Wheels

We walked almost everywhere we went. And even after we got wheels we still walked a lot. And we even chose a hobby–hiking–that demanded a lot of walking. We would often walk down to Rajpur to get to Dehra Doon when we could have caught the bus. And we even walked down there after we got wheels. 

But wheels, anything with a motor and could carry one or more people, ah, that was of great fascination. 

The first vehicle that we had any access to was the mission jeep, a ‘53 Willys station wagon. That jeep was shared by the 10 or so families in our mission. And, as I have recounted elsewhere, that is the vehicle we learned to drive in. Once we were caught hotwiring that thing, we were actually smart enough not to try that again. But having tasted of the sweet nectar of self-propulsion there was nothing we wanted more. 

Dad met a man in Portland, Oregon, on furlough named Roy Lowry, a successful businessman. He heard dad speak at a church and invited him to their home for dinner and in no time they became bosom buddies. The Lowrys were motorcycle maniacs and they particularly liked motocross. After hearing that my folks had no vehicle at all he asked if a motorbike might be useful in the Himalayas. You bet! After dinner he invited dad into his garage and there arrayed before him was a stable of motorbikes, 8 in all. He was told to take what he needed. Dad had no idea of what to pick. So, Mr. Lowry picked a couple for him. He chose a 272 Villiers Cotton, which he used for off-road racing, and a 55cc Yamaha trail bike. 

Dad was ever so grateful. But nowhere as grateful as his boys were when they arrived six months later in India in a crate. Four would-be motorbike enthusiasts stood milling around that crate, each one eager to be the first one to crank it up. Five, if you counted dad. Mom was dubious about anything without four wheels. Two wheels fall over. Four wheels don’t. All she could see was scrapes, bruises and broken bones. 

The Villiers was fast. The knobby tires were designed to go through dirt and mud. It had no headlight, no brake light and it could flat git. The Yamaha was tame by comparison. You could wear a skirt (not that we ever wanted to) and not have to straddle the gas tank–a step-through sort of thing. There was a fairly simple way to convert it from normal riding (small rear sprocket) to mountain riding (large rear sprocket), which took about ten minutes. We just left it on the mountain mode. 

The bikes were really His and Her bikes. One for dad, one for mom. Dad would use his to go to the office. Mom learned to ride hers and used it to get to the hospital and back. Dad was born to ride and had no trouble at all. Mom, on the other hand, had no idea whatsoever. She had never driven anything in her life before, not even a car. Now, steep hills and narrow roads are really not the ideal location to try to teach a novice how to ride a motorbike. It is a tribute to my dad’s patience and my mom’s perseverance and the Good Lord’s sense of humor that she learned and did not kill herself. 

Off she would go, way too slowly, wobbling because she did not have enough speed. We stood there, hands on our heads, wincing, convinced she was going to kill herself. She did burn her leg on the exhaust pipe once, but that was about it. It was not mom that was in danger of killing herself. In the meanwhile when dad was not using it, that Cotton became fair game for Gordy and me. Ahh, the thrill of screaming up the hill on a bike designed to scream up the hill. 

Yes we took a few corners too fast. Lesson: look for gravel on the road before banking that far over. Yes, we had a few scrapes. Lesson: skin grows back. Yes, we had a number of close calls. Lesson: if you are going to kill yourself, do something spectacular, not stupid. I remember leaving Kishan’s garage in Dehra, rounding a bus and (fortunately I was going slowly) smacked square into the side of a cow. The cow went down. I went down. Concerned people rushed over…to make sure the cow was OK. I t scrambled up and ambled off. Nobody checked on me. The expression, “holy cow” is not an idle idiom in India. 

About a year after we got the motorcycles dad bought a ‘52 short wheel based Land Rover from the Maharajah of Tehri Garwhal. Dad had to go over to Narindernagar, above Rishikesh, the Maharajah’s winter home, to fetch it. The price was right, but it had been badly maintained and needed to be gone through–new brakes, new clutch, tuned and timed, tires, paint, and so on. Dad also had a rack put on. All the repairs took a month and when it finally arrived we were half way to heaven. Cream top, green bottom. The black and white plates proudly announced USQ 110. We could hardly believe our good luck—a 4 wheel drive Land Rover, and two motorbikes! 

Two years later the Yamaha was giving clear signs of giving out. The hills, the strain on that little 55cc engine (I believe I was the first person to ride a motorbike down on Hanson Field) was causing it to smoke and loose compression. The fear was the thing would go kaput. When dad was given these motorbikes no thought went into what we would do for parts. Neither of these bikes was then available in the Indian market which meant there were no parts for either one. Up to this point that was not too much of a problem as Indian garages are exquisitely creative when it comes to functional alternatives or actually making something to replace a part that is unavailable (or too expensive, if available). 

