Women Riders PDF Print E-mail
Written by BMWVMCA NEWS   
Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Women Riders

(Submitted by Barbara Betjemann)

The author of the article is Marilyn M. Mockus, mother of Clay Mockus, the current owner of the former police 1950 R51/2.

I always think I have led a spectacularly ordinary existence, especially when I read in the obits (a habit of folks my age) about people who seem to have had such interesting lives.  So…when my son tells me I should put some of my memories onto paper, I am amused, but when Barbara Betjemann urged me to do the same, I wonder: is it possible that there really is anything unique or  interesting for me to say?  They tell me there is.  They tell me I lived through an era of post-WWII at a time when people were shaking off the wartime shackles and seeking adventure and the open road…..and the open sky.

Although almost no one I see now is aware of it, I was once called “hot rod girl” – which is really a misnomer – when I got my first motorcycle helmet – an ugly brown unattractive ant-hill of a headgear, and moved from the passenger seat behind the operator to my own seat on a second-hand 350 cc Jawa.  I loved that bike, more, I suspect now, because it was the vehicle for the greatest freedom I had ever experienced; certainly it was not for the reliability of the machine as I seemed to be always in the outer circle – beyond the men clustered around it, trying to find out why it wasn’t running.  Everybody had a different idea, and I often ended up leaving the Jawa with a friendly farmer and taking back my old seat behind the ‘real’ rider as we continued on our way to a Gypsy Tour.

My husband had just swapped our airplane for a Harley Sportster  and gone back a couple of eras to motorcycles again.  He had been through several metamorphoses from horses to bikes to race cars to airplanes – and now back to motorcycles again.

The horse era had been short-lived.  Joe, then very young, exercised and groomed and mucked out the stalls, but there was too much mucking and too little exercising.  The owner was an old man called Pop – an unimaginative sobriquet – who had a ready hand at the buttocks of every young lady who rented a nag to ride through the park, and he always had an off-color description for “girls who rode horseback.”

From horses to motorcycles was a short trip.  It was during the 1930’s, at the aftermath of the Great Depression.  Nobody had any money, cars were expensive, and neither the horse trade nor setting up pins at the bowling alley was anything but a low-wage job – but a second-hand beat-up bike could be had for a few hundred dollars, especially from some ex-rider whose newly married status had given him an ultimatum to “get rid of the bike.”  Wild girls loved to ride on them, but married women realized the potential danger and laid down the law.  The fun stopped at about age 25 and wouldn’t start again until after a divorce or two, but it was a sure thing for young men in their late teens and early 20’s to pick up where the older men had given up.  They rode in groups and they went everywhere.  Their mothers said God speed and hardly ever saw them again.  Their feet touched the ground only to enter the bars and saloons along the way.  A few women rode with them, but they never had their own bikes; they attached themselves to one of the group and were written off by their families.  Most of those early bikers wore leathers and caps with visors, but Joe preferred Navy bell-bottoms and leather aviator helmets with the chin straps hanging free.  He cut a very glamorous figure.  His friends were as wild and crazy as he was and some of them didn’t make it into middle age.  One of them came around the turn at the Cozy Corner in Kennebunk, Maine, and ran head-on into the old railroad bridge; another one called Bug Eyes hooked up a  hose to his bike’s tail pipe and sucked his way into eternity. Despite all the fun and games, there was a palpable aura of black camaraderie and sadness – they were young, had little education and not much chance at a future – and the fun was wearing thin.  They had been born into hard times.

As soon as it was possible to save up enough money for a car – also second hand and fairly inexpensive – the survivors moved into something like a stylish Stutz Bearcat, and changed into dudish clothing, complete with brimmed hats.  All males except little boys wore hats.  It’s noticeable when men wear them today, as noted by the sinister appearance made by Jack Abramoff in his black fedora.  Joe’s sisters, who also ran in packs, were forever begging him for rides to the beach with a bunch of their friends, and on the way home one day he drove by an airport, watched the planes take off and land, and said to himself….’that’s for me.’  But that was long ago, and it would be a long time before that dream became a reality. 

