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Adventuring across America: The Old Man and the Harley

John Newkirk sings a heart-felt song of America and “the Old Man’s” ride across it



By Patte Smith, photos by Tim Gamble and Patte Smith

Feel it…the wind at your back, the road flying by, home behind you and ahead — freedom, fun, and a grand adventure — a dream for any young man. The motorcycle shakes, your teeth clatter and you grip the handlebars while maneuvering down the bumpy road at a whopping 43 miles per hour. Wow, what a feeling!

On Sunday, June 20, author John Newkirk delighted motorcycle and history buffs with the touching story of his father, Jack Newkirk, at Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. John’s memoir, The Old Man and the Harley, is an account of dad Jack’s incredible motorcycle journey across the U.S.A. and recollections of the country’s history during 1939.

Newkirk’s presentation was part of Douglas County Libraries’ Colorado Author Series, which highlights the literary contributions of local authors. John’s presentation included his guitar playing, radio clips, music and sound bites from 1939. He was joined by the elder Newkirk and his 1932 Harley-Davidson VL Big Twin.

In 1939, nineteen-year-old Jack set off on a not-so-new Harley-Davidson to see both the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition. Young Jack had borrowed $100 from his dad and used $40 of it to buy a dilapidated 1932 Harley to pursue his dream of riding a motorcycle from New York to San Francisco.

“I had never ridden a motorcycle and the man I bought it from gave me a quick ‘round-the-block’ lesson and then I was on my own,” laughed Jack. He was living every young man’s dream, but some days were tough. “I think there were only three days that the bike didn’t give me any trouble.”

Jack used his ingenuity to repair broken parts from whatever he could find along the way. “Roads were rough and cracked — there weren’t any interstates back then,” he explains. He recalled stories of the open road and the friendly people he met along the way. Sleeping in a 9’X9’ shelter cloth he waterproofed with two green army blankets, Jack reminisced about staying in culverts during heavy rains. “At Crater Lake in Oregon I had a close encounter with a bear while I was sleeping…luckily I got away!”

Seventy years later, the younger Newkirk and author took his 89-year-old dad across the country by motorcycle again, retracing Jack’s first epic ride. “I didn’t set out to write a book — I just wanted one last ride with my dad,” noted John. “But along the road it became clear that a lot of good people made a lot of sacrifices to bring me this freedom; I wanted to pay tribute to them in some way.”

My dad’s ride during the summer of 1939 was when America unknowingly teetered on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. So many pivotal events took place within a few short months: two World Fairs, Einstein’s A-bomb letter to Roosevelt, famous movies including The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, Lou Gehrig’s farewell to baseball, Glenn Miller’s rise to fame, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland which marked the beginning of World War II.”

The Old Man and the Harley is a story not to be missed — a chronicle of a daring young man and a historic snapshot of the U.S.A in 1939. For more information about Douglas County Libraries’ Colorado Author Series call 303-791-7323 or visit dcl.org. For information about The Old Man and the Harley go online to www.theoldmanandtheharley.com. Books are available at the Tattered Cover Book Store.

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