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by Doug Carpenter

Think Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Heck, even Happy Days’ Fonzie before we found out what a softie he really was. Some pretty bad dudes there, right? Tough guys? Maybe even dangerous? And how do we know this? Why, by the motorcycles they were riding, of course.

Well, it’s time to give that outdated stereotype the hasta la vista, baby treatment. If you want to talk about bikers, you might want to start thinking names more like Sam Palmiere, Paul Fedorsak and Peggy Lichtenthal. Because the face of motorcycle riding has changed, and it looks a lot more like you and me than you might ever have imagined.

Riding Down the Road of Life on a Harley.

Motorcycles first hit the road in the late 1800s. Exactly when it was invented and by whom people tend to disagree on. One thing you won’t get much argument about, however, is what the most famous name in motorcycles is. That name is Harley-Davidson. And for a large and remarkably diverse contingent of Western New York motorcycle enthusiasts, riding a Harley is the purest definition of what being a biker is all about.

Take that first “new” face from above. Sam Palmiere would easily qualify as the exact opposite of what used to be the “bad boy” image of the biker lifestyle. He is, in fact, officially one of the “good guys.” During his 33 years with the Town of Tonawanda Police — the last 13 as Chief, he’s had occasion to deal with bikers who fit the negative reputation that seems to dog the sport.

He points out, however, how much times have changed. How today, that “element” is not as large as people may still believe. The surprisingly big numbers today are, he says, the ones reflecting the rapidly-growing ranks of new motorcycle riders from a wide range of very different backgrounds and professions. “New people, nice people, from all walks of life. Doctors, lawyers, elected officials, mechanics, housewives.”

People with whom you immediately have something in common, he says, drawn together by the opportunity to meet others who share their passion for bikes. In this case, one of the most intense passions around. The love of Harleys.

That common interest quickly makes any social, professional or economic differences they may have irrelevant as Harley enthusiasts of all ages and genders gather for organized rides and other events — many sponsored by groups like the very appropriately-named HOG, an acronym for Harley Owners Group.

Harley-Davidson launched HOGs in 1983 in response to the brand’s soaring popularity. The organizations have since spread across the country and around the world with membership that today is about a million strong. Here in Western New York, a whole herd of HOG chapters are currently active, testifying to the enduring and growing loyalty Harley riders feel for their ride of choice.

Dave Sorgi, Director of the Niagara Falls HOG sponsored by American Harley-Davidson in North Tonawanda, is consistently impressed by the number of riders who regularly and enthusiastically participate in just his chapter’s activities. With a current membership of more than 300, Sorgi speaks of the group’s activities with the kind of pride that seems to come as standard equipment for Harley owners.

From where he sits at the front of the pack, Sorgi senses that what was arguably a social stigma attached to being a “biker” appears to have been replaced by a hard-earned respect for the broader base and increased economic clout of the new breed of motorcycle enthusiast. Times, he says happily, have most definitely changed.

He recalls how not so long ago it was not unusual to encounter resistance from restaurants and other public establishments to hosting motorcycle-related events. In some cases, he allows, it may simply have been a matter of parking lot capacity. But in others, to his members’ collective frustration, it seemed to have more to do with the perception of the kind of crowd a biker event might attract.
Now, however, he notes with pleasure that a growing number of businesses have begun to actually cultivate motorcyclists in general, and Harley-Davidson owners in particular, as customers. The trend is a clear recognition of the financial fact of life that the purchase of a Harley — often described as the “Cadillac of motorcycles” — is the kind of investment made by a successful person who’s worked hard to be able to afford quality. Unquestionably prime “customer” material.

Fueled by these revved up numbers, his group has found itself having to seek out increasingly larger locations to accommodate the upwards of 2,000 motorcycles on hand for special occasions like his chapter’s annual May “Blessing” ceremony. Events like that one, which collectively strengthens the prospects of safe passage for both the riders and their rides, demonstrates yet another of the lesser-known, more spiritual dimensions of biking.