Some time in the late 40’s, he learned to fly at a small grass field on Plum Island with a small office building and one hangar and became part of a close knit community that flew by day and played poker into the night while I, who had just been introduced to this crew as Joe’s girlfriend, went hungry…..they never seemed to need food as long as there was a bottle handy.  Soon after this, the crew moved the operation into a much bigger place in Portsmouth, N.H. which eventually became a tiny spot within the Pease Air Force Base.  The owners were old-time seat-of-the-pants fliers, the youngest just out of the military.  They never used parachutes, the idea being that if one did so, he wouldn’t be as careful as those who eschewed such a back-up.

[Joe was working at the old Morley Button Factory in Portsmouth. and that is where I met him when I was sent there by the Employment Office to fill a secretarial position.   I had just recently left the Navy Yard at the end of the war and was living at the “Y.”  A new company in the factory was making a ‘newfangled’ product called Ravo, a soapless washing powder which was soon to be known as ‘detergent.’  The materials were shipped in from Twenty-Nine Palms in California, and filled the place with a white powdery mist that became the basis for a joke, when a young African-American employee declared that he had become a “white man.”  I guess you could call Joe a sort of itinerant workman who went from one ill-fated job to another, with a spattering of knowledge of mechanics and electricity.  He had been persuaded to move from the Boston area by the owner – a dapper white mustachioed man resembling the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel, a wheeler-dealer with his wife’s money, and looking for cheap labor.  The ‘colonel’ had extolled the virtues of the move by telling Joe, who was reluctant to leave Boston, that he would be going to “God’s Country.”  Also being installed was the owner’s wife’s sister and brother and brother-in law (who believed, and probably rightly so, that the other two were spying on him). Others hired were Spanish-speaking Mr. Torres in charge of Shipping, who proudly built multiple files and compartments out of old cardboard boxes for his office; a janitor named Eric who was a survivor of a German concentration camp, the numbers indelibly etched on his arm; and a drunken chemist called Dr. something, who had ostensibly created the formula for the product.  The factory was old with squeaky wooden floors and a gigantic self-operated freight elevator that took the workers to the basement floor where they amused themselves by shooting craps.  Helen, from the Boston office, was sent up to see that everything got off the ground properly.  She was a street-wise middle-aged woman who always wore a hat at work and who read the racetrack sheets each morning while smoking at least 3 cigarettes. The owner’s pimply-faced son came around occasionally to steal the stamps and re-sell them.   I was getting a new education in the working world.]

But long before the Air Force Base swallowed up the airport, the dream of ownership became possible.  Joe, being Joe, didn’t want a little Cessna or Piper; he coveted a big ex-war plane – a BT (basic trainer)  13-A that was up for sale at the airport where he received his pilot’s license, so we cashed some war bonds and the plane was ours for $800.  Think what it would have been worth today!

The Vultee trainer – we called it The Vulture – was a two-seater with open cockpit where anything dropped from my girly purse landed in the belly of the plane, never to be seen again.  I am embarrassed to recall that I always wore nylons and high heels and dresses, but that’s what girls did back then.  The plane had a two-pitch prop and a 450 hp Pratt & Whitney engine and when that beast crawled its way into the atmosphere, gnawing and snarling, it made a frightful noise that scared off Joe’s daughter, who never would and never did set foot in it while it was running.  Those days were not as far back as the true barnstorming days, but we were still able to see some fancy biplane aerobatics and even wing-walking at the Air Shows where we kept our flying monster.   At one show, Joe drove a Jeep across the field while one of the airport partners landed a small plane on its roof for a few moments and then flew away.  That stunt was a high point of the show.

During those years Joe also became part-owner of a stock car, with partners from the airport – Joe, of course; Earl, who worked as a mechanic; Skip, the young pilot; and Tony, who was learning to fly.  Putting the initials of their first names together: J.E.S.T. they named the car, and took turns driving it in local events.  Tony’s wife and her nephew, Earl’s wife, Skip’s girlfriend and her daughter, and Joe’s daughter and I went to all the dirt-track races in all kinds of weather, and came back to eat where Tony lived with Josephine and her mother with only the whites of our eyes visible in dirt-covered faces.  It was a fun weekend change from airborne to the earth.

