by Tammy Lee Cook
“Wow! That was close” I thought while Ricky deftly swung our chopped
Triumph Bonneville back into our lane in a long graceful arc just inches
in front of an old station wagon ponderously leading a parade of slow
moving cars and half a heartbeat ahead of an oncoming truck.
I lost count of the near misses when we blasted by at least a dozen cars
so closely that the fingers of my right hand brushed at least one of
their filthy fenders. The warm mid morning May air shoved aside by the
oncoming truck violently buffeted my bare arms and forced me to wrap
them around Ricky’s waist just as he shifted “Bonnie” into fourth gear.
Here in the wind, the tangled traffic of our life together was no more
than a minor annoyance to be flown around in a blur of motion and blaze
of noise. Although measurable only by heart beats and inches life was
once again ours to ride. This was just fine with us.
After the rush accompanying our passing each long line of cars, I
administered a swallow of wine to each of us from the goatskin flask
held steadied against the wind blast and squirted into wide open mouths.
Then I would lean back against the sissy bar, squeeze Ricky between my
thighs and together we would groove on Bonnie’s joyous defiant song
bellowing from her open exhaust pipes. This weekend we were traveling
light and moving fast with no more than the minimum stashed in our bed
roll tied across Bonnie’s handlebars. I had remembered to pack insect
repellant, suntan oil, spare underwear, and hidden our stash, a dime bag
of pot, in the green military utility bag worn on my belt. With two six
packs tied to the sissy bar and our goatskin wine flask slung over my
left shoulder, I was determined to make this beach weekend completely
memorable. It was our last before Ricky went to Vietnam...
I met Ricky near the beginning of my High School senior year when I
brazenly approached him in the school parking lot and told him I really
liked his bike. Tall, muscular, with soft brown eyes and longish hair he
was easily the biggest and strongest guy on the wrestling team and even
more interesting to me, rode an old Triumph Tiger Cub motorcycle. He was
known around school as someone not to mess around with and had a
reputation for finishing fights started by others.
Soon he was riding me home from school after practice and hanging around
our house. My step mom began inviting him to stay for dinner and best of
all, my Dad, with whom mother sent me to live when life with my step
father became utterly intolerable, and Ricky hit it off right away in
spite of Ricky’s leather jacket and longish hair. Daddy was more than a
little mechanically challenged and Ricky proved adept and willing at
fixing the lawn mowers and garden machinery.
Ricky’s grades were not great and his graduation prospects uncertain.
Worried, his Dad offered him a new motorcycle in exchange for
graduation. This suited me just fine and my mission was perfectly clear,
Ricky had to graduate. So we spent most of our senior year together
actually studying when we weren’t out riding on his old Tiger Cub. My
scheme worked out perfectly. I did my homework while Ricky was in
wrestling practice, rode with him to my house on the Tiger Cub and after
dinner helped him with his homework and study for tests. During our
graduation ceremony we both clumped across the stage wearing huge grins
with boots and jeans under our gowns. Afterwards we skipped the parties
and roared off to the beach on a very sweet, almost new 1968 Bonneville.
We moved in together late in the summer before I began college. Ricky
started a job with a building supply company and for the next few months
we giddily started a life together. I felt content and secure for the
first time in my life and Ricky seemed to smile every time he looked at
me. Then, as with so many others living in that time, the Vietnam war
and the draft exploded our tranquility.
Ricky was one of the last drafted into the Marine Corps and our first
and only major fight was over whether he should go into the Marine Corps
or move with me to Canada. I both furiously resented the interference
into our life by others and detested the thought of being left behind
without him. Ricky hated walking away from a fight by leaving the
country and wasn’t certain he would even see combat. To make my point, I
even went so far as to find some used leather saddlebags for Bonnie and
loaded her with all our stuff while badgering him into moving in with
some of my distant relatives in Quebec. The more we argued about it the
more determined each of us became until late one night in utter
frustration I stormed out of our tiny basement apartment and sat in our
favorite spot along the river crying by myself. I sat cold and angry on
the bank until I heard his quiet footsteps behind me and felt myself
engulfed in his gentle arms. While laying with tear filled eyes in his
arms and with both of us bathed in the late autumn moonlight, I guiltily
realized that this wasn’t only my life to ride, it was his as well.
