Scarsdale Jack’s Flying Tiger squadron. On his other was a patch depicting a sphere and obelisk, symbolic representations of the dreamlike Trylon and Perisphere, mysterious and cultic to most in this day and age, but weighted with meaning for John. Another simply directed “Honor Thy Father and Mother.” Thus armored, he began looking for a Hog.

Had it been remotely possible, John would have tracked down his dad’s original 1930 Raspberry, but instead had to make a last accommodation to progress. He saw an ad placed by a Denver contractor with a Harley that he didn’t really want to sell. That fellow, apparently, owned a boat, a jeep and a motorcycle and his wife decided three was a crowd. John offered him $19,000 for the machine and, glumly, the man took it. Jack became the owner of a 2003, 100th Anniversary Edition black and silver Harley-Davidson Road King Classic motorcycle. He dubbed it the Blackberry because of its color and because it didn’t hurl insults as it motored along.

2003_harley_davidson_flhri_road_king_classic_in_canandaigua_ny_100411242105669467John’s plan needed some tweaking before it was road-ready. For starters, 5,000 miles on the back of a bike would strain the constitutions of men much younger than Jack. Father and son would, therefore, meet on the road and ride together for only a portion of the crossing. In addition, circumstances and personal goals made following Jack’s route in reverse advantageous, so John would start in San Francisco and head east toward Corona Park. Finally, because John had personal and professional responsibilities that would have made 19-year-old Jack shiver, John would make the trip in stages, parking the bike at wide intervals, briefly returning to Evergreen, and taking off again.

The last bit of preparation John undertook was to wire his jacket for sound. He meant to record the long trek for his family, and he found an ingenious way to do it. He hid a pair of microphones (Bike-raphones, he called them) inside hollowed out buttons attached to the lapels of his illustrated jacket, with cords running down to a small digital recorder in his pocket. By this expedient, he could maintain an easy verbal log of the trip and capture the unaffected wit and wisdom of the Americans he met.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 12, 2005, the Newkirk family rose early. John had hoped to get off at dawn, but his father arrived and made pancakes and sausages for everyone. Then, after breakfast, his daughters Mandy, 5, and Katie, 3, became deeply involved in polishing the chrome on daddy’s motorcycle. They knew something exciting was happening, but couldn’t have understood the morning’s deep currents. At 7:30 a.m., John climbed aboard the Blackberry and the engine rumbled to life. With a last hug and a wave, he pointed his front tire west, continuing an epic journey that began 66 years before.

nevada1John made 450 miles the first day, more than a third of the way to San Francisco. His current leg was a ferry trip; he’d drop off the Blackberry, return to Evergreen and return in a couple weeks to start the ride in earnest. For authenticity’s sake, he stuck to two-lane highway whenever possible, which was pretty much always. He also started employing the American Biker’s Salute – a vaguely Romanesque gesture involving striking and pointing – whenever meeting another two-wheeler. Cruising along Highway 50 through Utah and Nevada, the temperature pushed 130 degrees and squadrons of Mormon crickets swarmed on the shimmering asphalt.

Arriving in San Francisco four days later, John’s first stop was Pier 33, the great cement launching pad for countless soldiers and sailors bound for Pacific battlegrounds. Standing before the pier’s massive concrete façade, John felt triumphant. His father had shipped from here, as had Scarsdale Jack, venturing over the blue horizon to green islands stained red with blood.

We won, John thought. The Emperor’s men did their level best to destroy all the American forces in the vast Pacific and, faced with American resolve, failed utterly. They’d managed to kill Scarsdale Jack, but not before he’d made a profitable accounting against them. They’d tried in vain to kill his dad, but Jack Newkirk and his comrades had proven more than the equal of their enemies. Standing in the bright sunshine, a warm ocean breeze washing over him, John felt a powerful confusion of anger, elation, satisfaction and superiority. We won, you bastards.

Pier33Unexpectedly, there were a number of limousines and media vehicles parked near the entrance to Pier 33, and John decided to investigate. As he approached, a policeman moved to head him off. Dressed in dusty, leather road gear, John wasn’t expecting a warm reception and his misgivings deepened when he saw that the officer was Asian-American. This is a private event, the cop said, you’ll have to move along. When John explained that he’d come a long way to visit his father’s embarkation point, the officer considered for just a moment before waving him in.

On the other side of the pier, a group of Japanese monks was assembled – old men, mostly, dressed in robes and solemnly praying. They stood, heads bowed, in front of a shielded vessel containing a small flame that traced its fire back to the inferno that engulfed Hiroshima in 1945. A few of the holy men were survivors of that holocaust, and they’d come to America on a mission of hope. It was from Pier 33 that the components of the nuclear bomb that erased Hiroshima had started their voyage to Japan, and it was from Pier 33 that the monks would escort the flame on foot to Trinity Site near Alamogordo, N.M. – ground zero of the world’s first nuclear detonation – where it would be extinguished, eloquently expressing their hope that the threat of atomic arms will one day end.