My real home was in Kennebunk, and one time we flew the plane into a tiny field in back of the Water Company, surrounded by tall pine trees, and went to visit my parents.  Looking back at the big plane in the tiny space, it was in both of our minds that we might never get it out of there……but we did, although even now I wonder at the improbability of it.  It shook, it rattled, it balked at what was asked of it, but it loved the sky and clawed its way up, just barely clearing the trees.

The Ravo business had sold out to some company like Proctor and Gamble and moved its enterprises back to Boston.  Joe worked for awhile on the building of a new road, and I remember one trip in our old car in which I sat over a box of dynamite stored under the seat.  We got new jobs.  We moved to Maine. The airport was no longer nearby and Pease Air Force had taken over the property- and much more- to build a big base.  Furthermore, aircraft gas had become ever more expensive, and one day we had the Harley Sportster in place of the plane – a clean swap, he said, no money exchanged, and this is where he jumped back a couple of eras.  Soon the Harley was not quite right; he had seen a red 4-cylinder Indian and “wouldn’t die happy unless he had it.”  So I talked the bank into giving me a loan for the $500 and we went wild buying a furry red cover for the big buddy seat and other embellishments.  I thought we would have it forever, but later it was sold to a farmer-collector in Westbrook, and when I say collector, I mean a person who collected them in his barn, along with the cows, covered with hay and the detritus of years, but never apparently either rode them or worked on them.

It was during the same time that we had the big Indian that I became the owner of the snazzy little second-hand Jawa that was so responsive at take-off, but so often failed me on the long haul.  The kids called it Junky Jawa.  But it was mine and I wouldn’t give up on it.  I learned to ride it by paddling around the side of my grandfather’s barn and ducking under the clothes line.  My mother was aghast that her daughter would even think of riding this thing – she was fearful that I would come to harm, but I had always been a goody goody girl and was now ready to take that chance.  I was one of the first women in my area to ride a bike.

I say ONE of the first, because Sophie Goodrich was surely the first!  As a young woman, Sophie had decided to buy a motorcycle but she didn’t know how to ride one.  She went to the local motorcycle shop and challenged the owner (who was, not insignificantly, John Goodrich) to teach her to ride and she would buy the bike.  She did, but shortly after that she was struck by a car, suffering damage to her vocal chords.  The doctors said she would never be able to speak, and it is true that she had a somewhat gravelly voice thereafter, but speak she did, and one of the things she said was “Yes,” when John, who had visited her in the hospital every day, asked her to marry him.

Sophie rode anything with wheels – two, three, four, it didn’t matter.  One of the visions I treasure of her is being at her house when she had to run an errand.  The only machine available was a sidecar rig and it was raining.  She grabbed the first piece of headgear she found – which was a smart little hat with a veil, more suitable for church perhaps – and took off down the road.  Sophie never cared about appearances, and she was generous to a fault – everyone within her sphere was invited for dinner and there was always enough. Her marriage to John produced 11 children, all born at home with the assistance of their father, and yet she was always ready to include a few more at her table.  She was, however, very jealous of John who was a decade older than she, and was always checking up on him at the shop, especially if there were any women around. 

By this time, John had become a bit of a local character.  He was now looking grizzled and disheveled, but Sophie still found him irresistible and thought every other woman did too.

He had sold and repaired Indians at his shop for many years, and now the Japanese bikes were coming in and he was refusing to service them.….laughing and saying “melican boy buy Honda dleam.”  This was a hint to buy American.  He had a knack for coining a new word or phrase, that once pronounced seemed quite natural to repeat.  He used to say that he and Sophie had just been “bruising around,” which I took as a combination of browsing and cruising.

