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.
A 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.
While 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.
John’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.
John 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.
Unexpectedly, 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 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.
While 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.
They 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.
In 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.
In 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