Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Review: The Old Man and the Harley

I recently finished reading this book and I found it to be a pretty good retelling of the author's father's journey from the Worlds Fair in New York to the Worlds Fair in San Francisco in 1939; riding a 1930 Harley Davidson!

The tales of three Newkirks and their father are told concurrently as their respective lives touched the others. While the story is about Jack Newkirk, the author's father and his adventures while doing his epic ride on a 1930 vintage Harley Davidson VL Big Twin, you also learn about Scarsdale Jack Newkirk who is his cousin and a naval aviator who would gain fame as a squadron leader for the famed Flying Tigers under Claire Chennault in China.

You see, the author is named after Scarsdale Jack, and it is with this connection and his relationship with his aging father that he makes the same trip that his father made, except in reverse. The author retraces the route, starting from San Francisco's Treasure Island, with a short stint to take his aging dad to Sturgis to fulfill a promise his dad had made during his 1939 ride. Along the way the author feels the company of the ghosts of his family's past, their memories helping him to relate to events in his own life.

I found the accounts of Scarsdale Jack and his heroics as a Flying Tiger Squadron Leader, his training as a pilot and later naval aviator and his tragic death on a combat mission to be fascinating and well told. It kind of reminded me of the writings of W.E.B Griffin and his USMC series of WWII.

Concurrently, the author vividly takes us along for his father's ride in 1939 America, just barely getting out of the grips of the big depression. His description of the mechanical problems the old Harley gave his father, and how his father overcame these problems was in turn amusing, uplifting and inspiring.

The "Old Man", Jack Newkirk (yeah, same name as the cousin who was the aviator), proved his mettle riding the northern half of the US, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Jack's brother Horace is mentioned in passing mostly, though a large part of the family, his roles are minor it seemed. The main one being his rescuing of the Harley from a deadbeat who had bought it from Jack after Jack had made it all the way to the west coast and needed money to get back home with his brother via car.

The war changes everyone lives, Scarsdale Jack leaves active service with the US Navy and joins the Flying Tigers, leaving behind a young wife back in the states; and gathers much public acclaim before he's shot down in combat.

Young Jack, back from his ride and overcome by grief from the death of his cousin at the hands of the Japanese joins up in spite of his father's efforts to get him to try a non-combat service job. Jack ends up in the South Pacific and undergoes his own combat trials and horrors which end up being revealed near the end of the book.

The last fourth of the book is devoted to the author's own journey retracing his father's route through the country. His interactions, past and present, with his father are detailed and dissected by the author as he rides cross-country to confront his own demons in the form of regrets, fears and hatreds that are in the end confronted.

In sum, a book worth reading. You'll be amused at the mechanical "issues" young Jack learned to deal with his old Harley. His depiction of life in America during the depression and in the latter part of the 1930s is very well done. I just wish the author's dad had taken more pictures of his trip but then again finances were tight for him. Can you imagine this, trying to ride across the country with a budget of less than $120?


mq01 said...

great blog, and it sounds like a great book. thanks for posting your review, i will be sure to check it out. ride safe and enjoy...

Ken said...

I put this on my list when I read your review originally. I finally got the book, and finished it last night.

For me the part about the mechanical issues with the old bike were the most interesting. His political ramblings much less so.

I'm still processing it all. It's a multi-faceted book and some facets are better than others.

Charlie6 said...

mq01, a belated thanks for reading my posting.

Ken, glad you read the book, it was very interesting to me....specially the historicity parts of it. The mechanical issues were cool as well.

Michael Hordaddy said...

Just finished The Old Man & The Harley. My kids gave this book to me for Christmas, no doubt because I do ride...a Harley and vintage Honda's. They see it as one of my "passions", so the tile made sense for them to gift me with it (and they do affectionately refer to me as "The Old Man").
The historical aspects of the book from Harley Davidsons early VTwin to Scarsdale Jacks war heroics to Glenn Miller, the VAG, Flying Tigers and Aaron Copland etc kept me bound to the book. You can nearly Google any historical reference, person place or highway mentioned, and's true. Some have cited the authors "preachy" tone in the end, or the "Bikers Code" references as unnecessary, but's his book from his life perspective, so I take it for that.
For the bike enthusiast and adventurist who even dreams of cross country riding and has an interest in history, this book will not disappoint.

Charlie6 said...

Thank you Michael Hordaddy for your review of the book!