Ricky left for training after Christmas and took with him my stubborn
refusal of his marriage proposal. I missed him desperately and yearned
to go to his training camp just to be near him. But in the end I stayed
behind and continued my next semester of school. I was in shock from the
realization that what I dreaded most had come to pass. My life went on
hold and I marched through the endless dreary winter days studying,
working in a Suzuki shop and writing him as often as I could. Bonnie was
now my only tangible connection with Ricky and our former life so I rode
her everywhere I could. Ricky returned once for two precious weeks of
leave and near the end of May was sent to Vietnam.
That summer while the anti-war protests spiraled relentlessly toward a
thundering climax, I found myself embracing each of his letters while
shuddering with horror at stories in the press of a place near where he
was stationed called My Lai. He wrote me that his officers kept them in
the bush most of the time to avoid the awful morale in the rear. In
June, I sent him a chocolate cake for his nineteenth birthday and he
wrote me fondly about his squad and how they took care of and depended
on one another. Feeling awful after he wrote that Marines only received
fresh water and food every three or four days while the Army had hot
meals flown into the bush every day, I sent him Kool-Aid to improve the
taste of his water and cookies to improve his morale. I felt even worse
as the summer wore on when I realized, from so carefully reading each
letter over and over, how death and devastation in that horrible far
away alien place was hardening his open heart with cynicism.
His last letter arrived with the start of school. Hurriedly written just
moments before they marched into a valley of dry rice paddies surrounded
by mountains to try and rescue a group of Marines that had been sent to
rescue the Army but had themselves been ambushed in a terrible battle,
it told of three young children who brought NVA ammunition to the Marine
Landing Zone in hopes of selling it for cash. When the children were
paid and long gone the booby trapped ammunition blew up and killed a
Ricky was just three months “ in country” when the worst letter of all
arrived and almost stopped my life completely.
“Dear Tammy” read the letter written in a strange hand. “I’m sorry to
have to write you this. Ricky was killed Sunday afternoon....when our
squad came under mortar attack while on patrol... Saturday night during
a break in our march he talked about you and his motorcycle and how much
he loved you and missed riding with you. He was the best buddy a Marine
could ask for and was always there when you needed him, we’re going to
miss him but not near as much as I know you do...I know his parents will
be notified and he asked me to write you if something happened to
him..... My deepest sympathies.........G”.
Before going overseas Ricky sent me a green field jacket with his name
and USMC stenciled over the pockets so that I’d have a warm sturdy
riding coat. I cherished that jacket and wore it proudly every day. So I
was deeply hurt and confused by the angry taunting and evil stares my
jacket brought from the war protestors at school. Not one of them ever
bothered to ask me about the war nor cared what I held in my heart. The
war, the protestors, and our indifferent government soon too filled my
heart with cynicism. I will never ever understand why those that fought,
those that died and those that loved them seemed so hated and eagerly
Ricky, like too many others, never had the opportunity to ride his life.
He left me with his jacket, shoe box of letters, a dime bag of pot, USMC
Zippo with “Da Nang 1969” engraved on the back, a chopped Bonneville and
a heart filled with memories.
past Memorial Day after riding with at least one hundred thousand other
bikers to the Veteran’s Memorial during Rolling Thunder, I carefully
placed in front of panel 18W; the Zippo, an open pack of Camels and a
picture of me on my Triumph looking back over my shoulder from one of
our favorite country roads along with a note that read:
“Ricky, you’ll ride with me always. I promise I will never forget your
smiling eyes, impish smile, soft voice, gentle touch and honest heart.
You gave me the most precious gift anyone could ever receive; A life
that is mine to ride...”
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Story copyright© Tammy Lee Cook, All Rights Reserved