One of the Hiroshima survivors addressed the crowd, offering prayers, not only for the Japanese dead, but also for the Americans who died in the war. He didn’t chastise the United States for using nuclear weapons, and he didn’t excuse Japan for its responsibility in igniting the war. He merely implored all people – leaders and citizens, alike – to reject the hatred and intolerance that killed millions on both sides of the ocean and recognize their common humanity.

As he spoke, one of the monks lifted his head and caught John’s eye and smiled a warm, genuine, welcoming smile. It seemed to John almost as if the old man knew his thoughts, sensed his hostility and understood it and asked him to let it go. To John, it was like a dash of ice-water. His righteous anger bled instantly away, leaving him contrite and faintly ashamed. Those men, he saw, were not the enemy; negative attitudes, preconceptions and stereotypes were. Clinging to resentments left over from a war that ended a half-century ago served no purpose but to demean the sacrifices made in the pursuit of peace.

Chastened, John climbed aboard his bike and rumbled slowly back down the waterfront, past a forest of lofty gantries and cranes busily hoisting mountains of cargo. To sea, enormous freighters plied the bay’s calm water in a stately stream of commerce, decks piled high with goods from around the globe.

treasure_island1Treasure Island is desolate, now, betraying no sign of its former celebrity. A sizeable naval facility was established there during World War II but decommissioned years ago and, as far as John could see, everything had been abandoned in place. Dirt, rust and disorder were all that remained of the Golden Gate of 1939. He set out from Treasure Island on July 16, the Blackberry freshly serviced and the breadth of America in front of him. Reversing his dad’s course, he headed north into Oregon and then swung east, following the mighty Columbia into the nation’s heart.

Using his vintage State Farm atlas, John sought to travel only roads his father had ridden in 1939, a surprisingly difficult proposition. While many of the old routes are still in service, others have been rerouted to meet new demographic demands, some have been replaced by interstate highways and still others have simply been abandoned to decay. More than once, while tooling along a modern stretch of highway, John discerned a vague fold in the ground that tracked off into the prairie and recognized it as the weed-choked remnant of the original route his father had used. More than once, spying the rusted hulk of a mighty iron bridge that led nowhere except into the past, he realized that his father had crossed the ruin 66 years ago. Still, by careful planning, creativity and intrepid nature, John managed to stay remarkably true to John Sr.’s itinerary.

Once, stopping for the evening, John fell into conversation with an elderly widow working an information desk. The two chatted easily and the woman was astonished and delighted to learn about his grand quest. In parting, John asked if she knew of a place where he could erect his tent for the night. A lawn, a park, a parking lot – anywhere he wouldn’t be rousted would suit him just fine, he said. She wouldn’t hear of it, and insisted he come stay in her guest room. He enjoyed a soft bed, that night, and a hot breakfast in the morning.

Wherever possible, John kept his speed to 43 mph, the point at which his father’s machine became more-than-ordinarily hazardous. Frustrating at first, he soon found the slower pace enabled him to experience the landscape more completely, to contemplate the lush pastures, shady river bends and quiet hamlets along the way instead of roaring past in a blur. America, he saw, really is beautiful. Purple mountains are majestic, and the Columbia River is certainly mighty, but the tranquil countryside, far removed from airports and strip malls, had an almost magical appeal. The vastness, the richness of his country was staggering. At 43 miles per hour, he had plenty of time to observe the slow ballet of thundering combines as they harvested the nation’s bounty, and plenty of time to read every one of 25 Burma Shave signs lining the way.

opera1While his primary mission was to cover ground, John readily spoke to everyone fate threw into his path, telling them about his journey and learning about them, in return. He paused on a sidewalk in Moscow, Idaho, listening to a lovely university student sing for tips. Standing beside the trash bin where she’d tied up her dog, the girl belted out operatic numbers without accompaniment and John, an opera enthusiast, recognized her as a fine talent. She’d auditioned for American Idol, she said, but hadn’t made it past the first cut. She broke into a hauntingly beautiful aria; “Nel cor piu non mi sento, brillar la gioventu.” – “My heart has lost its feeling, and the fire of its youth.”