If you ever have a chance to get a close look at a Harley, you shouldn’t be surprised if you see a small bell hanging from bottom of the frame. The reason it’s there is explained by something called The Legend of the Bell, which goes something like this:

“As we all know, life is filled with questions that have no apparent answers. For Harley-Davidson riders, one of the most intriguing is the mystery of the Evil Road Spirit. Evil Road Spirits are little gremlins who love to ride on motorcycles. So much, in fact, that they take up permanent residence on your bike, where they're said to be responsible for most of your bike's problems. Like when your turn signals refuse to work for no explainable reason or your battery suddenly goes dead.

“Because their hearing is supersensitive, the one thing Evil Road Spirits can't stand are bells. Being very small (but very mischievous), they get trapped in the hollow of the bell, and the combination of the constant ringing and the confined space drives them absolutely insane. Eventually, they lose their grip and fall crashing to the pavement. (Now you know what really causes potholes.)

“The magical protective effect of a bell will work just fine if you get one for your bike yourself. But if your bell is given to you by someone else, its mystical power is doubled. So if you know a rider who still doesn't have a bell, why not be an extra-special friend and get them one? The gesture will give the recipient the good feeling of knowing that you care about their well-being. And the bell... along with diligent preventive maintenance by the bike's owner, of course... will ward off those pesky Evil Road Spirits.”

Some other traditions, though less quaint, in their own way speak volumes about the kind of steadfast loyalty the Harley-Davidson brand engenders, often spanning generations. While the cost of owning a Harley has over the years understandably increased along with everything else, their resale value remains among the highest, strengthened by the company’s proactive management of production levels to preserve the brand’s well-established status as a soughtafter commodity.

Dave Sorgi notes that a good number of local bikers ride vintage Harleys that have been passed down from one family member to the next. They’re Harley-Davidson people, he says, “because it’s what they grew up on.” Of course, there’s growing up on Harley-Davidsons and growing up as one. Jean Davidson can tell you all about that.

By way of background for those of you who may not be American manufacturing history buffs, the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built by William Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903. Coming along as it did at the same time as the flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk and the founding of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, you could say it was a pretty big year for innovation.

Being one of the Davidsons responsible for the soon-to-become-legendary Harley-Davidson motorcycle became a defining part of Walter Davidson’s life, the rest of which he spent as the company’s President. Son Gordon subsequently joined the family business as Vice-President for Manufacturing.

While Walter’s company continued to manufacture motorcycles, his family continued to produce Davidsons, including granddaughter Jean, who joined the line in 1937. By the age of 12, she was displaying some innovative thinking of her own, which she says took the form of wanting a horse to ride rather than a motorcycle.

Suffice it to say, Harley-Davidson tradition won out, and she had to settle for horsepower instead of hooves. Davidson recalls, however, that the first time she attempted to ride a motorcycle, she “didn’t get very far. My Dad said ‘Get on and ride,’ and so I did… and went about 50 feet, right smack into the lake.”

That, of course, didn’t stop her. She was, after all, a Davidson. She went on to become a lifelong rider, as well as the Mother of five children (two girls and three boys, now ages 31 to 45 and all riders) and the Grandmother of two. Along the way, she was proprietor of the largest Harley-Davidson dealership in the bike’s home state of Wisconsin, where — in the tradition that seems to be such a great part of biking everywhere — she got to meet a lot of fascinating people who shared her passion for Harleys, from championship racers to Hell’s Angels to the legendary Evel Knievel.

Today, Davidson is back in the hometown she shares with her two-wheel namesake, teaching college and reflecting on a lifetime of unique and memories the have come from growing up Harley-Davidson. If that sounds like it would make a good title for a book, congratulations. You think like a Davidson.

