Snapshots with Tom Miller – Life on a Motorcycle

Posted by Spencer Kulow on

It’s not the lifetime of riding you remember. It would be impossible to remember every time you get up on two wheels.

No, it’s snapshots that you retain. The trip you took cross-country when you were between jobs and needed a break. That bad crash you got into, that for the life of you, you don’t know how you survived. The weekends spent cruising with your friends after a long week of work.

It’s the stuff that at the time feels so normal and regular that you look back on and that really shaped you.

 

Starting them young

Tom Miller started riding back in 1969 at the age of nine. He rode a Honda 50 until he was 13, then a Kawasaki Trail Boss. As a kid, he and his friends rode around in the dirt, in the country. At the time, that’s pretty much all they had to do.

“My dad worked all day, and pretty much left us alone. I either had to learn how to fix my own bike, or I couldn’t ride at all. In the winter, we jerry-rigged snow tires so we could keep riding through the snow and ice.”

In ‘74, he bought a Honda Elsinore. By the time he was 16, he had moved on to cars – pretty much everyone else around him had.

Most people measure time in years. Within a couple minutes of chatting with Tom, it was clear he measured time through the vehicles he rode. He grew older from bike to bike, not by aging. Some of us enter our teens, then hit puberty, then young adulthood. Tom went from Kawasaki, to Honda, and then grew up all the way to four wheels.

 

The Harley to last a lifetime

By 1979, Tom was ready to ride again, and is uncle happened to be selling a bike. At this point, Tom had matured and grown, from cars back to bikes again.

But the bike his uncle was selling wasn’t just any old hunk o’ junk – it was a 1967 Harley he’d purchased from a farmer back in ‘70.

“I told my uncle I wanted to buy the bike. ‘You don’t have the money!’ he told me. I said, ‘I tell you what. I’ll give you $100 a month, every month, until that bike is paid off.’ And so I bought the bike.”

You can tell this bike is important to Tom. He’s had it for almost 40 years, and it’s grown older with him, in its own ways. It started with a drag frame in 1980. Then, there was that time in ‘85 he got “beat bad in a drag race” by a stroker motor on a KZ-1000. So, he redid the engine. He even won the ’87 Dallas car show, best in class. But then in ’88, he quit riding. Instead, he got married.

The bike lasted longer than the marriage did, and by 2003 he was out riding it again.

 

Scratching that itch 

Back in the day, he used to race a lot. “When I was a kid, we were all competitive. We’d just race each other all day. I’m getting older now, and I just don’t ride like I used to. But every now and again, I get an itch to get out there and race. Once and a while, I get out there.”

“I remember back in ’84, I stopped by a guy’s shop. He had this white bike, and he said to me ‘I bet you’ve never beat a stroke motor before.’

“So what we used to do, is we’d take the bikes out on the highway and we’d take ‘em down real slow, just enough speed to keep the bike balanced. And one of us would count ‘1, 2, 3’ and we’d be off racing. Then, the next time, we’d switch who did the countdown – that way we kept it fair.

“Anyway, I’m racing this guy with this nice, white bike, and turns out a bit down the highway there are some people on a front yard hanging out and having a good time.

“Well, the next time we take off, I look over and this guy has popped a wheelie so high that his front wheel was a foot from my face! I think the guys on the lawn got a kick out of that.” I bet Tom won the race, though.

Many of Tom’s memories take the form of quick snapshots like that. They invariably have a year attached to them, like ’86, or ’93, and they usually involve precise details as well, like the color of the bike or the type of motor. I appreciate that – I’m known among my friends to add unnecessary and seemingly random details, but everything Tom describes helps me understand what it was like to be having a good time back in the 70s and 80s.

He also breaks into memories suddenly, when something triggers them. He’ll jump into a story about the time he drag raced a kid who thought he had a fast bike, but then whose chain exploded in the middle of the race.

Or, you’ll hear about the time he was doing burnout after burnout until his tire exploded. “That was pretty stupid of me…I guess I did some stupid stuff back then. But then again, and I lived in Pennsylvania back then mind you, times were very different. Very different.”

A lot of Tom’s old riding days seem to involve burnouts, or explosions, or wheelies, or racing especially, but he talks about them so matter-of-factly that you don’t think about how wild a lot of that stuff actually was. And to him, it wasn’t especially wild or crazy – that’s what life was like at the time. It wasn’t good or bad, it might have been fun but that’s just what you did.

 

Settling down

Tom still likes to go fast, but he is getting older. The Harley that lasted him so long is pretty much retired; a lot of the parts they don’t really make anymore. 

Instead, he and his wife are looking into more antiques. They want to build a museum piece – they’ve both always ridden and now are looking to transition more into the “antique thing.” I asked him his opinion on museum pieces versus bikes to ride: “You can mix and match and make something that’s fun to ride and enjoy, but there is also something exciting about a complete antique.”

How often do you ride? “I’m pretty busy six days a week. The 7th day, though, is for riding.”

We also got into a great conversation about how to further the next generation of riders. I told him how, living in NYC, a lot of bikers here need to put their bikes in a community garage because they don’t have room at their place.

“You know, at a show recently I heard a conversation about community garages,” he told me. “I was wondering about using garages as a way to let people test out bikes, to see what works for them, before they need to go out and get their own.” 

That way, the garage can provide advice, help, and even lessons on basic bike maintenance – lessons often tough to come by nowadays for beginner bikers. And, what would a garage like that need? A grizzled veteran rider who knows his way around a Honda, Kawasaki, and maybe even a Harley or two.

Yeah, I think Tom would fit that profile pretty well. And when he’s done teaching, he could regale new bikers with a story or two from the good ol’ days. I know I’d be there to listen.

 

 

Harley interview Motorcycle

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