Too Tall, Big Fall
His name was Roger Brooks, but we just called him Jolly. We called him Jolly partially because of “Jolly Roger”, partially because the Jolly Green Giant was popular in those days and Jolly was a little over six feet seven inches tall, and partially because everybody had nicknames in our little, insular, motorcycle-motivated society. My best friend for instance, Lee Walter “The Duck” Griesheimer. Duck was five feet four. Looking at Jolly and Duck as they stood side by side could make you dizzy.
All of us were very cool, except Jolly. We were so cool, we kept Jolly around because he wasn’t. Due to his extreme height and the natural awkwardness of youth, Jolly was always good for a little light relief. Whether bumping his head on something that normal people would have to jump to reach, or tripping over his own size seventeen boots, or banging an elbow because his arms were nine feet long, Jolly was ever entertaining. Besides that, we liked him in an overgrown little brother sort of way, and we were all he had.
We rode motorcycles. Not the loud, low slung drive-in profilers, or the bulbous, chromed highway cruisers. No Harleys, Thriumphs, BSAs, or Nortons for us, we rode for purpose, not effect. Bultacos, Montessas, Osas…we were enduro riders, and we worked at it, conditioning ourselves, training ourselves, trying to be the best we could be.
An enduro is a cross-country race, run in various classes according to motor size. The object is to get from the beginning to the end of the course, often over 100 miles, and maintain an average speed of 24 milers per hour. Not very fast until you consider that the terrain can consist of dry creek beds, streams, rocky hillsides, swamps, sand pits and the like, and the ride can continue until well after dark.
The rider is given a fixed number of points at the beginning of the race and encounters several checkpoints along the way where his time on the course is examined by judges. Points are deducted for going too fast or too slow on each segment of the course. The competitor carries a map, a compass, and the enduro rider’s official medallion, a stopwatch. The bike is equipped with lights, knobby tires and two odometers, one to measure the total distance traveled, one re-set at each checkpoint. In many respects, enduro is the most physically challenging and mentally demanding of all motorcycle sports. We rode as many as we could. We practiced on weekends. On weeknights we’d hone our skills and speed at changing tires, replacing chains, changing spark plugs, figuring exactly what we had to carry for emergencies and still keep the bike’s weight as low as possible. The question was never if we would break down, but how many times, and how badly. All of this effort, practice and preparation was for one race, the ultimate challenge, the enduro rider’s enduro…Jack Pine. A two-day, five-hundred mile slice of hell through the wilds of Michigan that drew competitors from all over the world. It was the Holy Grail of the sport and, in 1964, we went. Jolly came too.
A couple of months before, Jolly had purchased a brand new Honda 305 Scrambler, a motorcycle as tall, ungainly, and ill-suited for enduro as he was. Together, they were a disaster. Obstacles that left the rest of us undaunted, would utterly defeat Jolly and his Honda. He had to work much harder than any of us just to keep up when we were playing, and could not begin to compete when we were serious, but he never quit.
We arrived at the grounds in Michigan in the late evening after a fourteen-hour drive, on the night before the day of the race. Walking to check in, the six of us marveled at the number of motorcycles and competitors. Over 600 riders were competing in five classes, and we drew numbers to determine where we would start. I was number 77 in a class of nearly two hundred, my friend Duck, number 56. In his class of around 150 riders, Jolly was number 5. Riders were started at thirty-second intervals. Jolly would take to the trail very early the next morning. We worked on our bikes until late in the night, too nervous to sleep, and finally collapsed for two hours or so in the back of the vans, only to rise again and continue to prepare at dawn. This was Jack Pine, the biggest of the big, and we were there.
The starting line was over fifty yards long, on top of a low hill. Arranged behind it, in loose starting order, grouped in the various classes, was the multitude of bikes and riders. We walked to the line to watch the first riders take off. There, sweating profusely in the early morning cool, regarding a stop watch that he’d accidentally stepped on and broken the night before, sat the very tall Jolly aboard his very tall Honda. He was head and shoulders above the throng, nervously peering about. When he saw us, he grinned a “thumbs up”.
His number was called, and he moved forward to the starting line. Before him stretched 200 yards of a slight, grass covered slope terminating in woods. In the middle of the slope stood a single tree. Jolly leaned over the handlebars, revved his engine and waited. The flag dropped, he released the clutch, the big Honda tore off down the hill throwing mud and grass in a rooster tail behind it. Then Jolly rode directly into that one and only tree. A 500 mile two day race. Jolly lasted less than 10 seconds and 100 yards.
When it was all over and we had returned home, we took up a collection and bought him a new stopwatch. The back was engraved, “Jolly Rodger, first to crash and burn, Jack Pine, 1964.”
It became his most prized possession, proof that for one shining moment, he had ridden the legendary Jack Pine, just like the rest of us.