When my father Larry was assigned to his army unit and issued a Harley Davidson motor cycle during WWII, he named it C-Biskit, after a famous racehorse of the time. At the barracks where he was stationed in Louisiana, he soon cemented a bond with a select group of G.I.s that were also issued cycles. One rider in particular, Smokin’ Joe Johnson, proved to be the most valuable asset to their section. Prior to his enlistment, he was gamely employed as a motorcycle stunt man, his specialty being that of a “Barrel Rider,” and traveled with a carnival throughout the east coast states.
As a teenager, I witnessed Barrel Riders at the Monroe county Fair when it was held on vacant land on Jefferson Road in Rochester during the late 60s. A huge wooden barrel consisting of a series of panels would be erected at a carnival site. It was about 30 feet in diameter and 20 feet high. Two motorcycle riders, generally driving Triumphs, would enter through a lower ground level side door panel and ride around the inside of the barrel from the bottom to the top, criss-crossing. Spectators could walk up a catwalk that wound around the outside of the barrel to the top edge to watch the spectacle by looking down into the barrel. The sound of the bikes was excitably obnoxious, you would get disoriented just watching them. They would refrain from driving past the red line at the top inside rim, but you could see tire marks within a few inches of your face above the line.
Smokin’ Joe eagerly shared his expertise with the other cyclists. His well-trained riders would often entertain their comrades with their stunts behind the back barracks. Knowing the men would soon receive orders to be shipped out to Europe with little chance of survival, their superiors were more concerned with the unyielding paperwork to be done at the compound entrance front office than the ongoing antics at the back barracks. Thus, they were totally unaware when the G.I.s and stunt riders created a diversion while my dad maneuvered C-Biskit out a back camouflaged, muddy alligator-infested swamp trail. An army helmet was passed, money collected, and C-Biskit was taking the scenic route to town. Soon her worn leather saddlebags would be packed with as much beer as she could hold.
Riders would take turns trying to break the record time for a round trip to town. The shorter the time, the less the odds of being found out. It was C-Biskit’s turn to attempt to break the previous record, held by “Man of War,” Smokin’ Joe’s army bike. Dad had taken C-Biskit through the paces on the greasy red clay trails on numerous occasions without incident. Alligators had been known to soak up the hot bayou sunshine on the trails but would scurry off upon hearing the roar of the approaching Harleys.
Dad’s trip to town had been uneventful. The precious cargo bulged from his saddlebags, causing the bike to sway at each perilous turn. In his mind, Dad was back at the farm, riding their prized Holstein cow. She was running for the barn, anxious to have her swaying three gallon milk bag emptied by his throttle gripping hand. Instead, he was on the trail conducting a special mission. Suddenly he encountered the last two feet of a gator slithering off the trail. He swerved to the left, the saddlebag deflecting off of a Louisiana Paw Paw tree, which threw him to the right, deflecting him off another tree, shattering the glass contents within. Managing to keep C-Biskit upright, he grabbed, twisted and wrung that udder hard. The gas pumped through the carburetor like a Holstein’s milk surging to the bottom of a steel pail. A rooster tail of red mud slung from C-Biskit’s rear tire, leaving a red racing stripe up the back of that gator.
Stop watch in hand, the G.I.s awaited the forthcoming sound of C-Biskit’s arrival at the finish line. As she crossed the line and slid to a stop, the saddlebag’s loose stitching strained, glass fragments allowing the beer to spray like a common garden sprinkler. G.I.s scrambled for canteens, army helmets, mess cups, anything that could catch the damaged goods. Smokin’ Joe congratulated Dad on breaking Man of War’s record by six seconds but was first to ask, “What happened, Briggsy?” Dad thought for a moment and said, “Well, we weren’t the only ones using that trail!”