Humphrey (name changed to protect the guilty) handed the last plastic storage container to the buyer, and bid him farewell. As the buyer drove away, Humphrey let out a deep sigh. I tried to console him.
"Think of all those nice crisp dead presidents you have in your pocket now"
Humphrey did not acknowledge the statement. Instead he turned and walked dejectedly back towards the garage. It was only 10 yards, but it was a very long walk, and Humphrey had time to reflect on the entire series of events that preceded him having those nice crisp bills in his pocket....
Twenty-two months earlier, we had been walking around at AMA vintage days, which is one of the largest motorcycle swap meets in the country. We had a great couple of days, and were preparing to jump in the truck to head home. If truth be told, the whole saga is at least partially my fault. You see, it was my idea to take that one last stroll. I had convinced Humphrey that the bargains were greatest as people were packing up. This despite neither of us really needing anything.
"I bet that old Yamaha dealer sign is still there, now at 80% off" I said enthusiastically as I started walking toward the field.
"We are outta here in 30 minutes" said Humphrey as he reluctantly jogged to catch up.
There was a lot of stuff still out. It seems that the wise swap vendors knew to leave the more attractive items out while they packed up. They also knew not to discount anything at 80% off. Not while there were still bargain hunters strolling around in decent numbers thinking that this was deal time. We finally got to the stall where the Yamaha dealer sign had been spotted, and sure enough there it was. It was 20% off, and still no great bargain at that price. We continued intense negotiations, but the owner said that 25% off was his final price. We turned to walk away, when he made one final offer.
"Tell you what, if you buy the sign, I will throw in that Yamaha 125 next to it." He said while continuing to load a box of miscellaneous headlight buckets.
Now there are several trigger phrases that get a vintage Gearhead to react like a Pavlovian dog. "I'll buy the beer", "It comes with a parts vehicle", and "I will throw in...." are among the most powerful. You may have noticed that the concept of "free" is present in all of these. We both stopped as if we hit an invisible brick wall.
Loading the Bike was easy, despite the suspect head bearings, and we were on the road in less than an hour from Humphrey's original warning.
"Aren't you glad I made us take that one last walk?" I said smugly.
"I'll buy the beer" said Humphrey.
It was a good ride home. There was much talk of plans for the 125, including a small displacement Giro event up in New England, stock restoration, ride it just like it is, vintage hare scrambles, etc. We speculated that it could not need much more than plugs, carb cleaning, and fresh gas. The motor turned, the wheels were straight, despite some pitted chrome, it looked complete. As the guys on Top Gear always say, "how hard could it be?"
Within a few days, Humphrey discovered that the gas tank needed to be recoated. It leaked along a seam. It turns out that you could not just find another tank in the original color scheme, as Yamaha changed it every year. A new tank was available for $450. It also turns out that the carbs were beyond just a rebuild kit. New carbs were $300. Those two items alone would be the price of a decent running example of the bike. Decent used tanks and carbs were out there, but they might need rebuilding too. It needed a battery (missing when purchased), a headlight (present, but blown), a tail light (missing when purchased), and some electrical work. Oh, and it had no title, which was at least an expense we had anticipated. Free can be pretty expensive. The smart thing to do, the logical thing to do, would be to get rid of this thing without spending a dime, or use it as garage art, or throw it away, or sell it for parts. But true Gearheads are not calculating investors, and Humphrey did what many of us would do. He vowed to get the thing back on the road. To save it. He had an emotional investment, and he was gonna see a return on that investment, even if the financial story was a predictable tragedy. He had a few ideas about how to save some money. Been there, done that.
This is the part in the movie where the hero can't help himself. Despite defeating an army of evil snake people, narrowly escaping from the clutches of his deadly arch-villain, and leading his people to safety, he decides that he must go back and face an almost certain death to save the poor defenseless disheveled (but naturally beautiful) heroine. All this based on just one glance between them in the moonlight. But I digress.
Every month or two I would see Humphrey and ask him how the project was going. He would scowl, or smile, or give me a look that said "If you ever ask me about that POS again, I will disembowel you with this butter knife!" I stopped asking. A year or so later, he mentioned that it was all apart, and he thought it might be ready for the next Giro event. Then nothing for months. Then one day, out of the blue, Humphrey told me and a few others that he was selling the bike. He invited us over to see it. The "free" bike was now legendary, and I think Humphrey wanted to dispel rumors that (a) it did not really exist, or that (b) he had sold the thing apart in boxes long ago. I was not sure whether to ask him anything about it, so I just nodded....
At his garage, he rolled the bike out into the daylight. It looked a lot like when we picked it up, but with a new seat cover. Upon closer inspection, the tank was recoated, there were newer looking carbs, and a new tail light. The handlebars turned smoothly, and the cables all looked new. He also had a title. Humphrey started it up, and it coughed and sputtered to life. It needed throttle and choke movements and his full attention to keep it running. It smoked a little. I congratulated him on saving it from a worse fate. Two other crew members arrived and looked over the bike with a mixture of awe and horror.
"So what did you have to do to it?" One of them asked. I made the universal sign of slashing the throat to indicate that he should kill that particular line of questioning. Humphrey pretended not to hear the question.
The bike's buyer pulled up and they began to talk. He leafed appreciatively through the folder of receipts. The rest of us walked away so that we could avoid hearing any of the details. In a very short amount of time, a satisfied buyer left with the bike. Humphrey was displaying no outward signs of the anticipated emotional windfall. He ignored my comment about the crisp new dead presidents.
He paused at the threshold to the garage, turned to face us, and said in a somber tone,
"Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all"
We all paused for a second not sure how to react, and then everyone erupted in laughter. Humphrey laughed until he cried, or maybe he laughed because he cried. No matter.
"Come on, I'll buy the beer" I said, and we headed off to the nearest tavern.