But the Yamaha was clearly dying. It needed an overhaul. And it was our good fortune that very year that a Yamaha plant had opened in Ludhiana, a couple hundred miles away up in the Punjab. These bikes looked exactly like ours, except they did not have the trail feature. It was proposed that I take the bike down there and see if they could rebuild the engine at the factory. Great idea! So, early one fine day, in late November of ‘66 after going down day, Steve Schoonmaker and I rolled up our sleeping bags and a change of clothes (placed inside the sleeping bag) and headed to Ludhiana on the Yamaha. We got down the hill OK. We got through the Siwaliks OK. We got to Saharanpur and the thing started acting up a bit. We nearly got to Ambala and the bike broke down. We hailed a lorry and with a little help threw the thing up on top of the load in the back of the lorry and got into the town of Ambala and pushed the bike to the train station. We bought tickets, rolled the bike into the baggage car, and rode the train into Ludhiana. 

Ludhiana was the location of one of the premier mission hospitals in India (the other one being Vellore down hear Madras, now called Chennai). If some kid at school lived in Ludhiana it generally meant his dad was a doctor. When we got to the station we asked where the hospital was (not that far away) and pushed the motorbike to the hospital. The Garsts were out of town but their servants let us in and we stayed there. We had no invitation and they were not expecting us, but this was not as unusual. It was the type of open hospitality we had grown up with. 

The next morning we pushed the motorbike to the Yamaha plant. The plant itself was actually fairly small. They did not manufacture anything here, just assembled the bike. We met the head of the plant, Mr. Kagawa. Nice chap. In fact, very accommodating. He listened to our sad tale and then got some of his men to take the engine apart. In a couple of hours they had it apart and repaired, as best they could. At least at that point we had wheels again. Mr. Kagawa asked us to come back the next morning while he looked for parts to overhaul it. 

The next morning we showed up at the appointed hour. Mr. Kagawa invited us into his office, a spare, orderly and clean office, a change from what we were used to (offices stacked high with files and paper and cobwebs and a spittoon in the corner that was as frequently missed as hit, splattered with gouts of betel juice). Mr. Kagawa’s desk was large, wooden, and polished, with a writing pad smack in front, complete with blotting paper (when we used ink in those days we had to have blotting paper nearby). Apart from the writing pad there was only one other single object on the desk–a paperweight with no paper under it. He had informed us that the problem was simple. We needed a new piston and rings. We had a 55cc Yamaha. What he assembled here was the same motorbike, but 50cc. The pistons he had simple would not work in our bike. 

As he was talking he paused and glanced down at the paperweight.His normally inscrutable face had just the hint of a smile on it. He picked it up and scrutinized it. The hint of a smile lengthened a tad. We continued to sit there patiently. He reached down to one of the lower drawers and pulled out a box. He set the paperweight on the writing pad and opened the box. Several sizes of micrometers were in it. He took one of them and dialed it out and placed it over the paperweight. 

It was at this point that Steve and I realized that his paperweight was actually a piston. And he was measuring the diameter of the piston. The smile was actually showing his teeth at this point and he looked up and said, “I can not believe it, but this piston is a 55cc piston. I brought it with me from my desk in Japan.” 

He was so pleased to have found something that would work he actually laughed out loud. We were simply too stunned for words. It was like watching some kid play with a truck part in the middle of nowhere in Botswana where your truck’s gearbox has broken down and you need a particular gear and realize that the shiny object the kids are playing with is the exact and precise part you need (which actually happened recently to some missionaries there). Without delay and without a single paisa of cost to us (even though we offered) he promptly had the engine overhauled. Several hours later we were on our way. 

Our trip back took us through Chandigarh. We arrived near dusk and ate at a dabha on the outskirts of town. As we were paying we asked the cook if there were any angrezis (Europeans, which includes Americans) in the area. We thought the Lathams still lived in Chandigarh, but we had no idea how to locate them. The cook pointed to a house we could see from where we were sitting. Once we had paid we drove over to the house he had pointed out. 

We drove up the gate and the chowkidar came out. We asked for the people that lived there. He disappeared. In a bit out came a rather surprised American woman. We asked if she new where the Lathams lived. She asked why. Because we needed a place to spend the night. And who were we? We told her who we were and where we were going and all the whys. All of this chatting was through the gate.

It happened that the Lathams were no longer in Chandigarh. This dear woman then invited us– a couple of total strangers, a bit grubby–to spend the night with them. We were ever so grateful. It also became clear that she thought 1) we were awfully young to be tooling around India on a motorbike; 2) we had no idea of the dangers out there; and 3) our parents needed to be reported to the child protective services if they had such a thing in India. 

We had fresh sheets. A clean bathroom with running hot water (not at all common then). It was heaven. Thank you ma’m. 

We almost made it back. Almost. The motorbike started acting up on the other side of Rampurmandi, so we heaved it onto a bus and got to Dehra Doon. We left it with Kishan, our mechanic, and took the bus back home. 

Walked up from the bus station. Gone four days. 

Wheels were great when they worked. 

And when they didn’t it was an adventure.