Book Review: "The Old Man and the Harley"

Some months ago, I reviewed “Doorknob Five-Two” by Fredric Arnold. It remains, as I said then, a remarkable book by a remarkable man, who happens to be the father of a friend of ours. So it was a most enjoyable coincidence when another friend, John Newkirk, whom I know from the Leadership Program of the Rockies, told me about a book he’s just had published based largely on his father’s youth during the days leading into World War II. But the book, “The Old Man and the Harley”, is much more than that. It’s a coming of age tale (actually several) combined with a love story, a history, and an insight into the bonding between a father and a son, with a hint of political allegory and social commentary and more than a hint of description of the joy and heartbreak of owning one’s very own Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The first section of the book describes young John B. “Jack” Newkirk, and his cousin, also Jack Newkirk (but called “Scarsdale” by his friends and family to avoid confusion) during their youth in the 1930’s. The focus is on Jack and a ride he took on a temperamental Harley in 1939 from the New York World’s Fair to the San Francisco World’s Fair. The story of his journey is truly a tale of Americana gone by, not necessarily one which makes you long for the past but which instead gives you a remarkable appreciation for our nation, its development, and the true heart of its people. There is no way to avoid some comparison between then and now, with the obvious differences in the innocence of our youth, the helpfulness of strangers to each other, and the sense of wonder in the future, rather than the blasé jadedness that is all to common today. There are stories of listening to Glenn Miller, of camping out in pouring rain, of learning how to fix a motorcycle, often without the proper tools. And it’s all punctuated by letters which young Jack wrote to his parents and friends – letters which were kept, for no obvious reason but sentimentality – until this very day.
        Well, when I left him I headed north toward Toledo & arrived there O.K. Then I did something I never thought I was capable of. I got on route 20 all right but I went in the wrong direction. I was twisted up for 60 odd miles before I realized my mistake. That ate up a good 3 hrs & some 3 gals gas. Don’t tell anybody will you. That happened today & I’m still kicking myself for such a fop ah. It’s getting too dark to write so I close with love.                    Jack
Of course, Newkirk’s wonder in the future was soon shattered, or at least interrupted, by Hitler’s invasion of Poland, followed soon after by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the US’s entrance into World War II. The second section of the book describes the wartime experiences of both Jack and Scarsdale Newkirk, both of whom volunteered to serve in our armed forces, and the latter of whom was one of the most famous pilots of the war as part of the Flying Tigers squadron which defended China against the barbaric Japanese. Jack Newkirk was sent to the Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific. This scene came after the US had mostly cleared the island of Manus of Japanese soldiers. The first paragraph in this quote describes the thoughts of a Japanese soldier still hiding in the jungle:
        For a moment he was back in Nagoya during cherry blossom season, and the fragrant air drifted into his nostrils like a woman’s perfume. But then he heard the screaming of the men he’d killed at the Tol Plantation, and in his last moments of consciousness he was struck by the horrific awareness that the world may have been slightly better off had he never been born.         He was dead before he hit the ground.         Bounding through the jungle, swinging his sword like a machete through the undergrowth, Newkirk was the first to reach the body. From a distance, it was difficult to hear what he was screaming – but it sounded as if years of rage were being vented in this single, terrible moment.
And section three of the book is what makes the book so special – not just to the readers but to the author, Jack Newkirk’s son, John. John bought a classic Harley and retraced most of the route his father took nearly 70 years earlier, including having his father ride with him part of the way. As the son of a father, and the father of a son, it’s hard to describe how well John brings you into the thoughts, fears, hopes, prayers, and idiosyncrasies of a man as he thinks about his relationship with his father, how that relationship has changed over the decades, and how much a boy always wants his dad to be proud of him. John’s cross-country journey finds at least as many interesting – but very different – experiences from those his father had. The comparisons are not stated directly but nevertheless striking.
        Moscow, Idaho, was one of the more important towns on the Old Man’s 1939 route. It was his safety net should he ever get stranded out west. It was also where finances forced him to sell the Raspberry [the Harley’s pet name], and where – a year later – Horace angrily reposed her after a deadbeat stiffed his little brother out of fifty bucks.         A Saturday farmers’ market was underway at downtown Moscow’s Friendship Square, where the stands overflowed with fresh produce, meat, flowers, nursery plants, handmade crafts and homemade baked goods…         From out of nowhere, the incongruous sound of an a capella soprano began to drift through the air from a nearby alleyway. I went to investigate and found a slender brunette belting out an Italian aria beside a trash dumpster. On the pavement next to her were a black cat, a black dog, and a beat-up red box with a smattering of bills and coins.         She introduced herself as Poeina from Seattle. We spoke for several minutes about music and I offhandedly joked that she should try out for American Idol.         “I did,” she said, “I didn’t even get to the second round”….         She began to sing Nel cor più non mi sento from the Italian opera La Molinara. For a moment, I was Henry Higgins. Poeina was my Eliza. And we were proudly standing before the queen at the Ambassador’s Ball…
This month, John Newkirk will start a promotional tour for his book, including once again riding across the country on a restored vintage Harley. A striking figure as many bikers are in their bike leathers, boots, and several days of beard, Newkirk is proudly an ambassador (to an unusual audience) for the principles and ideals which he believes are innate in America but have been buried under a post-modern blanket of distractions, dalliances, and ignorance of our history. His book, “The Old Man and the Harley” is a wonderful read with a wonderful message. [You can buy "The Old Man and the Harley" at, using THIS link.]
  • Patty
    Comment from: Patty
    06/27/09 @ 01:48:06 pm

    Hey, I came across your post via twitter...can't remember who I found it by...or iof it was through your link...what is your username? Anyway, my dad was part of the Flying Tigers...what a coincidence to read about someone else who was a member...wonder if they knew each other....the story sounds like a great recollection and a father and son memoir.

  • Steve Wurtz
    Comment from: Steve Wurtz
    09/14/09 @ 09:32:16 am

    As a matter of fact, during a ride on Sat 09/12/09 we came across John on his 1932 Harley, we on our 2006 Harley on HWY 33 between Virginia and West Virginia. He was doing good . We had great conversation.

  • Mary Baker
    Comment from: Mary Baker
    01/10/10 @ 10:43:29 am

    I just finished the book, and have to say, it is one of the best I've had the joy of reading in a long time. I ride a Harley and write about my adventures. I would love to meet John Newkirk and ride with him some day.