Jack flew up and met John in Bozeman, Mont., on Aug. 3 and the two set out – John in front and Jack riding shotgun – for Sturgis, S.D., to catch a few days of the annual motorcycle rally there. Though he’d been over the territory once before, little was familiar to Jack. The roads he’d traveled had been widened, paved or moved, and the sleepy towns he’d passed through had grown and changed. Gas cost more than $2 a gallon and breakfast five bucks. When Jack stopped at Mount Rushmore in 1939, the face of Teddy Roosevelt had just been unveiled, and he marveled at the changes wrought there in the intervening years.

The two rode easy, covering whatever ground was comfortable, and when it grew dark they pitched a tent and slept. They bathed in streams and let the sun bake them dry, and they talked to the people they met along the way. They began to see each other as friends, as men, as companions of the road. Though father and son, they were also comrades adrift in the heart of the country.

A retired Montana farmer was one of just two people John met who recognized the Trylon and Perisphere on his jacket and knew their significance. Now 88, the soft-spoken old man had hitch-hiked to Flushing Meadows as a young man to see the world of tomorrow for himself. He and Jack found much to discuss.

sturgis2They arrived in Sturgis on Aug. 7, the first day of the festival. Jack was astonished by the appearance of the town, but then anyone would be. During the weeklong rally, some 600,000 motorcycles descend on Sturgis and neighboring communities, packing every street, every parking lot and every field with sleek, metal riding machines. Someone not familiar with biker culture could find it unnerving, but the Newkirks were perfectly at ease and Jack, in particular, was embraced wholeheartedly by every one of the hundreds of bikers they met.

At the Sturgis motorcycle museum, Jack found an exact duplicate of the Raspberry, though perhaps it’s not fair to call the pristine display model the twin of Jack’s perilous ride. An appreciative crowd gathered as Jack recounted the curious habits of the antique motorcycle, its troublesome characteristics and vexing deficiencies.

While all were naturally delighted to hear about Jack’s exploits aboard the Raspberry in 1939, most were far more impressed by the navy patch he wore on his own leather riding jacket. Motorcycle culture, John discovered, contains a strong element of patriotism, and his father’s honorable service in WWII earned him immediate and unreserved respect. Thus welcomed, the Newkirks spent three agreeable days in Sturgis before moving on down the highway.

In Rapid City, S.D., after a week and 1,200 miles spent sharing companionship, adventure and the freedom of the American highway, John and Jack parted company. Jack flew back to Colorado and John, with two-thirds of his pilgrimage still undone, turned the Blackberry toward the eastern horizon.

John became increasingly amazed by the quality of the citizens that populate flyover country. In the heartland, God and country aren’t formless abstractions; they’re a way of life. Outside of urban centers, he found, most Americans exhibit their patriotism with enthusiasm, showing a unity of national spirit and purpose that he’d never experienced.

Matt Lyons was proud to explain his operation to the stranger on the motorcycle. A former ski racer turned gentleman farmer, Lyons was bringing in his 1,000-acre wheat crop using a pair of combines and a handful of hired hands. John marveled at the efficiency of the harvest and the mountain of grain collected. Only in America, he thought, with its fertile soil, matchless technologies and limited government interference, can a single man produce a hundred times what he consumes. Lyons’ crop, though small by American standards, would feed multitudes.

In every city and every town, John found healthy debate in progress. Signs, placards and bumper stickers denounced the political left or right from coast to coast, and polar opinions about America’s involvement in Iraq shouted from countless front yards and business windows. Tones were strident, positions irreconcilable and yet, to John, the whole business seemed astonishingly civil. There are places in the world where a careless word can mean death, where holding unpopular views leads to imprisonment and even torture, where differing philosophies are resolved by civil war. How fortunate, he thought, that Americans can stand in principled opposition to each other without bloodshed.

churchFair1In early September, he stumbled upon a church in the rural community of Stryker, Ohio, where local citizens were holding a fair to raise money for victims of hurricane Katrina. An enormous table on the lawn was deeply laden with homemade jams, cookies, cakes and pies and all were being auctioned off at ridiculously high prices. The good people of that small hamlet raised thousands of dollars in one afternoon and had a wonderful time doing it. It was one of many such charitable events he witnessed on his long road.

On Sept. 15, as John rode up Interstate 295 from Baltimore, he didn’t see another motorcycle on the highway all the way to New York. In mid-afternoon, under gun-metal skies, he peeled off the thoroughfare in Flushing Meadows, drove beneath a mammoth overpass and emerged into the stillness of Corona Park.

 Nel cor piu non mi sento, brillar la gioventu. When Jack Newkirk had come here in 1939, the eyes of America had looked to this place and seen the wonders of the future gathered together, a gleaming model for an America reborn. Looking around Corona Park in 2005, John Newkirk Jr. saw only neglect and decay, unfulfilled promises and fallen grandeur. The Trylon and Perisphere that had symbolized the 1939 World’s Fair were hardly a memory, the grand pavilions that had welcomed millions just crumbling wreckage.

