Watching My Brother Fly
The moment my brother became my hero
I once read that Iceland’s founders gave their beautiful country its forbidding name to scare away would-be immigrants. Conversely, Greenland’s founders, in order to lure newcomers to its harsh and barely habitable nation, chose a name with a none too subtle promise of verdancy.
The same goes on some level, with the Uptown area of Minneapolis in the sixties and seventies. Its swanky name, Uptown, notwithstanding, it was a derelict Greenland of a place. That’s where my Dad chose to set up Midwest Suzuki, the Midwest’s first Suzuki dealer. Vagabonds, hobos and winos — terms we used in lieu of “homeless,” were all drawn Uptown. But the rents were lower there than in most places in the city, and when my dad’s entrepreneurial spirit took over there was no stopping him.
I don’t know where he’d first read about Suzukis, the disrupters of the well-established, Harley Davidson brand, but he had and he acted. Nowadays it’s difficult if not impossible to conceive of how ridiculous a Japanese motorcycle must have seemed, or why anyone would want to own something so pre-stigmatized, which is to say that at the time “made in Japan” was synonymous with: just plain shitty. Or why anyone, who hadn’t had the foresight that my dad had, would eschew the hulking, manly Harleys, the kings of the open road, for a tiny “Jap” rice burner that was built to ride in the dirt. As it turned out, my dad who was in his way, prescient about most things, was right about these Suzukis as well.
His Suzuki shop housed another of his brainchildren, Tape-Orama, the first eight- track tape retail store in the upper Midwest. The two stores housed together were officially and somewhat incongruously named: Midwest Suzuki and Tape Orama. The building sat on the corner of Bryant Avenue and Lake Street and there, in that small space were a dozen, gleaming motorcycles, from the tiny fifty CC Trailhopper, which I would eventually ride, to the hulking 500 CC road bikes.
On the walls in racks, ringing the entire circumference of the store were the eight tracks: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors and The Rolling Stones. I have absolutely no idea how my dad got involved in selling some of the hippest music of the day, but somehow he did. And at twelve years old, I was especially drawn to Herb Alpert’s recording, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, (or at least i was drawn to its cover) which featured the iconic and irresistibly sexy picture of a busty Latina covered — but not too covered, in whipped cream.
My brother Paul apparently had more interest in the motorcycles than the eight tracks. One summer my dad brought home a 125 CC dirt bike for him to ride around the block. — A brief note to parents: Never bring home a motorcycle for your masculinely inclined child to try. He (or she) will ride it, and just as my brother did, come to love its noise, its smoke, and its enormous, gut wrenching power.
Paul was the first of us Himmelman’s to ride the Target Trails. Even now, that name, Target Trails, conjures up a wild sense of adventure, a destination where the combination of dirt, danger, and a place away from all parental oversight, provided a means to live life on the edge, to live life as a man.
The Target Trails were named for the Target retail store, the first in the nation in fact, that sat directly in front of it. The trails were spread out on an abandoned wooded area that had been partially cleared, leaving a dusty ten or so acres of dirt paths and scrub, perfect for aspiring young motocross aficionados. In the spring you could hear the high whine of the bikes on weekends and weekdays, after school let out. There were all manner of jumps too, ramps made of mounds of compressed dirt where a rider could get as high as nine or ten feet and land in a haze of dust, exhaust, and pure heroism. To my mind the Target Trails is where my brother Paul first fell in love, or to be precise, where he at fifteen years old, first found his unshakable confidence. It’s also where I started to fall in love, as any good younger brother should, with him.
One day, after my dad and I drove to the Target Trails to watch my brother ride, (I still remember seeing Paul smile after he took one of the aforementioned jumps and soared clear over our heads, his motorcycle roaring in space just above us,) I told my him I wanted a motorcycle too. He brought home the Trailhopper the next day, along with a “woman’s” bike for my mom and a 250 CC for himself. At the time I had little sense for how odd it must have seemed to our neighbors to see a suburban Jewish couple tooling around the neighborhood on matching Suzukis.
For my brother and me, just getting to the Target Trails required a degree of fearlessness. From our house, we rode two or three blocks on city streets, which of course was totally illegal, given that I was only twelve and my brother was just fifteen, but soon, when we’d buzzed safely past the police, we tore through some stranger’s backyard and onto the railroad tracks which abutted his lawn.
Riding down the center of the tracks was tough, if not insane. But the suspension on the bikes was superb, and bouncing along in the warmth of the spring sunshine over the railroad ties, following just behind my brother, was about as beautiful a life event as could be had. The real challenge though, was navigating the trestle, which even today, makes me a little queasy just thinking about it.
The trestle was a primitive wood framed bridge that rose forty feet above Minnehaha creek. As you made your way slowly across you could see the creek and the jagged rocks below through the spaces between the railroad ties. This was in no way, a pedestrian bridge and there were several ways to die: falling off the edge, being hit on the bridge by a speeding train, or for the feint of heart, simply dying from fear, itself. The trick to trestle-crossing, I’d learned, was to always look out towards the other side, and never to look down. Looking down at the rushing water could make you dizzy; and that dizziness could easily leave you mangled and drowning in the shallow water of the creek.
One afternoon we heard that a boy, sixteen years old, had taken his motorcycle over a jump, crashed-landed, broken his neck, and died. This presented a dilemma in the Himmelman household. Even at twelve, I knew our days as motorcyclists were now numbered. Understandably, my mother told my dad that Paul could no longer ride. Though I wasn’t privy to their conversations, I knew my dad put up no fight. Kids dying, trestle- crossings, jumps that put you nine feet in the air; suddenly, none of it made a lick of sense. But by the time of the accident my brother was, as they say, “heavily invested”.
The room I shared with him was covered with motocross posters; his dirty helmet was a fixture of our room, as were his scattered motocross magazines and his racing gloves. Paul had even ordered a brand new set of riding leathers and a new yellow helmet. It was my dad who broke the news that my brother could no longer follow his dream.
I was lost in learning to play the guitar and in a burgeoning interest in sex, and as the younger brother, what could I really have known about what Paul was going though? And yet, when he left the house in protest, for who knows where, I felt his pain in my guts.
To me, my brother Paul is still that same guy I saw long ago; bike buzzing through the air, boots pressing down on footpegs, body lifting off the seat and all the while, his face smiling in sheer triumph as he landed in a cloud of dust, some thirty feet away from the dirt ramp.
Originally published at himmelman.wordpress.com on March 15, 2016.