It’s exactly what she named the first of the three books she’s written about her experiences. The second was a Harley-Davidson Family Album and the third, told through the eyes of an eight-year-old, is titled My Daddy Makes the Best Motorcycle in the Whole Wide World — the Harley-Davidson.

In recent years, her devotion to things Harley-Davidson has cast her in the role of keeper of the familial flame and prompted a flood of requests for her presence at motorcycle-related events quite literally every week across the country. So she’s taken her passionate recollections on the road… although not on the back of a Harley… and says she has gained from the experience an even-greater-than-ever respect for the people who love the product her family played a part in giving to America and the world.

The amazingly-warm welcome she receives everywhere she speaks is, she feels, an extension of the love Harley-Davidson owners feel not just for their bikes but for what their Harleys represent. The freedom to enjoy life fully wherever the adventure might take them. For many riders, she believes, the old saying is especially true. That life isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey.

Ask most riders and they’ll probably agree that you’re a lot more likely to hear the proverbial “call of the open road” from the back of a motorcycle. And perhaps even more significantly, having a bike at your disposal makes it a lot easier to answer that call when it comes in.

Most bike owners take obvious satisfaction in how sharp their machine looks, using chrome, paint and a wide array of accessories as a canvas for expressing their individuality. But for all the pride that’s on public display, riding is also a very private experience. One that’s as much about going as it is about showing.

It’s not uncommon for bikers to measure their riding history in models or miles rather than years. Assistant Chief Larry Hoffman, who works with fellow Harley enthusiast Sam Palmiere at Tonawanda Police headquarters, fondly remembers the 49cc All-State moped he bought from a buddy when he started riding at age 15. Now 55 and a 30-year veteran of the force, he’s currently on his 4th Harley, a “Fat Boy” he says is his dream bike.

This, of course, is just one of the series of bikes he’s owned on the way to his Harley destiny… following a path many a fellow rider has traveled as their motorcycle tastes have evolved. In that process, each rider’s journey takes him or her down many different roads and to some pretty far-flung destinations.

Based on the journey that brought him from where he started to where he is today, Paul Fedorsak knows what it means to “take the long way home.” As Events Coordinator for American Harley-Davidson in North Tonawanda, Harleys figure prominently in both the Tonawanda native and longtime riding enthusiast’s personal and private life.

If you’re looking for someone who’s genuinely attached to his bike, Fedorsak would be your guy. He’s been riding for about 35 years, 28 of which he spent on active duty with the United States Air Force, stationed both stateside in Tennessee, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Texas and in Germany. And for nearly all of that time, he had a motorcycle with him.

He spent a considerable portion of his service posted to Ramstein Air Force Base near Frankfort, Germany. For a man with wheels, the assignment was an open invitation to explore the diverse landscape of fascinating cultures that lay right outside his door. It was an invitation he enthusiastically accepted, making his way to Italy, France and Spain as well as touring nearby Germany.

“In eight hours,” he recalls, “I could go through three or four countries in Europe, compared with America where it could take that long just to cross New York State.” But the real adventure was the one awaiting him when his military career came to a close.

After retiring from the Air Force in March of 2001 and coming home to Western New York to work for the Veterans Administration, something was still missing for Fedorsak professionally. Ultimately, it would be his passion for Harleys that would provide the missing piece.

Out of a connection he made as a member of HOG came the opportunity to join the staff of American Harley-Davidson, the dealership where as a devoted Harley rider he’d been a customer for years. It was like coming home all over again. Today, Fedorsak is enthusiastic not just about being so intimately involved with a sport he loves but about working with a product and a dealership he describes as “two great American success stories.”

He points first to the 102-year-old Harley-Davidson’s sometimes financially stormy history, which saw its nearly 80% share of the domestic motorcycle market drop to less than 20% in the 10-year period between 1969 and 1979, only to regroup under new ownership and regain its rightful place as a true American icon.