Unable to reach his father on the phone, John fell deeper into melancholy. He’d ridden thousands of miles to stand here, carefully planned every aspect of his trip in the hope of tasting for himself the golden summer of 1939 and here, at the far end of his vision, the white light that had epitomized that brilliant season was dimmed, tired, shabby. And so, he feared, was his country. Corrupted by affluence, weakened by extravagance, wracked by dissent, perhaps America had passed its zenith and was slipping inevitably into mediocrity. Maybe the country’s future was Corona Park. John climbed back onto the Blackberry and drove away. He had one more duty to perform.

newkirkGraveIn a well manicured Scarsdale cemetery, beneath a canopy of ancient oak and birch, stands a weathered gray headstone marking the final resting place of John ‘Scarsdale Jack’ Newkirk. John planted a small American flag on the grave of his ancestor and stood back, lost in thought. So many men had died for his country, so many others had surrendered their youth to provide a future for his generation. What had their sacrifices won?

He considered the endless droning of academics, pundits and Hollywood celebrities denouncing America as unjust, the condemnations of comfortable, privileged people who see their own country as an evil empire and think their countrymen unworthy of praise. Do they really know their country? Have they seen it up close and met the good citizens who inhabit the wide reaches?

John had witnessed America’s marvelous bounty, seen the thriving commerce that flowed into San Francisco’s immense docks like a tide, driven through measureless fields of grain that feed his country and much of the world. He’d been awed by infinite tracts of fallow land lying atop untold mineral riches and great industrial districts producing manufactures of every kind in staggering quantities.

And he’d perceived a nation filled with loyal, energetic, God-fearing citizens, protective of their neighbors and generous to strangers; decent, honorable, hard-working people who held definite views on their government and their society, yet remained respectful of contrary voices.

Above all, he’d met proud citizens who believed in the United States and never doubted its basic virtue or its promise. There was little wailing and gnashing of teeth in the heartland, just resolute faith in America’s fundamental merit and gratitude for the blessings of liberty. Two centuries of tumult had cost the nation its youth, certainly, but its heart still beat with profound feeling, and its animating fire burned like the sun. In the vast sweep between oceans, John had seen the strength of America, and it was very strong.

Standing before the grave of his namesake in the growing dark, John concluded that it isn’t contempt for one’s country, but pride and optimism that create positive change. America’s vehement critics and nay-sayers, he thought, merely diminish what is good without constructive effect. That’s why the old Japanese monk had come to America, and it’s what he’d wanted John to understand. It requires a belief in the future to ensure a future, and, all across the country, people believe.

Pondering that, John’s depression melted away like April snow, leaving him buoyant. Attempting to capture the brilliant summer of 1939, he’d discovered a brilliant present, a nation more splendid, industrious and dynamic than he’d ever imagined, and even as he’d grown closer to his father, he’d grown closer to his country.

The legacy of Jack Newkirk’s generation had not been lost; it had been realized beyond all expectation. If Corona Park had fallen from its majestic zenith, it was because the nation no longer had need of its hopeful message. To see the promise of 1939 fulfilled, John had needed only to open his eyes.

John Newkirk climbed aboard the Blackberry and the engine roared to life. It was a long road back to Evergreen, thousands of miles of America to explore. It was the end of the golden summer of 2005 and, as John Newkirk rode into his inheritance, in every direction he saw he saw a bright horizon.



Originally published in the Canyon Courier, May 2006

American Odyssey

This is the first part of a two-part story about two men, two motorcycles and two golden summers. Setting out on a coast-to-coast journey, last July, Evergreen resident John Newkirk hoped to glimpse the grand America of his father’s youth. Along the way, he discovered a nation and a people more magnificent than he’d ever imagined.


John Newkirk stood alone in Corona Park, a neglected expanse of trees, gravel paths and stillness in Queens, N.Y. A few hundred yards away, broad expressways roared with traffic and energy and purpose, but the park lay empty, desolate. It was the afternoon of Sept. 15, 2005 and, overhead, solid ranks of dark clouds marched inland from the Atlantic forming an endless, dreary ceiling that dulled colors and pulled the horizon in close. Clad in dusty leathers, the 43-year-old Evergreen man had driven his motorcycle more than 5,000 miles in preceding weeks, tracing a wandering course across the country with the single goal of standing exactly where he now stood. He should have been elated, he knew, triumphant. Instead, he was overwhelmed by a powerful melancholy.

