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I Never Knew My Father As A Motorcyclist Until I Read His 1959 Diary

02/11/2016 12:14 EST | Updated 02/11/2017 05:12 EST
Courtesy of George Elliott Clarke

The most curious fact about my father's death, on August 31, 2005, at age 70, is that, as soon as it had happened, I knew I would write a novel based on his life. Parents are unavoidable for children, and I am not the first to believe his own to have been both more eccentric and more superb than the billions of other human beings who did not chance to give me life. But my father's life seemed novelistic for another reason: he -- William Lloyd Clarke -- had driven a motorcycle in his early 20s in the later 1950s. Indeed, I inherited his self-painted helmet, his dozens of black-and-white photos of his travels and friends from those days, and, most significantly, his 1959 diary, the only part of his estate he expressly willed to me.

Yet, I never knew my father as a "rider." When he married in 1960, he sold his bike after his honeymoon. My early memories are of his dark-blue, pick-up truck, whose dashboard wires spat sparks at my toddler self. (Sitting between my parents and barely able to see over the dashboard, I had no choice but to focus on those miniature flares!) Later, my father drove a Volkswagen van (before the Hippie era made them popular), then a station wagon, and then, much, much later, a series of dark blue Ford "boats" he operated as a taxi driver. Come to think of it, I don't think my father ever owned a new car (or bike) in his life: a child of the Depression, he would never have wanted to sustain the 30 per cent of its value that a new car loses as soon as it leaves the dealer's lot.

As I grew up, I became increasingly aware of how remarkable my "Negro" father and his friends were to be motorcyclists in 1950s Canada.

Though my father's biker life remained a mystery to my two brothers and me, it was apparent to us from early on that these were the days of his wanderlust, adventure, and Romance -- although he never told us anything more than the pure facts. For one thing, there was that helmet, black, with painted red, orange, gold flames licking back from the face, and a Union Jack decal on the back. It sat front and centre in every living room that my father ever owned. Occasionally too, when taking us on drives, he would deliberately speed over hilltops to give us that split-second sensation of freefall. There were also a few photographs of his motorcycle days that we were permitted to see. Of course, we never saw the photos of his loves, and it was a shock for me to discover, post-mortem, his trove of these memories, which included, poignantly, images of my mother.

As I grew up, I became increasingly aware of how remarkable my "Negro" father and his friends were to be motorcyclists in 1950s Canada. (Even now, in North America, it is unusual to see black men or women operating motorcycles. When most of us purchase a first vehicle, we choose one that will provide shelter from the elements, cargo space, and comfortable accommodation.) There was, in those days, a quixotic heroism in the venture -- especially if one were motoring southerly into the United States. Though my father never went further south than Washington, D.C., it is appropriate to recall that, in the 1950s, that city, home to Georgetown University, boasted many congressmen and senators who could excuse -- if not champion -- lynching.

Like most children, or like most sons, I felt a tension towards my father. I thanked him for his gifts to me of an interest in art, literature, politics, and travel. I cursed him for what I felt was his betrayal of my mother (who he divorced), his love for white women (which I also came to experience), and his rejection -- so I believed -- of myself. True: When I was 13, and my parents' marriage was dissolving via mutual adulteries and violent arguments, my father, while pointing at me, yelled at my mother, "I only married you because of him." Somehow, I'd always felt responsible for their marriage, and, childishly, I blamed myself for having been the goad for their ultimately fissile union.

Yet, I also began to punish my father for contradictory reasons: he had rejected me at birth; and, out of weakness, had wed my mother. I fantasized that I would have grown up happier a country boy, raised by maternal grandparents who doted on me, their first grandchild, had my father not wooed my mother unto marriage. I held this belief, and my secret anger, subtle and insistent, until my father died. No, not quite: My buried rage continued, for now I felt robbed of the pleasure of disputing issues with him and contesting his decisions.

Two events altered my attitude: 1) Reading his 1959 diary introduced me to the world of my father's courtships, just prior to my conception and his relinquishment of bachelorhood: I thus met a man I'd never known before -- one full of poignant self-doubt, unfulfilled dreams, plentiful sorrows, and eccentric desires. 2) My mother's sister and brother explained (and my father's diary verified the point) that my father did not reject me. My mother had never told him that she was pregnant with his child. He didn't know he had a son until, two months after my birth -- when I was sick-to-death in a hospital. Now, my mother's mother overruled her, and called my father to tell him to come see me before I expired. It was only then, upon visiting me on those premises that my father chose to court my mother and propose a settled family life with her.

As children, we cannot know, except in the most general, mythical ways, the complex interactions that lead to our births. The Motorcyclist is my own attempt at a more satisfying narrative. Yet, it is not biography. It is a comedy of manners...

It could not be anything else. Romance is the comic side of economics...

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