Clark Makinson's Last Ride

By: Chris Loynd

Just as the year began, my friend Clark Makinson ended, January 3rd, 2005. We met riding motorcycles. Bridgeport HOG brought us together. He was a long time member.

           Clark said he’d lived longer than he was supposed to. He dodged the grim reaper twice, once by beating fate and again by beating cancer. Ten years ago as Clark went out jogging from his Roxbury, Conn., home, an inattentive driver ran him over. He spent weeks repairing his body and months repairing his brain. He had to learn to walk and talk again. The hit left him with a raspy, low-volume voice and slow-release conversational style. He had to concentrate and think about what to say and then listen intently to what was said.

Polar Bear Ride at Schoch's Harley-Davidson, December 12, 2004.
From left: Johnny Bowlan, John Kammerer, Chris Loynd (author)
and Clark Makinson. We didn't know it at the time, but this
was Clark's last motorcycle ride . . . ever.

Our Northeast rush of jumping on top of each other’s sentences and thinking of your response before the person talking even finishes their thought left Clark at a disadvantage. Many people didn’t have the patience to pace him. Clark, frustrated trying to participate in multi-speaker, rapid fire, conversation, usually just listened. He had to work so hard at communication the rest of us take completely for granted. Some folks I suppose just thought him odd.

Clark and I rode to Rolling Thunder together three years ago, just the two of us. It rained. A lot. Being on motorcycles our dining choices were limited mostly to a pretty poor Chinese restaurant, the primary benefit of which was that it was walking distance from our motel. Over a languorous dinner, the rain limiting other options, we killed hours talking motorcycles, and I began to understand Clark.

At some point he began describing how he bought his V-Rod. I don’t know how it started. I probably made some wisecrack about his bike getting all the attention. The V-Rod was Harley’s newest model then and there weren’t a lot of them around. I was jealous because usually it was my Heritage Springer that got admiring glances at rest stops and restaurants. But riding with Clark, everyone gathered ‘round his V-Rod.

Clark wanted to buy it at MSRP. Back then, that was a holy grail of Harley pricing. And Clark had a real bee in his bonnet (horsefly in his helmet?) about MSRP. To him it was not about money. It was principle. Mother Harley set a price and he could not accept that a dealer should simply add a couple of thousand-dollar dollops.

I interrupted with an explanation of supply and demand economics, something I know a bit about from my job in marketing. Clark smiled, condescendingly? He understood all that. But still didn’t think it fair.

He launched a lengthy description of a Lotus spreadsheet of his own design to figure the best V-Rod price available from a dozen dealers. He’d factored in asking price, of course, plus accounted for all those sneaky little charges some dealers add: preparation, documents, transportation, floor mats, etc. He also knew some dealers quoted low prices but made up for it on the accessories. So he included all the customization he wanted done at time of purchase and had the parts, and installation fee, as separate spreadsheet columns. He also integrated the first service, because some dealers offer free ones as purchasing incentives.

After months of research and wrangling, Clark found a Harley dealer in New York willing to sell a V-Rod at MSRP. And Clark was ready to buy it from him, even though his spreadsheet told him the final total cost, dealer charges, accessories and installation and first service inclusive, would in fact be several hundred dollars more than the best total outlay another dealer offered.

But before Clark could plunk down his deposit, the New York dealer attended a Harley convention where all his compatriots said, “What are you crazy? Nobody, but nobody, is selling V-Rods at MSRP.” The dealer came back from the show, raised his price, and Clark bought his V-Rod from Bridgeport. Clark went on to preach principled pricing to any Harley rider willing to listen.

Clark Makinson made sense to me after that. Highly intelligent. Principled. A detail fanatic. He was also a very private person. So I didn’t know until after he died that he was just 62. I know only that he was married once. Details were not forthcoming. He was a chemical engineer and had worked on alternative energy resources. After Clark’s death, I found out from his friend Bob Wutzdorff that Clark had been a highly successful businessman before the jogging accident.

Clark was a Bridgeport HOG because he had lived in Roxbury, Conn. But all the time I knew him he lived in Nutley, N.J., taking care of his elderly father. He’d often pick up our HOG and Polar Bear rides somewhere en route. You’d be riding along and suddenly there was Clark waiting on the shoulder. Or better yet, he just appeared in your mirror, seemingly out of nowhere. Once he flagged me down on NJ 287, but I was on the local side and Clark on the express. We matched speeds and eventually merged together.

Over time he shared more about his accident; he never said much at all about the cancer. He said only that he was a cancer survivor. He told Russ Curtis once that beating cancer was a horrible fight. My guess is that he refused a rematch.

When cancer came calling again, it went after his liver. I am honored to have joined Clark on his last ride, a Sunday Polar Bear run to the Poconos, and an exact repeat of my first Polar Bear ride two years earlier. He was pretty yellow. I didn’t say anything to him that day, in front of the others, knowing his manner. But on Monday I called just to say that I noticed his color and was concerned. He said the cancer came back. I think now that he knew then it was his last ride.

The night before his last ride he attended the Bridgeport HOG Christmas party. It took more effort than any of his fellow HOGs probably realized. It meant a lot to him. Socializing. Dancing. Winning the mileage contest. His niece Virginia told me Clark lived for our Sunday rides.

When I visited him New Year’s Day in the hospital, he was yellow and wrinkled like an old newspaper clipping, the story still sketchy on his life’s details. Clark’s handshake was surprisingly strong. But his eyes were very tired. I told him for the first time the story of our revelation dinner in the pretty bad Chinese restaurant at Rolling Thunder. He just smiled his nervous Clark smile. We once again talked rides and motorcycles. When I left I shook his hand again and this time touched him on the shoulder with my free hand. That was probably too touchy-feely for Clark. But he accepted the sentiment with a gracious smile.

One of Clark’s final wishes was that no big deal be made over his passing. (I’m not sure he’d approve of me writing this story.) He wouldn’t let me tell anyone until after he was gone. His funeral was family only. There was no wake. Instead, he asked his niece Virginia to throw a big party in his memory for his friends and fellow HOGs. She plans something for May or June at Clark’s Roxbury house. Clark wanted it to be in summer so we could all ride to the party. I’ll let you know when the date’s set.

Clark and I shared plenty of good times in just three years. We rode HOG rides and Polar Bears and some on our own. I wish we had more rides together. We knew each other only by the facility that we had chosen the same brand of motorcycle from the same dealership. Meeting people like Clark is the best benefit of HOG membership.

Clark was my friend. I’ll miss him. And I’ll look for his shadow each time I crank my Springer out of a tollbooth on the Garden State Parkway because Clark blasted his V-Rod out of those like it was on fire. It was his favorite mischief. And he had very few.

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