The deserted park bore little evidence that, in the summer of 1939, it had been the center of the American universe. In that gilded year, as the deprivations and uncertainties of the Depression began to fade and the nation looked ahead to a future bright with promise, America hosted not one, but two glorious World’s Fairs, and the greatest had drawn millions to what is now Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

trylonPerisphereMoving along weedy paths, John came to a broad cement ring buried in the ground – an empty reflecting pool. Above it loomed an open-sided globe fashioned of rusting metal rods and representing the earth. In that place, 66 years ago, the Trylon and the Perisphere had towered over thrilling crowds, vast geometric constructions whose dagger and orb silhouettes were familiar to people around the world. Together, they had symbolized man’s mastery of science, industry’s burgeoning might, undreamed-of prosperity for all. America was burning with optimism, then, and limitless possibilities beckoned from near horizons.

The Trylon and Perisphere are long gone, now, replaced by a tarnished globe and a shabby, littered cement basin. So many hopes unrealized, John thought, so much vitality wasted. Elsewhere in the park were moldering concrete ruins, pillars and lintels and shattered walks, slowly disappearing beneath creeping vegetation. They were all that remained of grand, gleaming pavilions where excited multitudes once viewed the assembled miracles of a modern age.

John’s thoughts turned to an axiom that says human societies are locked in an inflexible cycle of growth and decay. A nation, once lifting itself from tyranny into the light of freedom and affluence, inevitably lapses into apathy, dependency and, finally, descends back into darkness. Like anyone else, John was accustomed to the daily drumbeat of negativity, censure and defeatism that plague the nation. America is hated by countless people in foreign lands and is esteemed little better by many of its own citizens. Hatred, injustice and poverty flourish here, loud voices say, and problems near and far are the fault of American arrogance, ignorance and greed. Every day, it seems, new evidences of relentless national corrosion are revealed. Surveying Corona Park, a dilapidated precinct that had once shone like the very light of heaven, John sank deeper into desolation, unable to shake a terrible certainty that his country had passed its zenith long ago.

A song he’d heard on his travels sprang into his mind.  “Nel cor piu non mi sento, brillar la gioventu” – “My heart has lost its feeling, and the fire of its youth.” Was that America, he asked himself? Are we a nation in decline? Have we nothing to look forward to but deterioration, demoralization and dishonor?

Almost without thinking, John took out his cell phone and dialed his father. It seemed very important, just then, to hear his dad’s voice. John ‘Jack’ Newkirk Sr. had come here in 1939, had seen the golden aura that Corona Park wore like a crown, had witnessed the vibrancy, the surety of a younger America. John’s father had known the country when it was proud, strong in arms and will, a shining light in a benighted world. There was no answer on the line, and John was left alone in the fading light with bleak thoughts of the future.

“Somewhere over the Rainbow,” was a big hit 66 years ago, a hopeful tune hinting at a better place awaiting the patient sufferer. It was the musical centerpiece of “The Wizard of Oz,” a wildly popular fantasy movie bearing the unmistakable message that fair skies follow the storm and the true heart can weather all adversity. “Gone with the Wind” was another blockbuster, that year, promising that “tomorrow is another day.” In 1939, such encouraging sentiments were very much on every American’s mind.

Emerging from the depths of the Great Depression, the country was making up for lost time. National energy was boundless, industry was booming and people were going back to work in droves. The papers were filled with reports of astounding advances in science and medicine, and the long interval of peace following the end of the Great War seemed like it would go on forever.

At the start of 1939, few doubted that a new age of peace and plenty was dawning, a rebirth of the American Dream, a new beginning for a weary nation. Even fewer could have imagined that, on Sept. 1, their rosy expectations would be crushed beneath the tracks of German tanks rumbling into Poland. The euphoria and blind optimism didn’t survive into 1940 but, while it lasted, it was glorious.

worldsFairNYTo bolster public confidence and spur economic recovery, President Franklin Roosevelt pressed for two World’s Fair sites in 1939. One, sited on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and dubbed the “Golden Gate International Exposition,” was intended to focus national attention on the tremendous commercial opportunities on the west coast. Organizers envisioned San Francisco as the hub of an immense American trading empire encompassing the entire Pacific Ocean and every nation of the Far East; a Golden Gate, as it were, to the riches of the Orient.

The second, in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., was christened “The World of Tomorrow” and highlighted the stunning technological progress sweeping the country. The microwave oven debuted there, as did the copier and the computer. Roosevelt addressed the opening day crowd on live television, the first president ever to appear on that wondrous medium. Forward-looking scientists predicted that someday soon everyone would own an automobile. Urban highways, they told disbelieving crowds, would require as many as six lanes to accommodate the crush.

