|Check Point, Tamaulipas, Mexico, June 16, 1962. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.|
El Triumph in Mexico,
Check Point, Tamaulipas, 1962
I’m working hard to keep the Triumph on the road through the flat, arid, brown, dry and desolate terrain. Its new, different, and I’m digging it, taking it all in.By Michael James / The Rag Blog / August 6, 2013
[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about -- and inspired by -- those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.]
Heading off to college I thought I might be a social worker, even a minister. I was attracted to the offbeat and rebellious, and felt an affinity for black people and other non-whites in general. I felt compassion for the handicapped and those I perceived to be underdogs.
My team was the “bums,” the Brooklyn Dodgers, and my hero was Jackie Robinson. At the Saugatuck Congregational Church during the offering, I put money in the foreign mission side of the donation envelope, not the domestic. And along the way I rapidly learned of class and racial divisions in the US of A.
Sociology Prof Don Roos clued me in to the notion that social, economic, and political forces shaped individuals and society, and I went for sociology and anthropology over the more popular major, psychology, that focused on the individual. Favoring the group over the individual, and the social forces dominant in shaping the individual, was my simplistic bent.
Like many of my generation I was attracted to the writings of C. Wright Mills, particularly The Power Elite (1956). And I was keen on the notion of participant observer or participant observation and things I heard the “Chicago school of sociologists” espoused.
Life was full in the winter and spring of 1962, lots going on both on campus and the outer world. I was inspired by the new Peace Corps, and became involved with cultural activities and the International Relations Club. I attended the required convocations, but wouldn’t sign in, telling Dean Hoogesteger that I showed up because I wanted to, not because I was required to do so.
I remember seeing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, who wrote the wonderful book, The Immense Journey.
The Garrick Players put on a rendition of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark and recruited me, a football player, to play the executioner. I stood on stage bare-chested, holding a weapon, my head covered by the executioner’s masque. My little acting stint in that play meant that I couldn’t attend the February 16, 1962, anti-nuclear march in Washington put on by the Committee for a SANE nuclear policy and the young Students for a Democratic Society.
I drove friends to Hyde Park where they gathered around a fountain at the U of C preparing to board buses to DC. There I met one stoned Elvin Bishop, later of the Butterfield Blues Band, among the people gathered for the sendoff.
A friend early on at Lake Forest College was Carole Travis. Her dad was a renowned Communist, “Fightin'” Bob Travis, who led the UAW’s Flint sit-down strikes. Through Carole, Gloria Peterson, and others, I was introduced to people and events at the University of Chicago where my Dad had gone to school. Included were Skip Richheimer, Danny Lyon, and Norland Hagen, all motorcycle riding students with the nickname the "Blessed Virgin Mother Motorcycle Club.” They rode Triumphs and a Norton, the favored British bikes, not Harleys.
At the U of C folk festival I sat on the steps to the stage, tears and emotions welling to the surface as the young Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers belted out gospel tunes. There too from the back of Mandel Hall I saw the great American Socialist Norman Thomas and the writer Michael Harrington.
Harrington’s book, The Other America, opened my eyes, uncovering the extent of poverty in the U.S. That book, that hit stores in March of 1962, rocked the minds of not only students who were becoming activists, but had a big effect on the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, and the government.
Later, in 1964, as a graduate student at Berkeley involved in the Free Speech Movement and then Students for a Democratic Society, I had a memorable discussion with Harrington at a party while drinking freely from a gallon jug of cheap red Pirate wine.
The biggest deal for me that spring was bringing a big yellow 650 cc Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle into my life. I found The Triumph at Sunset Cycle Sales in the old religious and still nuclear town of Zion, Illinois, on the great Lake Michigan at the border of Illinois and Wisconsin.
Not long after getting the Triumph I was riding with my college sweetheart Lucia Crossman from town toward the college’s South Campus. It was pouring rain and the Triumph went out from under us, the three of us sliding as if on ice, the machine in the lead, followed by Lucia then me, we two humans looking clearly into each others’ eyes in a state of amazement, all in slow motion.
My performance in Old Pinky Williams’ Spanish class was dismal. I needed more “foreign language” credit for graduation. I was reading Robert Redfield and his theories on the growth of cities and the creation of the peasantry based on "field work" from Mexico. The plan developed: I would ride my machine to Mexico City College and take Spanish language and anthropology courses. It would be a far-out summer.