One of the crowd who used to hang around our barn, which was the scene of ongoing work on bikes, was a young man called “Naughty.”  I used to think it was “Knotty” and wondered why!  He was one of four sons in a family which had sworn that every one of them was to be ‘out of the house’ at eighteen, but he was a big favorite of his mother’s and she allowed him to keep hanging around until he was ready to move out on his own.  He had a wonderful smile and a lock of hair that always hung over one eye, and he was bright and intelligent, but he drank much too much.  I have seen him “with my own eyes” as they say, riding down the Main Street past Alton Bay, standing on the seat of his bike with his arms spread wide and laughing.  He had a cousin called “Skeeter” who was good-natured but often careless, didn’t take good care of his bike and it always had oil running out of it and stuff hanging from it.  Pulling out of our yard one day and looking back to yell something at us, he ran right into a car going by.   No real damage done, but huge embarrassment, as his cousin Naughty laughed and berated him.  If we were going anywhere by car, Naughty and one of his brothers would fight “to the death” to avoid having to sit in the middle – “the death seat.”  And in the meanwhile, everybody else would have to wait for the battle to be over; they were very stubborn and both were determined not to say “uncle.” All the while that the other passengers were yelling at them to give it up and telling them how stupid and childish they were, they were rolling down hills and under the cars and into puddles, oblivious to anything but beating the pulp out of each other.  But that was before Naughty got religion, got married, and sobered up.

Back home at the barn one day, we were visited by a short, slight middle-aged man named Elidore who wanted to buy a bike.  He said he had once had a PO-LEECE bike and wanted to have another one in that PO-LEECE BLUE. .  We, at the time, had a four-cylinder bike which we were willing to sell, but Joe was reluctant to sell it to this man who was barely 5’3” tall, but he could not hold out very long without insulting the man who was so sure that he was just the man for that bike.  He had a habit of speaking about himself in a self-deprecating manner with a rueful smile.  His last bike, which I assume had burned oil, he called the “leetle white cloud,” and he told us about the time he had entered a hill-climbing race.  He asked his father if it were possible to do this, and his father (with French accent) had said….”A good man could do it.”  So he started up the hill.  As we pressed him for the result, he smiled sadly and said….”I could not do it.”   Whenever we asked him to stay for dinner, for he had no wife at home, he would refuse until we pressured him.  That sparked a joke among ourselves that he carried a knife and fork under his hat, and when he finally gave in, he removed them to eat.  His most confusing and pointless story involved a car he had bought to take a trip somewhere, and he agreed to take a couple of other people with him.  However, he had several hundred dollars on his person and he was afraid it might be stolen, so he hid it.  When they stopped at a place to sleep, sure enough, the two passengers took the car and disappeared.  As we reacted with shock, he laughed and laughed and said…..”but they will never find where I hid the money.”  In the car, of course!  His stories always ended like that.  He had a son whom he was trying to bring up alone, and in so doing, he was very strict and rigid, but he was aware that the boy also needed the understanding of a loving mother.  So he undertook to play both roles.  He would punish the boy terribly (I play zee father) and then hug and kiss him (Now I play zee mother.)  I think the boy must have been confused; maybe that is why he rode his bicycle backward.

Somewhere in those days, we visited a bike shop in Dover, N.H.  It was actually a barn beside a white farmhouse where the young owner lived with his mother.  She had a lovely garden, and though she was probably in her 60’s, I could see the young woman very clearly in her.  She was one of those women who never really grows old.  There in the barn was a green colored motorcycle that had just arrived and been taken in trade.  This was in 1959 and the bike was a BMW 1950 R51/2, which was of no consequence to me or anyone else.  I still had my Jawa and was still hoping that someday I could make it to a destination without taking it apart and putting it back together.  The BMW had been brought to the shop by someone who had been in Germany and shipped it home with him to this country, and after a while decided to get something newer.  We talked about it and listened to it and the upshot was that I bought it and brought it home with us – for the handsome sum of $300.  Then I wondered why I had done it.

