The Mission

Fredrick Hudgin

© Copyright 2023 by Fredrick Hudgin

Photo by <a href="">Rob Sarmiento</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Rob Sarmiento on Unsplash

It’s snowing. Man, this is perfect. Well, I’m still going. After forty-three years of missing Daytona, hearing about how great it was, about all the pretty girls and great parties and dynamite bikes, I’m going. And I’m gonna ride my bike. She may not win any of the bike beauty contests while I’m down there, but she will get me there and get me back. And only break down a couple of times.

I’ve been packed for a week. I laid an extra coat of wax on everything you can put wax on, tied on all my gear, and just left her chained up in the middle of the garage. The tank’s full, everything’s tightened and adjusted, and the fluids are all new. I even put on new sprockets and a chain—that tall ratio will be great when we get up on the highway and start cruising. … Cruisin’ in the snow. Man, I wish it would slow down a little.

I wonder how far south you have to go before the snow stops. It’s about two hundred miles to the Kentucky border. Maybe chains would work on a bike. Goddammit, winter is almost over! What the hell is a snowstorm doing in Indiana at the end of February? This is just perfect.

My wife is so pissed off at me for going on this ‘wild goose chase’ and ‘pretending you’re a kid again’ that she went to stay with a girlfriend until I’m gone. My kids managed to tear themselves away from the TV long enough to hug me and ask for a T-shirt. All the other creeps I drink and work with said, “Yeah, man, count me in. I’m goin’ for sure.” They’re all snuggled down in their warm little hidey-holes like groundhogs. “The weather’s gonna be lousy, man.”  “I went last year. I can skip a year.” “I’m a little short on funds right now.” Every one of them. It was gonna be great. Well, I’m still going.

Six inches and still fallin’ like gangbusters. My boss gave me a hard time from the moment I told him I wanted the time off. “We’re way backlogged, man. Can’t you go next year?” “I’ll give you a little extra if you stick around.” “Aren’t you a little old for this?”

I’ll be too old when I’m dead. I’m going!

When it gets to nine inches, we go to plan B. I know some guys say “If you don’t ride all the way, you’re a wannabe, washout, armchair biker, blah, blah, blah.” They don’t live in Indiana in February. Plan B is my pickup. They don’t make them like that anymore. Thank God. I think the rust is the only thing that’s holding it together. Twenty-seven years ago, Dodge Motor Company built this truck for the Navy. It lived in salt air and salt winters for twenty years in Rhode Island. I bought it from the Navy when they thought it was worn out. We have gone places and seen things those poor sailors on the Navy base only dream about.

One time we were all drunk over at Bungie’s. It was about two-thirty in the morning when suddenly Shelia and Patty had this great idea to play strip poker, but instead of using cards, everyone took off their clothes one piece at a time. The last person with clothes on wins.

So there we were in various states of undress when who walked in but our newest city cop. He had seen the lights on after closing hour and wanted to check it out. This guy had to be all of eighteen years old. He just stood in the door with all of his cop stuff on, looking at us like he couldn’t believe what his eyes were seeing. Finally, Shelia went up to him and invited him to the party. His eyes never got above her navel as he said to keep it down and don’t drive home drunk. Good advice. I ended up sleeping in the cab of my worn-out truck with Shelia tucked in next to me. Indiana winters may be miserable, but Indiana summers make up for it.

It looks like it’s plan B. All right, I don’t care. I’m still going. Put the bike up in the back, stash all my gear inside, a couple of cases of beer (“for when I stop, officer”), tools, and money. I’m ready. I’m really ready. Screw all you guys. I hope it snows the whole time I’m gone. Snow up to your armpits. While you are shoveling this cold, white, fluffy stuff, I’m going to be laying on the beach getting sunburned and drunk while I watch the world’s prettiest eighteen-year-olds vie for the title of ‘Miss I-Have-The-Smallest-Swim-Suit.’

The truck won’t start. Dammit, it’s not that cold. OK, breath deep. Say “Ooooooom.” It worked for Cheech; give it a chance. Once more, slowly. Truck, this is your last chance. Start now, or I swear to God I’ll bury you whenever the ground thaws out enough to dig a hole. Come on, baby; you can do it. Once more for daddyyyyy. Wow! It worked. You just got to be tough with ’em once in a while.