It’s the kind of well-deserved success in which he finds inspiring similarities to way the North Tonawanda dealership’s current owner Jeff Hartrich and a partner parlayed a comparatively small investment in a very big dream to make American Harley-Davidson a formidable presence in the motorcycle market.

So much so, in fact, that they were chosen to host a visit by the company-sponsored Harley-Davidson Traveling Motorcycle Museum over this year’s 4th of July weekend, accompanied by an appearance by Harley-Davidson legacy Jean Davidson. Not bad, he says, for a guy who at heart is still a “wrencher…” as much at home in the mechanic’s workshop as the merchandise showroom.

It’s a pure, uncomplicated appreciation of the Harley lover’s oneness with the riding experience to which Fedorsak can totally relate. “I completely clear my thoughts when I’m on my motorcycle,” he says with the smile of a man obviously anticipating his next ride. If this is what they mean when they say that the secret to success and happiness is to “follow your bliss,” Fedorsak is clearly already there.

The more members of this new breed of motorcycle enthusiast you talk to, the better you begin to understand how much riding becomes a part of who they are. The fact that they break the mold of what used to be the typical biker quickly takes a back seat to the remarkable impact their passion for the sport has on both their lives and the lives of others.

Take their charitable work. In addition to Harley-Davidson’s corporate commitment to supporting the work of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, local HOGs like the Niagara Falls chapter regularly raise money by organizing rides and designating the proceeds from events like their “Blessing” ceremony to benefit a broad range of area charities such as Hunter’s Hope, Canine Companions and the Lothlorian Therapeutic Riding Center.

Bikers will also step up when they learn that an individual or family needs help in a crisis situation, riding to raise money to help defray mounting medical bills or to establish a college fund for a child who has lost a parent. With so many in need, as Sam Palmiere puts it, “If you can’t find something worth riding for, you’re not looking.”

Sometimes the sweetest stories come from what you could probably call silly, personal moments. But they, too, tell a lot about how contagious some riders’ enthusiasm can be for their families, friends and co-workers. Peggy Lichtenthal has seen this firsthand.

Lichtenthal, a Doctor of Audiology with Ken-Ton Hearing, is not… well, at least she didn’t used to be… your typical Harley rider. And the way she tells it, her discovery of the joys of Harleyhood was as unexpected as it was atypical.

As recently as five years ago, biking was not in the picture for the 40something professional woman until she started dating a guy with a motorcycle. Long story short, he took her to visit a Harley showroom, where she decided to splurge. Kept the bike but not the guy, and never regretted the choice.

Postscript to this happy tale? When her co-workers discovered her newfound passion for motorcycles, they chipped in and bought her a studded leather chair for her examining room that looks like it belongs on a motorcycle. Who says you can’t have your bike and seat it too?

And though you might not know it, as a community we all benefit significantly from a close association with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, as well. Since 1986, every bike that has rolled off Harley’s assembly line has been fitted with original equipment tires manufactured right here in Western New York at the Dunlop Tire plant in Tonawanda.

It’s easy to start taking things like this for granted. Like being able to work hard and reward ourselves for our efforts with the people and possessions that give our lives pleasure and meaning. But in this time of understandably heightened concern over just how tenuous our ability to maintain the way of life we enjoy may be, people like Dave Sorgi and his fellow Harley riders seem to be tuned in to an awareness of something we could all benefit from keeping in mind.

On the Sunday immediately following the awful events of 9/11, Sorgi and some friends headed out into the local countryside for a ride. Stopping to enjoy a clear, blue September sky, he recalls being taken by the sight of what he knew had to be military jets flying overhead, white contrails of exhaust trailing behind them.

There he was, he realized, out for a ride on a beautiful day enjoying the freedom of the open road that he and his fellow bikers so enthusiastically cherish. “I couldn’t help but think,” he says, “that there are people trying to take that freedom away.” In that moment, he counted us all… both Harley owners and those who simply haven’t gotten around to buying one yet… as fortunate to be Americans.

© 2005 Doug Carpenter

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