I remember the moment with total clarity. Probably because it was the moment when my life changed. I was barely 16 years old and, up until said moment, my entire life was all planned out. I was already on my way to university — yes, I was actually smart once — to become an engineer. Once finished in a record three years — yes, I was also a precocious little prick — I would apprentice at a local automaker, impress one and all with my encyclopedic knowledge of internal combustion and, with all the certainty of youth, I knew I would then rescue Chevrolet’s engineering program, develop an emissions system that would be clean and make power — these were the ’70s remember — and displace Zora Arkus-Duntov as Mr. Corvette. That was the plan.
Then along came the February edition of Cycle magazine and, as the Yiddish proverb proclaims, God laughed.
Actually, I laughed. And laughed and laughed and laughed. You see, after I got through “The Ten Best Buys in Motorcycling” and a road test on the Suzuki T500K — The best of the Ten Best — I got around to reading Ed Hertfelder’s latest Duct Tapes. Now, you must understand, I had absolutely no knowledge of Hertfelder’s New England. I was also much more a motocrosser, albeit lightly talented, than the expert enduro rider he obviously was. Nonetheless, halfway through “Unaware in Delaware,” I was hooked.
Oh, the jocularity started out mildly enough. Like so many gifted writers, Hertfelder’s self-deprecating style started slowly, but he just seemed to be pacing himself. Whatever the case, it was all just a build-up to the sentence that changed my life. In fact, 44 years and six months later, I don’t even have to consult the manuscript to quote it verbatim:
“Do you know how embarrassing it is to be racking through a turn 80 miles into it, steering with your back muscles because that’s all you’ve got left, and some infant on a Tecumseh-powered skateboard takes you on the outside, the little bastard steering with one hand and picking his nose with the other?”
By the time I finished that sentence, I knew I wasn’t going to be an engineer. I was going to crash motorcycles into trees. I was going to, in the best description I have ever read of the trials and tribulations of off-road motorcycling, flip water-sogged Bultacos over onto their handlebars and then spin the sparkplug-less engine with the rear wheel, all so I could have “the engine turning over about 750, sounding like a Mississippi stern wheeler trying to make St. Louis before the girls took on the all-nighters.” I was going to be, there was not a doubt in my mind, Canada’s Ed Herftfelder.
Oh, being a good mother’s son — my mom, like all mothers, insisted I at least train for a “real job”— I still went to Carleton University. I learned Laplace transforms, excelled at finite element dynamics and, uhm, “attended” thermodynamics classes. But, my heart was never in it. I never again dreamed of dyno testing or relieving connecting rod stresses.
Luckily for the new plan, I graduated right in the middle of a real recession — you know, where interest rates hit 18 per cent — and in 1981 and there was not an engineering job to be had. There was, however, a motorcycle magazine called Cycle Canada, so after one particularly drunken weekend — young, unemployed engineer; who’d a thunk it? — in Toronto, I visited our then–Jarvis Street offices and the rest, more than 35 years later, is history.
Over the years, I would always, however, return to that issue of Cycle. I’d read the very same words over and over again with not a hint of ennui. I even managed to work a few Hertfelder quotes into some of my stories, my favourite always some variation of “Who’s to blame a guy if he picks up the wrong gloves when he’s got 50 calories between him and death? How do I know this? Easy. When you get down to 50 calories, you don’t see in colour anymore; everything is in black and white.”
Unfortunately, somewhere between a divorce and buying a new house, my dog-eared copy of February 1974 disappeared. I am not exaggerating when I say I was heartbroken. Every couple of years, I would comb through the (literally) thousands of motorcycle magazines I own, hoping, beyond hope, that I had somehow made a mistake the dozen or so previous times I had already searched through every issue. The last time, just two years ago, the disappointment was just as poignant.
Then an amazing thing happened. You might know it as Amazon. As it turns out, Mr. Hertfelder chose to reprint his Ulysses in a 2003 compendium called 80.3 Gas Available. I won’t tell you how much I paid to have to the autographed edition shipped expeditiously, but if Mr. Hertfelder had been paid as much per word throughout his career as I paid to once again live vicariously through his adventures in Delaware, he’d be richer than Jeff Bezos.
Now, here’s the absolutely best part of this tale. Ed Hertfelder, 90 years young, is still writing. He pens a monthly motorcycle column for City Bike magazine in San Francisco. The wit is still biting, the perceptions still razor sharp. Oh, the tales he tells of hot-footing it through mud bogs or banging through New England woods are a little tired, but the prose and the ability to weave a compelling story line are as keen as ever. In a career that must surely span more than 60 years, he is still relevant.
Once again, I find myself hoping I can be Ed Hertfelder.