Auckland, New Zealand, 1970
One day Buck was regaling Derek and I with tales of motorcycling glory.
Buck loved to tell a story, the bigger the better, and when he was in the mood these stories often entailed the destruction of a vehicle of some kind. He must have destroyed hundreds of cars and trucks and motorcycles in his lifetime, to hear him tell it.
I was very young when I started working at the depot, where men were men, the work was dangerous and the language was foul. I was a navvy in a work gang, digging ditches, mixing concrete or cleaning up with shovels after the big earthmoving machines had rumbled past.
Buck, who was too old to go out with the work gangs, had taken me under his wing and shown me the ropes.
He was like a kooky, blaspheming old uncle to me.
Derek was a surveyor whom I sometimes assisted when he needed some manual labor. I liked working with the surveyors. The work was easier and they were mostly good guys.
None of them however, they being educated types, could curse worth a shit.
Derek had roared up to the depot that morning on a motorcycle, and that’s what had got Buck to reminiscing.
In this case, it was a story about the time he had raced a motorcycle at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race back in 1948. “Or was it forty-nine, Rusty lad?” he asked me.
Like I should know.
“I was lying in second place, lads,” continued Buck, “behind Les Graham on his AJS Porcupine. By thunder, that Les, could he handle a motorbike! And that AJS he rode, could she haul it! The Porcupine was a beautiful machine, too, a great roaring twin with horizontal cylinders. They used to cook your shins, those hulking great cylinders that stuck out to here, with all the heat they put out.
“How he screamed along!”
Buck paused a moment to admire another rider’s skills, before continuing.
“But a true champion knows to never give up, so I rode that Norton as fast as I dared.
“It had rained in the morning and the road was still damp in the shadows of the trees. It was one of those English summer days, you know, so I was as cold as a witch’s tit inside my leathers as I hunkered down against the petrol tank, looking for extra speed and a chance to get out of the wind.
“Somewhere around mile marker thirty-four I rounded a corner and must have hit a patch of oil because that Norton just slid right out from under me!
“What?” I gasped.
“I fell on my back and threw out my arms, hoping to slide rather than tumble or roll. You don’t want to tumble if you can help it, lads. That’s a bloody fact!”
He paused to light a smoke.
“Well, boys, it was a slide I wanted and a slide I got!
“I was sliding along the bleedin road when out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Norton was sliding right along with me! Crikey-Dick!! She was on her side grinding along in a shower of sparks, spewing her guts out everywhere!
“I could feel the terrible Black Hand of Fate clutching at my bowels and I said to myself, ‘Buck old boy, you’re a goner this time for sure!’”
Buck broke off to take a deep drag on his cigarette.
“Well mates, I collided with the bike just as she caught fire! Covered in fuel, I caught fire too, and for a while we slid along together, that Norton and me, united like lovers in perdition, until the bleedin bike exploded and I was thrown clear!
“Luckily, the force of the blast put out my flames.”
“Eh?” said Derek.
“But it could’ve been worse,” said Buck. “It was being run over by a back marker that really did the damage!”
“What?” asked Derek. “You were run over?”
“Yep! Carlo Ubbiaci on his MV Agusta came round the bloody corner and hit me square on as I was trying to stand up!
“He told me later he was doing a hundred and twenty when he hit me!”
After another deep drag on the cigarette, Buck grimaced and added, “Lying bastard. Those MV’s couldn’t do more than a hundred and ten.”
(Funny, isn’t it, how a liar scorns another liar’s lie?)
“I was facing the other way and didn’t see it coming, mate. Bloody hell, what a noise it made when she hit! They say you could hear my bones shattering from the finish line, four miles away!
“Ubbiaci walked away without a scratch,” said Buck with a shrug. “A whim of the gods. I’ve still got his tire tracks up me backside to this day!”
Fearing he would down his trousers there and then and actually show us the tire tracks, I encouraged Buck to continue.
“What happened next, Buck?” I asked.
“Yessir, Rusty boy, that MV bounced off me, lad! She was a total write-off too, a crumpled heap of useless metal after tangling with me! Making the score for that day Buck two, motorcycles zero!”
“What happened after that?” asked Derek with a touch of suspicion. Derek was older than me, and through lack of exercise his suspension of disbelief was weaker than mine.
“Well lads,” continued Buck. “To be honest with you, I don’t remember much more of that day. Thankfully, the human mind rejects some memories as too unpleasant, so that we might live on unaware. Forgetfulness, it’s another gift of the gods. I woke up two days later in hospital, I do remember that!
“You know,” said Buck philosophically, “Ubbiaci came to visit me while I was in hospital. They were good guys back in the old days. Good enough to show up and visit you in hospital after running you over, anyway.
“‘Buck,’ he says to me, ‘Buck, old boy, you are the luckiest bastard I’ve ever run over. I’d like to shake your hand, if it wasn’t so bandaged up.’
“Of course,” Buck reminded us, “he said it with an Italian accent, him being Italian.
“‘It’s obvious you’re not as dumb as you look,’ he says to me.
“‘Yeah?’ says I. ‘That’s one advantage I’ve got over you, mate!’”
Buck unhooked his glasses from behind his ear and squinted off into the distance. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, to himself he added, “Ah, lads, those were the days.”
He replaced his glasses.
As Buck had apparently finished his tale, I knew a moral couldn’t be far away.
He liked to finish with a moral, as any good fairy tale should.
“Remember,” he said, all serious now and looking from my face to Derek’s, searching with his little eyes as if seeing into each of our souls.
I swear he found my soul, down wherever it abides.
Found it and made it laugh with delight!
Buck leaned in, glancing around to be sure no one could overhear, and uttered solemnly, “Some things aren’t meant to be known, lads… only believed.”