On Wednesday, June 13, I took my last exam, packed, and attached my stuff to the bike: saddlebags plus two aluminum boxes and a black attaché case fastened to the luggage rack. Lucia’s parents picked her up and I followed them three hours south to Morton outside Peoria. After dinner Lucia and I had a nighttime ride in the country and made out in a cornfield before I entered a restless anticipatory sleep.
In the morning I moved on. Outside of East St. Louis I met a guy on a new Honda motorcycle and asked “are these fast?” He said, “Let’s go!” The Honda wiped the Triumph. So much for the perceived inferiority in those days of the “Jap bikes.”
“Man from Lincoln land” was what the black man said, waving at me as I pulled away very early in the morning from a dingy motel on the side of a busy road on the edge of Little Rock, Arkansas. Sleep was restless, fleeting, and passing, trucks rumbling through the night beside the room where I slept. The long day’s ride took me through Texarkana, and the hills and piney woods of East Texas. I hit big-time traffic and alternating combinations of showers and sun riding through Houston on a new highway.
They say that if you had a Triumph you needed four hands, two to ride and two to pick up the parts. My Triumph was leaking oil. I made it to Victoria, Texas, by sunset and headed to a motorcycle shop. Nobody home. They were out at the airport testing their dragster.
I got a motel room across from a diner on the main drag, linked up with the cycle shop guys who fixed me up with missing screws for the crank case, and engaged in devouring a giant sizzling steak served on a big hot metal platter. C & W spun from the jukebox. I finished my pie, gulped down my milk, cleared the tab, crossed the wide Texas highway 77, and slept oh-so-soundly.
At daybreak I rode through the King Ranch, checking the speedometer, doing fundamental math, figuring time and miles. I felt lonesome -- and very alone. A bus emerged in the distance; as it neared I read its marquee: “BB King.” Wow! The blues man! My mood lifted. I felt so good, my excitement on the rise, heading to the border, looking forward to what was to come.
Here comes Brownsville; there went Brownsville. I’m on the other side of the little trickle of the Rio Grande aka Rio Bravo and am immediately dealing with Mexican border guards. I’ve got to be 21 to cross this line. I’m 20, and I’m giving him a rap, telling him I’m going to school in Mexico City.
I knew the age requirement. I thought I was ready and had typed a letter from my dad with my deft portrayal of his signature. This little work of forgery that I pulled from my trusty attaché case didn’t carry much weight with this particular border dude.
I also knew about la mordida, the bite, the little bribe. For a few bucks I was free to move on, after a little frenzy of handing out small change to a cluster of beggars, handicapped kids, and Chiclets gum vendors.
Quickly -- but only momentarily -- I was lost in Matamoros on skinny dirt streets lined with adobe buildings, looking for the Pan American Highway, a road I figured someday I might ride all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Then I’m riding through Tamaulipas heading south with a strong wind blowing off the Gulf.
I’m working hard to keep the Triumph on the road through the flat, arid, brown, dry and desolate terrain. Its new, different, and I’m digging it, taking it all in. A Brahma cow, a horse, a burro, an old guy in sombrero and serape, and people on the side of the road. I’m waving as I fly by. People wave back. I like that.
I see people getting on an old bus, a team of oxen, roadrunners and other birds. There are tiny settlements with fewer then 10 little huts made of sticks, and larger settlements of adobe huts. A guy is riding a burro, bouncing along, trot-trot-trot, his legs nearly touching the ground. There are old cars and trucks, beautiful to me, a product of the '50s hot rod and custom culture.
We’re in el mundo de kilometros; I’m doing division, translating miles into kilometers and kilometers into miles, long before I knew that a 5k run equaled 3.1 miles. I am eating up those kilometros.
Uh-oh, a roadblock and Federales coming out of a stick shed to check my papers. No problema aqui. I hang out, do my best to communicate and take some shots: a man in uniform, two kids, a young woman hanging on the back of a pickup truck beside a 1954 Chevy wagon under a sunshade made of sticks and straw, next to a refreshment stand with a Coca Cola logo on the side.
It is hot. I shoot the picture of El Triumph, south of the border in Mexico, enjoying the rippling, fizzing, and refreshing iced soda. Then, I get on the bike, wave goodbye, and hit the road.
[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago's Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at email@example.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]
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