By Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Shields, United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.June 20, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 20, 2013) - It was the summer of 1980, and I was a young airman stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwestern Idaho. I'd recently been promoted to E-3 and decided to reward myself by purchasing a motorcycle. Of course, I wanted the biggest, fastest bike I could afford.
The salesman showed me a lot of motorcycles, but most were out of my price range. Then we came across a used Kawasaki 900cc with dual overhead cams. As I looked over the bike, the salesman was reciting its specifications, as they always do, but I wasn't paying much attention. Then he said the magic word: "fast." I was sold.
I purchased the motorcycle, which I immediately dubbed "the Beast," and told the salesman I'd be back the next day to pick it up. At the time, the state of Idaho didn't require any special license or training to operate a motorcycle. I can't be sure if the base required any special training either, but, regardless, I didn't have any. It wouldn't be long before I received the first indicator that riding without proper training was a bad idea.
The next day, I went to the motorcycle shop on my lunch break to pick up my new ride. I'd never been on a motorcycle this big and heavy before, so the 10-mile ride back to the base's jet engine test facility was a "crash course" in operating it. As I pulled up to the facility, everyone was outside cheering me on. Being young and dumb, I figured this was the perfect time to show them what this bike could do.
I gunned the throttle, not realizing the front wheel would come off the ground, causing me to do a wheelie. To my surprise, I controlled the Beast, but my heart was racing. I knew I had just performed a brainless move, and it wouldn't be my last.
After witnessing my recklessness, my supervisor pulled me aside and asked how long I had been riding a motorcycle. "Since lunchtime today," I told him. I still can see the look on his face as he uttered the words, "Stupid, stupid." He then took a deep breath and told me I should park the bike because it would be the death of me. Today, I regard that as the best guidance he could have given me. Unfortunately, I turned a deaf ear to his advice. All I could hear was everyone cheering as I rode that wheelie and the words of the salesman: "fast."
After a few weeks on the Beast, I was an experienced rider who could hang with the best of them - or so I thought. My confidence was high, which reflected in my efforts to look cool. I began riding without my leather jacket, using excuses like, "It's summertime. It's so much cooler without it." Soon after, I ditched my helmet and riding boots too. I was now on a collision course with destiny. Here's how it happened.
It was a sunny weekend day, and my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I were invited to a barbecue. Although she pleaded with me not to ride the Beast, I insisted we take it. Reluctantly, she climbed onto the back and put on a helmet. At the barbecue, I had a beer, which infuriated my girlfriend. I told her I was only having one, but she called me a fool and asked me to take her home immediately, which I did. One might hope the story ended there, but, unfortunately, it doesn't.
I went back to the barbecue alone. When someone mentioned heading out to another party, I decided to go too and jumped on my bike. As I followed a friend's vehicle to the party, my mind wasn't focused on the road. I didn't notice his vehicle had stopped in front of me until it was too late and smashed the Beast into the rear bumper. I was thrown over the vehicle, coming down on my head and face 150 feet down the road. I can still picture the look on the face of the person sitting in the passenger seat as I flew past the car.
Miraculously, I survived the accident with little more than some scrapes and bruises. What hurt more than my injuries, though, was knowing I'd let down so many people. From my girlfriend to my commander and friends, I felt as if everyone who considered me a man of integrity now looked at me differently. I vowed this would be a turning point. I stand by that vow 33 years later and have since made safety a big part of my life.
Author's note: I have never openly shared the story of my accident. And while I tried to add a bit of humor to my experience, I hope the one thing you take away from it is that motorcycle riding is serious business. Over the years, I have seen countless deaths related to motorcycles; one was a close friend and too many others are the people nearest to my heart - service members. If you plan to ride a motorcycle, please ensure you have the proper training beforehand and always wear your personal protective equipment. Stay safe and live to tell your story of "Riding the Beast."