Grampa Stepp. Air Force Veteran. Alleged motorcycle rider. Hear his shenanigans via "The Curve"
Grandpa Stepp. He was my dad's dad. He always liked Canadian geese. He was fascinated by them. He spent hours watching them, reading, and thinking about them.
He used to ask people, "You ever watch a flock of geese fly over you? You know how one side of their V always seems to be longer than the other? You know why that is?" He would watch with amusement for a bit while they pondered his question - trying to come up with a good answer... "Because it's got more geese in it!" he'd say, as a shit grin appeared across his face.
He was ornery like that. I suppose that's how we came by it. Grandpa always wore one those fishin' hats, like a bucket hat. As kids, my brother and sister and cousins would sneak up behind him at the kitchen table and steal it from him. He'd run into the living room and set it up perfectly on the floor where one of us would jump off the couch as smash it. Then we'd laugh while we hauled it back to him all out of shape. He'd whine and complain and make a big production while he put his smashed hat back on his head. Then, beneath that shit grin, he'd go back to playing cards, pretending not to notice us conspiring for the next round.
One time, as grandpa was getting older, he started talking about getting a motorcycle. In his younger years he'd had one. Dad and his brothers grew up riding dirt bikes, and later street bikes, too. They tried to steer Grandpa towards an older model... something light and maneuverable, inexpensive, some to re-learn the ropes on before committing to a heavier road bike. Grandpa was a bit of an old dog, though, and he had this think about new tricks. He found a bike he thought he needed, and, of course, it was among the biggest, heaviest bikes one could find.
It was about a 2 hour drive from the small town my grandpa and uncle Larry lived in. One day, they loaded up on the Larry's bike, double, to head up to the shop and buy this motorcycle. Larry wasn't impressed, needless to say, but went along with it for the old man's sake. Off they road across Nebraska highways in an embarrassing fashion... two grown men on the same motorcycle. When they got there, the owner had the motorcycle pulled out on the driveway, ready to go. Grandpa looked it over, gave it the walk-around, and decided he'd take it. He paid the man and struggled to swing a leg over the seat - he'd had more limber days in his 70-some years.
He fumbled around a bit before my uncle Larry realized he was looking for a key. Larry turned the key to start. Grandpa fumbled around a bit more before Larry laughed and pointed to the start button out to him... shaking his head in acknowledgement that this was a bad idea.
Grandpa pulled in the clutch and popped the bike into gear. As he attempted to pull out of the driveway, his rusty skills shown through. He tensed up and rode the motorcycle straight across the street and bounced up over the neighbor's curb. Larry and the other guy held their breath as he barely missed their mailbox, then gasping and holding it again as he bopped through their lawn, heading straight for two giant tree trunks. Somehow, by some stroke of luck, grandpa managed to awkwardly thread that needle, too. He bounced down off the curb and onto the street, and disappeared into the outskirts of town. Larry looked at the guy with eyes the size of baseballs and shrugged his shoulders... "I guess we're heading out." They made it home without any further incident, and we laughed about that story for a long time and still do.
Some time later, an idea was hatched to take a trip to western Nebraska. My dad and his brothers used to go on a family camping trip out there every summer when they were kids. We picked a Saturday, and as it got closer, more folks planned to join in on the ride. Early that morning, I left in the dark to meet the rest of the group in gray light at the spot we'd begin the trip from. We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 motorcycles. My dad and brother, my uncles, a few cousins, myself... and grandpa. It was cold and wet that morning, not a great day for a long motorcycle trip, but the rain was supposed to break up to bluer skies mid-morning. We all saddled up and hit the road, heading west.
It was coming into Burwell, Nebraska. we were about an hour into the trip and everyone was spaced out pretty comfortably, like you would be on a long road trip. There's big sweeping curve that takes you from west bound to south bound, just before you cross the river bridge and head into Burwell.