I steadfastly resisted the benefits that were pointed out to me-- out of loyalty to the Jawa which was well into being bought by someone, and one day as the ‘new’ bike was parked in front of the house, I went out and looked at it.  Then I sat in the saddle…nice, my feet touched the ground.   I kicked over the engine… rumbled in my chest; it sounded good.

Slowly I put it into gear, discovering the clever little lever that acted as an extra way to shift– a feature I learned to appreciate.  And then I rode off down the street – and kept going.  And  I fell in love.  Now I could go on all the rides and Gypsy tours under my own power.  There were few women doing this – motorcycles and their riders were undergoing a period of being considered low-class and wild….almost like gangsters.  Everyone had seen the Marlon Brando movie. 

I rode in sunshine and in rain.  I rode so late into the year that my hands were frozen to the handlebars.  And I could not wait patiently until spring.  My oldest son was practically born on the bike as I continued riding during that pregnancy…..and it was the only time my bike went down*.  Strangely enough, with such a history, he is today a Harley man.  And it was my youngest son who was to become my benefactor, but first I had to wait for him to grow up.

[*The old story was…that if you broke off one of the opposed cylinders, the BMW company would replace it free of cost.]

Photo--Not grown up yet, but already working on the R51/2

After years of working in medical offices and finding myself identifying people I saw on the street as Mr. Gonorrhea and Mrs. “Pep” Pill,  I had started a new job at an experimental college with an entirely new method of teaching and learning in a brand new famous designer building-- with an original curriculum, a small student to teacher ratio, co-ed dorm wings, and no grades!  Heavens, what is the world coming to, the town seemed to say.  The school was part of the traditional College, but autonomous and placed separately from the main campus.  The  kids recruited to the new school were the cream of the crop, they were extra bright and were looking for something new and challenging.  An example of their humor was the time a bulletin was sent around (from the main administration) announcing that students were to be properly attired in the dining hall and the males were to wear ties.  All of our kids showed up that evening in ties, as ordered – ties with bathing suits, ties with pajamas, ties with shorts and cowboy boots, ties with long johns, ties with a swallow-tail coat and underwear.   Point taken.  The other part of the college – the regular division of the school and their faculty were miffed – probably also a little jealous at the press we were getting in educational circles across the country, and a sort of split occurred, of which we were mostly oblivious…at least for a while.

The other staff members were all housed down in the Administration Building of the main campus, and here I was in this beautiful new building in my own office with a balcony overlooking  an outdoor auditorium, and all that great music of the era being played around me all throughout the day.  How did I rate this, you may ask?  Nobody else would agree to work there!– afraid of the stigma of “hippy campus,”and this was their loss.  This was the sixties and the height of the Vietnam War.  On one wall of the large entrance hall was a giant-sized color poster of My Lai.  Then to make matters worse – or better, according to the students – their dean’s secretary rode to work on a motorcycle!  It was perfect.  The more calumny we received – from the town, from the other campus, from the police -the more we reveled in it. The new president of Atlantic College came to study our methods; John Kenneth Galbraith arrived to lecture; Odetta sang for us; and the Black Panthers made a visit with body guards, guns and all.   There were drugs around – mostly marijuana (even some growing in the planters) – and one morning I came to work to find everyone up and outdoors milling around in the snow.  The gendarmerie had been up there quite early and the dean had run around from room to room with a warning….and the sound of toilets flushing was heard throughout the land. 

The BMW by now looked quite a little the worse for wear.  One of my sons had taken a black spray can to it and it had some new dents and scratches which hadn’t been there when it was bought.  I loaned my helmet out to a few of the kids who were racing on weekends and it soon became a good match to the bike.  [Later, they all chipped in and presented me with a new white helmet.]  One of the students, looking at the bike, pronounced that it was “handsomely ugly.”  I had a student assistant whom I allowed to ride the bike for errands down to the main campus and into town, and he was envied by all.  He had two dogs named Harley and Elizabeth Davidson who lived in the dormitory.  Years later, he has become a well-respected lawyer in the Boston area, but he still remembers the thrill of riding that bike and never fails to ask me about it in the same breath as he inquires about my welfare.  Even then, however, with its “handsomely ugly” appearance, many is the time I was riding through town and someone would yell…..Do you want to sell it?….How much do you want for it?  Later, people would just look at it and say…Wow, what an old bike….what is it?

