Motorcycles offer veterans two vital things postwar: comradery and solitude, both of which I need in equal doses, Patrick Mondaca writes
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Scholar and military officer T.E. Lawrence had seven motorbikes in the years after the First World War, all called Boanerges or Sons of Thunder. I, a former sergeant, had three, all called Black Velveteen after a Lenny Kravitz song. Beloved by us both, he died on his, and I came close to it on mine.
Motorcycles and combat veterans have always had a connection. Motorcycle clubs and motorcycles offer the veteran two vital things postwar: comradery and solitude, both of which the veteran needs in equal doses. From the brotherhood of former platoon mates, to the solitary veteran riding nowhere in particular, if just to lay waste to the noise in their mind, the connection is strong.
One morning, two summers ago, I woke up in an ambulance with a series of rapid-fire questions going through my head. How did I get here? Why are my arms and legs bandaged? What is this throbbing pain in my torso? I may have even said those things aloud. Alone in the back of an ambulance, it's difficult to ascertain who's listening. At the very least, I knew I was alive and capable of conversation, and I knew my own name, too, which was reassuring.
When the ambulance slowed to a stop, the paramedics wheeled my gurney through sliding doors and into the building and I could see signs for "Poly-trauma," "Rehabilitation" and "Brain Injuries." Go figure.
I guess it was bound to happen. Like so many other veterans, after my return home I spent hours riding aimlessly past miles of woods and farmland and along the coast. The feeling of the sun on my face and wind in my hair, and hearing the throaty rumble of torque propelling me fast and forward was soothing. I never imagined I might almost die on my motorcycle as two others from my company had since our return from Baghdad.
In my hospital room, a little TV hung from the ceiling, and I noticed a small bathroom off to the side. Monitors for vital signs and a small plastic pitcher of ice water on a tray sat nearby. My left arm was elevated by a little pulley system and a warm blanket was draped over me. I remember drifting off every now and then, waking up, and drifting off again. This was less because of the pain medication and more to do with the damage to my right frontal lobe, the part of the brain which manages things such as personality and creativity.
Eventually, the attending physician approached my bedside. He told me that he was my neurologist, and that I'd been in a motorcycle accident. I was there because I'd sustained a traumatic brain injury.
I could believe the part about the accident. I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. But I could not recall a single second of it happening. Post-traumatic retrograde amnesia they call it.
It took a while to process. In all my years of riding on three continents, through busy cities, on bad roads and in all weather I'd never had an accident. In the words of Paul Baumer's character in All Quiet on the Western Front, "It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit."
I guess my luck held. Lawrence's didn't. I can't imagine I even saw the car coming. All I know is that I lived.
Now, two years later and because of the police reports, I know that I was found "unconscious and did not present with an active airway." I know that my upper torso was "resting on the undercarriage of the motorcycle." From my family and doctors, I learned that I had broken ribs, a collapsed lung and ruptured spleen among other injuries.
My beautiful British Triumph Speedmaster, to which I'd devoted so many hours polishing and installing custom parts to make louder, faster and lovelier, was equally mangled.
Luckily, the helmet I'd worn, and the police officer who responded that day, had saved my life.
After I was released, my friends would joke and ask if I'd seen Jesus or if I'd gone toward "the light." I don't remember seeing Jesus, but during those long days and nights in hospital I do remember being wheeled around and moved from gurneys to beds with transfer boards. I remember feeling too tired to move or resist or stand up. I remember nurses waking me up and telling me to swallow pills from little plastic cups, and being injected in the stomach with an anti-clotting medication. I remember the trays of food delivered twice a day and aides coming to change my bandages.
Since then, I've had a lot of time to think about reintegration, about veterans' adjustments back into postwar society, and why we find motorcycles, these mechanical beasts, so poignant.
A motorcycle is a live thing. A machine to be studied and learned from and listened to. It is no less intimate a relationship than the one between a soldier and their rifle. The soldier knows the rifle's intricacies and secrets. Likewise, the veteran knows the motorcycle's intricacies and fickle behaviours, its sounds, and the difference between a content purr and an angry growl.
The relationship between man and machine is a relationship at which the veteran cannot fail. The veteran can be assured that their postwar persona will never disappoint a motorcycle.
T.E. Lawrence understood this. Shortly before his death on Boanerges, he wrote: "A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on Earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness."
I feel it, as much as other war vets. The motorcycle is better than all other means of transport on Earth, perhaps because it allows us to feel again.
Patrick Mondaca lives in Montclair, N.J.