I must've been two of three bikes behind Grandpa and started to perk up as his back tire started creeping toward the white line on the outside of the curve. Everything went to slow motion as it crossed the white line and just kept going. We were running between 55 and 60 MPH, and instincts must've taken over at that point. The whole thing played out in my mind before it even happened and somehow I got my bike stopped, parked, and was running down the ditch before I even passed Grandpa up.
Grandpa missed the curve. Inexperience, poor skill set, whatever it was, Grandpa shouldn't have been on a bike, and I think we all knew it. This was gonna kill him.
As I was screeching to a stop, I became positioned right alongside him. He ran right over a steel marker post with a reflector on it. That reflector shot straight up in the air 50 feet. Surely that steel post just destroyed his left leg. Grandpa and the bike disappeared over the back side of the road embankment and into chest-high grass. As I was losing sight of the bike, I watched it pitch onto it's left side. Then all hell broke loose.
The grass was wet that morning from hours of rain and drizzle. As Grandpa and the bike entered the ditch, they set into motion some pretty spectacular disruption. The entire ditch exploded into a cloud of mist. It totally enveloped the motorcycle. I have no idea, to this day, how I got my bike stopped and parked. When the whole deal was all said and done, it was standing on the road shoulder, parked on it's kickstand. I've looked that scene over many times and wouldn't bet money that I could go from 60 to zero in that short distance again. As I was coming to a stop, watching this horror scene unfold not 20 feet from me, this 700lb bike comes ripping up out of the cloud of mist and chaos, flipping and tumbling through the air. It had ripped through sod and something stuck, launching that bike 10 feet off the ground with a violence that was nearly unbelievable. If Grandpa was okay, he isn't anymore.
The whole thing was over in a second, everything was still and calm as I ran down the ditch to pick up the pieces. I knew full-well what I was running towards and was totally prepared to do what I had to do to try and make this a survivor situation.
Grandpa's bike was laying there in a heap, chugging along trying to run. Parts were strewn everywhere but no sign of Grandpa. I hit the kill switch as I hopped over Grandpa's motorcycle in what must've been one stride. As my gaze shifted from the bike, back up to scanning the ditch, it was met with my grandpa's. Right there in front of me.
He was on one knee and was standing up. He was wearing a leather jacket and chaps, and he was standing right in front of me, staring at me face to face. His helmet was on crooked and the face shield was busted, and he had a dazed look on his face.
"Grandpa!" I grabbed him with both fists by the lapels of his jacket. "Grandpa are you okay?! Sit down!!!"
"Well, yeah... Yeah, I think so," he mustered.
"Is everything okay?!" I must've bent my knees, squatting up and down.
"Is everything okay, Grandpa?! Does everything work?! Does anything hurt?"
He mimicked my movements as we tried to take inventory of the situation. By now, everyone was arriving at the scene, in as much disbelief and shock as we both were in. That old man walked away from that morning without a scratch. Not busted arm, not a sprained ankle, not a scratch.
It must be an old-timer thing or somethin' because in his saddle bags, he had a clean pair of socks and underwear. After everyone settled down at and it looked like everything was okay, we started gathering up the busted bike parts and everything else. Someone found Grandpa's clean underwear strewn out on top of the tall grass. They brought them over to the group and we cracked a few jokes about who might be needing those and had a few laughs.
We stood the bike up, and cranked the handlebars back into some kind of shape. My uncle Mark fired it up and actually rode it into town. We parked it at a shop, and left it for the day, but my uncle Mark still rides that bike to this day. It made it through relatively unscathed, as well.
Grandpa got a ride back home, and we continued west. Our setback didn't leave us enough time to make it to Lake McConaughy, but we salvaged what we could of the day, and stopped to see some family out west.
Grandpa lived many more years, but gave up his dream to get back on a motorcycle. He actually walked away from a good handful of other closed calls that it seems like only a stubborn old man could get himself into.
We still laugh about all of those old stories, and I'm glad we can.
That's what it's all about, right?