The 25 million people who visited Flushing Meadows to view the marvels that lay just around the corner gaped in awe at the two mighty symbols of the New York fair; the Trylon and the Perisphere. Essentially a sharp, lofty spire and a huge geodesic globe, the pair looked impossibly modern – fitting icons of the better world ahead.

In 1939, young Jack Newkirk was a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and like his father, Burt, a senior researcher for General Electric and professor at Rensselaer, Jack seemed destined for a life of comfortable respectability. But he was 19 and the buoyant tide sweeping the country was impossible for him to ignore. Thirsty for adventure, he conceived a bold plan – attend both World’s Fairs and, in the process, see America from sea to shining sea. His parents weren’t crazy about the idea but Jack, with the audacious cunning of youth, assured them he would present himself at the metallurgical laboratories and companies along his route. It wasn’t a lark, really – it was career reconnaissance. It’s unlikely his folks actually bought the argument, but it was a shrewd ploy that achieved its purpose. Jack was on his way.

He bought a motorcycle, a battered 1930 Harley VL Big Twin, for $40. It was a huge, noisy, irritable machine that required major attention before it could be considered road-worthy. He named it the “Raspberry” for the rude noise it made while running.


The kit he assembled wasn’t uncommon for bikers of the day. He wore a cotton helmet on his head, leather boots on his feet and a stylish pair of military puttees, the trousers favored by his two-wheeled brethren. He donned a bulky pair of goggles in place of a windscreen and, when he took off in early summer, he carried a couple rolled-up army blankets, a State Farm road atlas and $45 in his pocket.

His first destination, Flushing Meadows, was a relatively easy jaunt but, while the Trylon and Perisphere were amazing, the pavilions splendid, the crowds exhilarating, there was too much road ahead, too many adventures to dawdle so close to home. He headed west, into his country.

An exploration of such scope required much of Jack, who was little more than a boy. For starters, the Raspberry demanded constant attention, breaking down almost daily and pressing his ingenuity to the limit. It threw oil like a lawn sprinkler and suffered regular, progress-impeding carbon surpluses. In operation, the entire bike shook like thunder, loosening bolts and wires as it rattled along. At speeds over 43mph, the effect became terrifying.

Slowly, though, he became adept at diagnosing and correcting problems using only his wits and whatever makeshift tool was handy. The Raspberry’s ignition was troublesome, sometimes pre-igniting and hurling Jack’s legs into the air, sometimes shirking its responsibilities altogether. One rainy night east of Pierre, S.D., unable to start the bike, Jack tore into the ignition with a rock which, incredibly, fixed the problem. There were plenty of others, of course and, of 51 days on the road, the Raspberry provided trouble-free service on 3.

Moving farther west along the narrow, two-lane ribbons that knit America’s coasts together, Jack’s education continued. His wasn’t the only motorcycle on the road in 1939, and occasionally he’d meet another free spirit and the two were immediately united in a brotherhood of the road. Most were like Jack – young, devil-may-care, living on a shoestring – and they would ride together for a time before taking leave. He learned to get the most out of his $45. A hot meal could be had for 15 cents, and he could fill the Raspberry’s tank for 50 cents. At night, he camped in farmer’s fields or beneath any likely tree, and if it rained he strung a battered tarp from anything that presented itself. He bathed in creeks and ponds and let the sun bake him dry.

Jack passed through Sturgis, S.D., on his way west, just another little town lost in the vastness of the country. Just weeks later, a handful of motorcycle enthusiasts gathered there to hold a rally. The group was about evenly divided between Harley riders and those who preferred the Indian motorcycle product. It was the very small beginning of something very big.

Nomads like Jack were unusual but not unknown in the American heartland, and most viewed them as objects of interest, novelties to provide a few hours of interest before disappearing over the horizon. Some folks took Jack home for a meal, a few offered him a roof for a night, almost all were fascinated to learn he’d seen The World of Tomorrow and would shortly stand before the Golden Gate.

Whenever possible, Jack picked up hitchhikers. The economy was improving, yes, but there were still many thousands who sought work wherever they could find it, and Western highways were filled with migrant farm workers who’d left their homes and families to labor in distant fields for poor wages. Those with the nerve and light baggage were glad for a ride on the back of the Raspberry, rattles and all. Listening to their stories, Jack gained valuable insight into the difficulties facing so many of his countrymen, and he came to admire their patience and steadfast faith in the future.

SFworldfairJack reached the San Francisco fair in mid-July and spent exactly one day sampling its diversions. After driving alone across the breadth of a continent, such contrivances could not hold his interest and he wasted no time launching himself back onto the road. The journey, he’d discovered, was its own reward and America’s vastness held endless fascinations that no dog-and-pony show, however grand, could match.