At different times, as the years passed, the Beemer went to various bike shops of differing capabilities, attempting to get it running smoothly and reliably; some parts were removed and others substituted, but with no real success.  Years later I would kick myself for allowing this, but at the time – who knew?

I now had a growing family – a married daughter, a teenage son, and two younger children, a boy and a girl.  There was not so much time for riding, and a lot of domestic responsibilities as well as a job.  My beloved bike had  fallen into disrepair, had a botched paint job, and wasn’t running well.  Much much later when my youngest son was in his teens, he volunteered to do something about it, removed the engine and took the whole machine apart – and there it remained as the years passed by, now in several cartons in the cellar, rusting and cobwebbed and seemingly forgotten.  Every time I passed it going through the cellar, I averted my eyes, as it gave me a sharp pang to see it in this miserable condition, and I feared that it would remain there until some time when someone else owned the house and looked at it in disgust and had it hauled to the dump.  Of course, I was often vocal about this, laying guilt for its being in pieces, and I made it clear that I desperately wanted more than anything for it to at least be put back as a recognizable machine….in one piece, please!

The time came when it seemed right for Clay and me to undertake the rehabilitation project as a team, I to provide the finances and the memory, and he to plan the actual work process.  He cleaned all the parts, laying them out carefully and marking them with tags, and putting aside those that would need more extensive care.  We took parts to a business in Bangor where the sole remaining chrome work in the state was done (my car broke down on the way and we had to get a rental to continue the journey); the EPA had made such specific and rigid regulations over the dangerous materials required that any competitors had  been forced to leave the field – no competition=high cost.  We really didn’t know what we were doing, but at least things were getting clean and spruced up.  There were some suggestions made that the bike should be painted black – even at times some fun color like red or purple - but I insisted that it should keep its original color and that color had been green.  As a matter of fact, this color still remained on the wheels.  In order to supply a color for matching, we found a sample in the inside of a part, and the fenders, tank, headlight, et al, were taken to the painter.

During this process, desiring more information about this particular bike, I had written to the BMW archives in Germany, to substantiate my memory of the color and for any information that could be garnered. They responded very quickly, telling us that this bike was indeed a green 1950 R5l/2 and had been produced as a border patrol machine in Germany, and that only a mere___#_____of this model had been built.  All we had really known is that we had an old BMW, bought decades ago for $300. We were pleased to get this new information, but were still not aware of its significance.  However, it did encourage us to do the best job we could to bring it back to its original specs, more or less.

In the interim the bike went back together.  Then we had it hand striped as the manuals insisted, and we stood back to marvel over and over at its beauty.  But, it still did not run properly, and we had run out of money.

So it went into another hibernation, this time together and glorious to see, but hidden again in the cellar.

It was not until 2005, with my son Clay a grown man, and myself now living alone, that he undertook what was to be what we believed would be the final step in its being born-again.  It had been through the aftermath of WWII in Germany, many road trips and Gypsy tours, used as a dirt bike in wild rides through the woods, driven to work, loaned out, taken apart, abandoned, put back together, and abandoned again.  By now, we realized the worthiness of doing this properly and carefully; it was a real restoration we were aiming at.  The bike was old and might even be somewhat rare, but even then we hadn’t grasped the complete impact of that.

Clay began to search for a respected workman to undo the things that had been done improperly and to finish what he did not trust himself to do.  He was adamant in selecting someone who would have faith in the integrity of the project.  That was when we brought the bike to Chris Betjemann in the back of a borrowed and battered old pickup truck.  I was sure that it did not look prepossessing, but the Betjemanns instantly recognized it as a jewel-in-the-rough.  They seemed as dedicated to its rehabilitation as we were, not only interested in the bike as a tangible product, but in its history and our own experience with it. 

We had come to the right place.

Marilyn M. Mockus

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 June 2009 )
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