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rebuilding the indian: a memoir

by Fred Haefele. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 210 pp. photos

Fred Haefele sums up the experience of restoring a motorcycle when he recounts a time when he left his garage midway through his restoration project. "I look back at the Chief. So, Motorcycle. What exactly do you do, you great big gorgeous hunk of machine? Are you a fiasco or are you the real McCoy? And with that, I lock up, hit the lights, return cover to the house. It's great to be out of the garage. I'm sick of the damn garage."

I have said the same thing as I've left my restoration project in the garage. My car is gorgeous even while it is sickening. The garage that houses it both beckons and repels. The whole process of restoration is woven into this life so finely and tightly that it goes well beyond mere mechanics. Restoration — as a hobby at least — lies closer to the soul than it ought to, since it can inflict pains and woes just as simply (and more frequently) as it can call up joy.

You could say that Rebuilding the Indian is mistitled, since it is not "about" rebuilding a 1940s-era Indian Chief. The book follows threads of friendship, marriage, fatherhood, mechanics, paint jobs, tree surgery, and credit-card debt. It is a prose scrapbook, made coherent because of a motorcycle obsession. The book's first three chapters set the basic coordinates for the whole venture, introducing the main characters that entwine throughout: mentors, families, and machines. The dubious "mentor" is "Chaz" of the Carnal Garage, surrounded by a chorus of Indian gurus, traders, and sub-deities with names like Magoo, Speedstick, Sneezy, Bummy, Big Cal, and the larger-than-life "Parts Father." The families include Haefele's own newly conceived baby and his wife, and Chaz's less happy family. Lying at the center of it all is the literal basketcase of a motorcycle — the focal point for constant reverence and occasional disdain. The motorcycle is a "pile," one of several that pop up in the pages.

This is not a wacky book. It may include people and circumstances that run in that direction, but you don't put the book down and think it pure fantasy. It is a memoir, and it is not the memoir of a stranger. Having walked the same neighborhoods of the soul that Haefele has in his story of the "rebuild," I know the truth of what he reports. I wonder if the truth shines as clearly on dwellers in the caves of the non-restoration world, the guys who have thought about restoring a car or motorcycle but have lacked the funds or the daring actually to do the deed. Or, at least start doing the deed.

Restorers will see whole classes of individuals and probably identify themselves in a few. The wannabe restorer. The dealmaker. The high-dollar greasemonkey restorer. The fellow whose restoration is long on talk and short on look. The writer of checks. Rebuilding the Indian mentions these characters, but focuses on a smaller group — finally, probably just Haefele and Chaz — and deals with them tenderly, cuts them some slack.

I understand the logic behind some of the vignettes, but I dare say I have yet to explain the logic to the uninitiated or, for that matter, to my wife who by virtue of whom she has as bedmate must nearly be initiated into the fraternity. Haefele, who is a tree surgeon/arborist during many of his days, recounts part of his quest for a "kicker" for his motorcycle. He learns that his 1941 machine just will not work with a 1947 kicker, and so the parts quest begins. It ends with his buddy and mentor Chaz who buys a "pile" of a motorcycle once known as "Indian Joe." Haefele recounts the final episode of his search this way:

More rain. I've got $2,000 worth of tree work out there and I can't get at it. On a Tuesday Chaz calls, tells me they're about to disconnect his phone service. He tells me that if I want to buy his kicker, I can just make the check out to the phone company.

I know between Indian Joe and the '52 Ford he bought — which he has yet to sell — that Chaz is in a deep hole. So I pilfer $150 from my Magoo paint job fund and drive fast to the Carnal Garage.

My God, what an exciting life this man leads, with its relentless eleventh-hour brinksmanship. And the worst part of it is, it's contagious.

There is much spirited haggling at Chaz's garage; he claims I set a price of $175 the other day. I'm afraid that I did, but since I have no idea what a used Indian crank is actually worth, I deny remembering that I did. I allow instead that it might be worth $125. Chaz looks baffled.

"Well damn," he says. "Nobody's ever tried to work me this way before. Make it a hundred and fifty, you got yourself a kicker."

Of course, it eventually turned out that the kicker was wrong and could not be used, so it become a bit of garage detritus. Restorers everywhere have been there before. And, really, in this memoir the part matters very little. The friendship between men does, and the part is just an occasion for a little help extended in a way to preserve respect.

This little innocuous excerpt (and there are scores of them like this one), unpacks not-so-neatly into its entwined stories of men and their machines and their lives. I could have just opened Haefele's book and found another scene that just as well artistically points in many directions.

Haefele might even admit that the scene is a little wacky, but motorcycle and car restorers would agree that it is plausible. Some might recognize the scene with themselves as players. The world that Haefele presents in the book ties men and machines, men and their families, men and successes and failures, men and semi—dangerous adventures (the kind that come with exploring motorcycle bars in hopes of shaking loose a few antique parts). His prose ties the knots. It presents stories, many intersecting now and again, to weave some lives and show progress with metal, oil, rubber, and chrome. After I read the book, I told the fellow who gave it to me that it read a little like the middle part of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where lives and facts commingle, adding up and adding up.

Rebuilding the Indian is memoir, not a technical manual, though I suppose some single-minded people could glean from the pages a few useful rebuilding tidbits. Memoirs memorialize lives, and this one uses a motorcycle as mirror to reflect not only Fred Haefele's life but others' as well. Some books move toward a few paragraphs, often appearing late and glowing with energy built up from earlier sentences. Those few paragraphs seem to say, "Here are the words the author worked to write." They do not summarize; they do not even present a conclusion or a climax. To reveal them (which I will not) would not even "spoil" the book, since they only glow because of the way they fit into the whole longer piece. For Rebuilding the Indian, those paragraphs appear in the last chapter "Sturgis and Beyond." They tie together scenes and hopes. They show that rebuilding the Indian rebuilds much more than a machine. (As an aside, I have to take to task some bumbling mass-market reviewer's comment on this section. He claimed that Haefele belabored the obvious, making explicit the ties that "most readers" already had made as they read the book. Baloney, I say. Sure, Haefele ties things up, but he does so not because he disrespects his reader but because he has built his message and makes it powerful in utterance. The reviewer — one of the anonymous Kirkus Krowd — is the dunderhead for not seeing rhetorical power.)

Anyone who grasps wrenches in a garage to tease life out of a "pile" should read this book. Or, even those who have thought of doing that will enjoy this book.

Haefele's advice to the terribly earnest new Indian rebuilder translates well into any restoration with just a few changes of nouns: "One: if you buy a basket, buy a Chief. Two: learn to accept the 5—10 Law; spend five thousand dollars initially, and it will cost you another ten thousand. Or maybe twelve thousand. Or thirteen thousand. Three: Don't buy a basketcase. They are pigs in pokes. They will break your heart. They will drive you mad."

The mathematics in Rule Two might be wrong for my own restoration, but Rule Three applies.

Mark R. DeLong


The Indian: History of a Classic American Motorcycle
by Rafferty Tod

Century of Indian
by Ed Youngblood

A museum exhibition book for a display of Indian motorcycles at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.


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