By Sep. 1, 1939, Jack was back in New York, much the better for wear. He’d grown up during that magnificent summer, become more confident and self-reliant. He’d seen a big part of his country, the breathtaking mountains and measureless plains; he’d come face to face with fellow citizens from very different walks of life – nearly all of them patriotic, resourceful, kindly, devout, resolute people – who expanded his understanding of the nation and the small part he played in it. The country was rich, he saw, in land, in beauty and in hope. Of dangers and predicaments there’d been many, but he’d faced each as it came and now felt ready for anything.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies exploded into Poland, igniting a blaze that threatened to consume the world. The heady optimism that animated the American public would soon give way to anger, fear, and a desperate sense of urgency. The marvelous new age, the glittering world of tomorrow, would have to wait. The nation had enjoyed its brief season of hope, but now it, too, would have to grow up.

Jack returned to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, earned an engineering degree in metallurgy and went to work for Bethlehem Steel. With America’s entry into the war in 1941, he closely followed the exploits of a famous relative – John ‘Scarsdale Jack’ Newkirk, a man seven years his senior and dedicated to the bitter struggle against imperial Japan.

scarsdaleJackScarsdale Jack had also attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, married, and enlisted in the army. After carrying a rifle for three years, he transferred to the Navy for flight training and was assigned to the aircraft carrier Yorktown. Seeking more direct engagement with the enemy, he volunteered for the illustrious “Flying Tigers,” an elite formation that harried the Japanese in Southeast Asia, and soon rose to command a squadron of Curtiss P-40 “Tomahawks.” He wore a panda badge on his flight suit, one of three symbols associated with the outfit, and in short order racked up 10 confirmed kills. He was a hero at home and the pride of the Newkirk clan. Gallantry and skill, though, are not antidotes for the routine tragedy of war and he died on March 24, 1942 – his young cousin Jack’s birthday – when his plane crashed during a strafing near on the Burma Road. He was 28. Soon after, Jack Newkirk quit his job and enlisted in the Navy.

As America fought brutal wars on two fronts, gasoline and rubber became scarce and motorcycles suddenly became prized conveyances. Jack managed to sell his battered machine for a princely $125, enough for an airplane ticket back to San Francisco where he reported for duty at Pier 33, not far from Treasure Island. Remarkably, the noisy, smoking, temperamental Raspberry had taken Jack across the country a third time.

Because of his engineering background, Jack was selected to learn the fine points of de-gaussing, an arcane exercise in which current running through huge electrical coils is manipulated in order to de-magnetize seagoing vessels, rendering them unappealing to enemy mines. In 1943, he shipped out of Pier 33 for the turbulent South Pacific where he put those skills to good use.

As American forces bludgeoned their way toward Japan, Jack studied the secrets of gunnery and fire control, tasted the exhilaration of scouting and the excitements of explosives. As an educated man, he was allowed to experiment with shape-charges, a relatively new development in military ordnance.

Like most men in uniform, Jack was in for the duration and looked forward with dread to the day the Japanese home islands would have to be invaded and was jubilant and relieved when the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compelled a Japanese surrender and spared him that deadly task.

When Jack mustered out in 1946, there was a hint of the old enthusiasm of 1939 at large in the country. Two dangerous and powerful enemies had been vanquished, in great part by the strength of American arms and the valor of American soldiers, and the United States stood astride the world, a superpower without peer. Millions of men, returning from distant battlefields, used the GI Bill to attend college, purchase a home and start a family. The promise of one golden summer a million years ago was about to be realized.

Transformed by his experiences in the Pacific and grateful to have survived the typhoon, Jack pursued life with a passion. He earned a doctorate in metallurgy from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, which is also where he met Carolyn, the woman of his dreams, and the two married in 1951. He easily found work as a General Electric researcher at Cornell University and was later offered a Fulbright fellowship to continue his education at King’s College in Cambridge, England. For Jack Newkirk, the horizon seemed to stretch to infinity.

In 1965, the University of Denver asked Jack to be chairman of its physical metallurgy department and he accepted, moving with Carol to Colorado and settling in Evergreen. Those years, and the ones that followed, were filled with happiness and plenty. The couple’s oldest boy, Jeffrey, was born in 1959, followed by John Jr. in 1961 and daughter Victoria two years later. Their last child, Christina, was born in 1967. Jeff was 19-years-old when he was murdered in Los Angeles, and the other three Newkirk children remained in Colorado, close to their parents and each other.

The decades since World War II have been good ones for most Americans, but not without turmoil. The 1950s seemed nothing short of the dream of ’39 realized, with abundant jobs, increasing comfort and vigorous national pride. Even the bloody and all but unnoticed Korean War could shake the general belief that the good times were just beginning to roll. It took Vietnam and the civil rights crisis – sparking a surge of public skepticism, social instability and pessimism – to do that. For many Americans, the government became the enemy and the national military services their long and malevolent arms, oppressing the American people and committing injustices abroad in their name.