Interstate 65 South. Plug in the iPhone (who would have believed this old truck could sound this good?). ZZ Top channel on Pandora, then BB King, then who knows. I’ve driven through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before. To call the music selection off the air abysmal is being kind. Hey, I like Hank Williams and David Allen Coe, and if that were what they played, I’d have no problem with it. But no one wants to play that stuff anymore. I guess they got bored listening to good music, so they made up some screechy, whiny stuff and got some guy who looks like he lost a fight with a blender to sing it—can’t hold a candle to Ted Nugent or Molly Hatchet at warp volume.

I hope my room looks out over the beach. What a concept! Going on a motorcycle run that lasts a whole week and getting a hot shower and a bed every night instead of a cold stream and a sleeping bag. I want to put my feet up on the railing and watch the sun come up as I smoke the day’s last cigarette, then go to sleep. The only time to see dawn is from the dark side.

Louisville. Cold iron bridges. Cold stray dogs. Cold concrete roads. Potholes so big, they have teeth on ‘em. Snap at ya as you drive by—no passive potholes in Louisville. I heard every Spring they find a couple of bikers in the bottom with their hand still frozen to their throttle and a fixed scream on their face. Ugly way to go: being a landfill for a Mazda. Hard to believe in two months, it will be warm, green, and flowered, just in time for the Derby. Maybe there’s a lesson there. Today it’s just another gray, dirty town in winter. At least the snow stopped.

Maybe this will turn out all right after all. If I were riding my bike, I would be playing the same music in my head. God, there’s nothing like Lynyrd Skynyrd at night on a country road with the moon so bright it looks like daytime. You weave in and out of the tree shadows, and on long straightaways, you can turn off your headlight and still see perfectly. Watch out for turns under the trees, though. There’s blood on that lesson.

I-285 going around Atlanta. Man! Some poor scooter tramp is out there hitchhiking. What the hell—no one deserves to do that. It couldn’t be more than twenty degrees outside.

Hop in, buddy. Who’d have believed it’d be this cold in Atlanta. Where you going? No kiddin’, me too. Too bad about your bike. You’ll get her up when you get back. Sure, I’ll have a brew.”

The miles sure go faster when there’s someone to talk to. It may not be Spring yet, but it’s a lot warmer than Indiana, and it’s not snowing.

Goin’ through South Georgia always makes me nervous. I have this image of a fat-bellied state trooper with mirrored sunglasses that keeps popping up in my mind. Being the next Cool Hand Luke is not on my top 10 list of “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up”. Well, we’ll just do the speed limit and ease down the road.

A roadblock! I knew we shouldn’t have gotten off the interstate. Why did I let him talk me into it? And, of course, that guy is signaling me over. I don’t believe it! Everybody was passing me! And we’re In Georgia, of all places. I know, I know. Everyone else didn’t have a Harley in the back of their truck. I should have known. Hell, I did know. Damn. Damn. Double damn. Things were just going too well.

There he is in person. The nightmare lives! Jackie Gleason himself. They must go to school to learn how to look like that. He’s even smiling as he walks up to my truck. Wait a minute. My hitchhiker is smiling back. Why do I smell a rat? “Hi, Uncle Joe.” “We’ve got another one!” I got one last look at my life savings sittin’ in the back of my truck before they closed the van door.

The rest of the night was a blur of in-processing to the county jail. “You got any drugs, boy?” “You belong to a gang, boy?” “You got a license for that gun, boy?” “Bend over real far. This won’t take a minute.” When I finally got to lie down under some stinking moth-ball blankets, I could hear them drag racing my bike against the hitchhiker’s rice rocket. Eventually, one of ‘em lost it, and they both went down hard. I knew my bike wouldn’t put up with that shit very long. From the number of paramedics that showed up in the courtyard, she hurt ‘em both really bad.

Hey, wake up.”

I looked up into the face of our club president. Suddenly I was wide awake. “Did they get you, too, Joe?”

He looked at me weird. “Come on, man, everyone’s outside. We’re ready to go. Big storm’s comin’, and we have to beat feet.”

I sat on my bike while it warmed up. Everyone was stretchin’ and tuckin’ and zippin’. Finally, I looked over at Joe. “No hitchhikers, man. Promise me no one stops for hitchhikers.”

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