If it had not been for Ardie, I might never have been born. Like some adopted children precede natural ones, Ardie came into my parents' lives several years before I did. It was my mother's idea, and when she saw her in the Wanted Section in the newspaper, she talked my father into at least taking a look. "But I don't know how to drive a motorcycle," said he, a quiet, outwardly boring man; bookkeeper by profession, poet for passion, ardent chess player for enjoyment. My mother contributed what he lacked: She was practical, enterprising, and abounded with joie de vivre. The eldest of five children, she had taken over her father's milk delivery business when he was drafted into World War I in 1914, and for four years supported the family from age 14. My father, the youngest of ten children, of whom only six survived, had been spoiled by older sisters who dressed him as a doll and combed his long, blond curls --so the story goes—till his first day of school. He had been a bachelor in his mid-30s when he got married. "You can learn!" asserted my mother. She had enjoyed her jobs as private cook and bank teller before meeting my father . She now felt bored as a housewife and unfulfilled without a child. My father did not want children who would destroy his peace and tranquility. Ironically, while I, a perfect child who never cried, proved the exception to this notion, the new family member totally changed their lives.
The new family member was a 1927 Ardie motorcycle with a for-the-times powerful 500cc British J.A.P. single-cylinder engine. The former owner, who taught my father to drive her, had reluctantly yielded to the wishes of his ladylike wife who had refused to wear pants and mount the rear seat. My mother, who wore pants on and off the motorcycle, cajoled my father into trips further away from home. And she gradually kindled his spirit of travel and adventure, although he still regarded Ardie's outings strictly as material for his writing. As he putt-putted along at traffic-slowing speeds, he made mental notes for his travelogs. From her much higher seat behind him, my mother pummeled his leather-clad back and shouted into the ear hole of his leather helmet, "The motor sounds funny again! We need oil! Stop at this station!" and other words of pragmatic advice. In 1936--she was 36, he 43 years old--my mother had finally persuaded him to the biggest adventure of their lives. At that time, crossing the Alps on a motorcycle and dealing with four different countries, their currencies and regulations, was no small venture. My father would later elaborate on all their adventures and misadventures in his book, "Vom Niederrhein zum Lido," (from upper Rhine to Lido, Italy), which he had bound in the leather jacket my mother wore on the journey. More than the many breakdowns, running out of money in Switzerland (where my father left her behind in the hotel to pick up the cash he had stored across the border) and many more calamitous episodes, my mother remembered idyllic days at Lake Constance in Switzerland where my father must have lowered his guard; for unbeknownst to my parents, I joined them there for the rest of the trip.
Therefore, it is not surprising that I would later love mountains, lakes, nature in general, traveling and horses. Why horses? I considered Ardie, dubbed "Iron Horse" by my father, also my first horse. And not only in my limited embryonic mind. Buttoned into Mother's leather jacket, I rode along when I was only six months old, sleeping contentedly to Ardie's sonorous lullaby. My word for her, "Tooo-tooo,” opened my vocabulary long before I ever uttered "Mama." According to Mother, I could hear the sound of the heavy engine blocks away--long before she did--when we waited in the street for my father's arrival from the garage. "Tooo-tooo" stayed soundlessly on my pursed lips until Father roared into sight, usually before dawn, alerting late weekend sleepers in our quiet neighborhood to our imminent outing. People would shake their heads or even their fists when they saw my small head peeping out from Mother's jacket. "Gypsies!" was one of the least offensive words they shouted.
But even small trips into surrounding towns soon came to a halt with the impending arrival of World War II in 1939. Fuel for private use was no longer available. Father stored Ardie in my grandfather's shed, where she collected rust and cobwebs for the next ten years. With the task of picking up our lives after the war becoming top priority, plus Father's inaptitude of dealing well with mechanical difficulties, much rather Ardie's innate obstinate nature--Mother's description of both their characters--it took Father several years before I got to enjoy riding the ancient motorcycle . Since neither Mother nor I had been consulted nor encouraged to participate in the restoration project, she was aghast when Father presented the licensed Ardie to us one day; he had painted the fenders grass green. She looked like a gigantic frog. The square leather saddle seats were replaced by more comfortable modern ones; but according to Mother, the ratio of Ardie's gas to Father's sweat while trying to kick-start the reluctant creature into life was still 50/ 50.
I loved clutching Father's back like a monkey while riding behind him on Ardie. Submersing myself into the sensations of wind, noise and blurred sights, unbeknownst to my conscious self, I must have re-entered my earliest life sensations. Both Father and I usually took bicycles to work and to school because the Ardie served for recreation rather than transportation. But on the rare occasions when some circumstance made it necessary for him to take me to school by Ardie, despite curious and even derisive looks by my classmates, I felt proudly loyal of both Ardie and Father, who never rode Ardie except in his special attire of leather gloves, jacket, helmet, knee-high boots, and face shield. Since Mother and I had to take turns, he bought a sidecar for me. Mother did not relinquish her position of control, being able to command both of us from her high seat. We mostly traveled what Father considered "safe streets," slow country roads or downtown traffic, which at the time included as many bicycles as cars. I reversed the removable sidecar seat to where it pointed backwards, waved with feet and hands at drivers briefly behind us--even fast bicycles passed occasionally, and sang full-throated, but due to Ardie s more resounding voice, inaudible folk tunes and drinking songs.
Father's inadequate mechanics of coupling a modern sidecar to an ancient motorcycle almost cost me my life once when the struts collapsed, and we veered straight into a light pole. Fortunately, the pole caught us between sidecar and motorcycle, like a knife cutting through bread. Father, who had walked Ardie home under many such adverse circumstances, hardly mentioned the incident to Mother, who had not been with us. Belatedly, she loudly voiced more concern for her only child than for Father or Ardie. I don't remember the exact words , but she referred to both of them in very unflattering descriptions.
Father had retired Ardie to a friend's barn before he himself retired and I had emigrated to America. In 1963, on my first visit home with the entire family after Fred 's university graduation, when Sherry was 4 and Kenny 3, Father proudly showed us Ardie. Fred, in his innate fascination with all things mechanical and motorized, was intrigued. "If I had her in America," he told my father, "I'd fix her up and drive her." Father remembered the words and pondered the possibilities in his mind. Three years later, when he made arrangements to ship Ardie to Georgia, where we were living at the time, everybody told him he was crazy. My parent s had visited us in Florida and now made plans for a visit to Georgia; we had meanwhile lived in California, Pennsylvania and Canada. Despite Father's stroke, which left him with the mind of a child, Mother did not change their plans. He witnessed Ardie's arrival and seemed pleased. But Fred did not get it running before his return to Germany, where he died two weeks later. When Mother came for her next visit, Fred took her for a ride on Ardie. We moved her with us to Missouri, but sold her ten years later to a collector of antique motorcycles before our move to Illinois 22 years ago.
I understand that he still has her in running shape in his collection, but I didn't see her recently among the ancient cycles of an antique motorcycle meet. Most of these antique machines had traveled there by trailer and were restored to better-than-new perfection. None were of Ardie's vintage. And I doubt that they could touch her history, her 'character,' or her impact on the lives of their owners.