To a lesser degree, the same currents continued to flow through the United States in the years that followed. A large and vocal segment insisted that the national virtue – if it ever existed – had been irretrievably lost. Others contended that America was founded on injustice and such a nation could never be cleansed of that stain. The country seemed increasingly divided by religion, political philosophy, social perspective and vision for the future. Men and women still fought and died in distant lands, but far fewer of their countrymen celebrated their sacrifice. Reading the daily headlines, one could easily come to believe that Rome was eating itself, being consumed by its own corruption.

During all the peaks and valleys of 60 years, Jack remained firm in his veneration of America and its people, unswerving in his admiration for the soldiers, sailors and airmen he served with long ago and unceasing in support of the men and women who now serve in his stead. In the golden summer of 1939, Jack met his country and fell in love with it; four years later, he thrust himself like a shield before his country’s enemies and helped win freedom for the generations to follow. America repaid his devotion with a rewarding career, a beautiful family and the countless advantages of United States citizenship. He may not have supported its every action and policy, but Jack never doubted – not for a moment – his country’s greatness.

John Newkirk Jr. grew up in Evergreen believing in America’s greatness. It would have been difficult to reside in the house of John Newkirk Sr. and do otherwise. He heard stories of his father’s wartime service in the 1940s, the steaming pacific islands, the terrible urgency and the noble fallen. He listened to tales about his illustrious namesake, Scarsdale Jack Newkirk, of his patriotism, heroism and untimely death in service to his country. His dad told him about America’s desperate unity in the face of enemies east and west, about the millions who took arms because they believed in the cause of freedom and about the freedom those Americans had won for him.

Like all sons and fathers, John and Jack butted heads from time to time, but the stories and the history they represented left John Newkirk Jr. with an abiding respect for his father and his flag, and a fierce pride in a name that had been worn with honor by two brave men in America’s darkest hour.

His father rarely spoke of his escapade aboard the Raspberry, but John badgered him until he’d heard the stories many times – the cranky motorcycle, the magnificent fairs, the intoxicating freedom of the road. He reveled in tales of the helpful farmers and townspeople and the itinerant workers on their lonely way to distant fields carrying little but hope for the future. In John’s mind, his father’s ancient adventure assumed mythical proportions, like a page from a medieval romance. As much as anything, John thought of his dad’s trek as a vision quest, a rite of passage, a spiritual journey from youth to manhood.

When he reached the appropriate age, John attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He studied computers, returning to his hometown in the Colorado foothills in 1983 and launching a successful computer systems engineering business. In 1996 he married Melissa, the woman of his dreams and, by 2004, his family had grown to four with the addition of two daughters.

arlingtonIn that year John’s father, Jack, was 84 and swiftly approaching his own horizon. Long retired, he was content to take joy in Carolyn and their children and grandchildren and reflect on a life well-spent. He enjoyed the incomparable meadow view from his living room and he lived – as he always had – with dignity and honor. When an old friend and fellow WWII veteran died the previous summer, he was sad both for the loss of a companion and that one more of his comrades, who had fought with him long ago and shared his unique store of memories and attitudes, was gone. Such men were becoming rare.

For John, the death was a wake-up call. Since returning from college, he’d been a busy man – starting a business, raising a family – and he’d had little time to become close to his dad. Though the two men lived just a few miles from each other, John had never taken the time to learn about his father as a man and a friend, to gather his wisdom and experiences. It now dawned on him that, sooner or later, his own father would be gone from his life and the years that remained were precious.

There was a specific moment – though he couldn’t say exactly when – that an ideal solution occurred to John. Simply, he and his dad would re-create Jack’s feat of long ago. They would ride across the country on a Harley Davidson and relive together the glorious summer of 1939.

The journey would be a gift to his father, a chance for him to turn back the clock, appreciate the long vistas again, and see the land he had fought for; to travel the paths of his youth. Equally important, it presented an opportunity for father and son to spend increasingly valuable time together, to learn about each other and grow close as only two men on a mission can. In a very real way, John was doing homage to John Sr. and the men and women who built the modern nation. Finally, it would give John a chance to see for himself what he’d inherited from his father’s generation.

Once conceived, the adventure quickly became John’s passion, a dream that visited his sleep each night and lingered in his waking mind. The Odyssey he contemplated would require much of John in both time and treasure, but the potential rewards were infinite.


Next Week: Inspired by Jack’s youthful adventure, John takes to the road in search of America’s golden summer of 1939.