Zen and the Art of Cushman Maintenance

Me with my grandpa behind me at a scooter show.

One of my earliest memories is of my grandpa showing up in our drive way on his  dark blue Honda Goldwing. He’d had just about every inch of that thing chromed and I still remember the exact placement of the sun--its beams shining down and illuminating the mechanical beast. I must of only been five or six, somehow he and my dad had gotten my mom to agree to let him take me for a ride. I sat in front of him on the bike as we took off. I felt us get up on two wheels and we were off.

This started me on my journey and would be the reason for the Zen training. To get back to the road. At the end of the day that’s the goal of Zen, the goal of Cushman maintenance, to get back on the road.

There is something soothing about being on two wheels and coasting next to the white line. It’s funny how you begin to appreciate different grades of asphalt, concrete bridges and pavement. You notice every bump and turn because you’re  out there, outside of the steel cage and swimming with the sharks. You have to turn with your body, becoming part of the road. It was always astounding to me just how intuitive riding was: you bank for a right turn, it has more to do with your body than the handlebars. Maybe it was riding with my grandpa for all those years, maybe following his movements taught me, on some subconscious level, what I was supposed to do and when I was supposed to do it. If that was the case I owe the man a lot. This started me on my journey and would be the reason for the Zen training. 

These machines don’t run without some help, there was always maintenance. For every hour on the road there were 50 in the shop. That’s what you get when you decide to ride 50-year-old bikes, with 50-year-old engines: 50 hours to the hour.

I don’t remember my introduction to Cushman scooters in particular. They’ve just always kind of been there. A kind of JB Weld between my grandpa and I. That isn’t to say that without Cushman scooters we’d of had a bad relationship. For a hard nose mechanic, he’s kind of a softy, certainly we’d have found other ways to spend time together, but connecting over Cushman’s just came easy, naturally, even.

My Grandpa owned and rebuilt these scooters growing up in rural Parke County Indiana. At the time, while he was growing up, the Highway Department had decided to pave almost all the roads in the county (they aren’t that way now). This allowed my grandpa to hone his craft. On the road and, perhaps more importantly, in the shop, fixing his bike and countless others. He committed himself, with a passion for scooters and a competitive ambition, to supping up his Cushman to go faster than the other kids. I guess some things never change. Engines came naturally to him. Perhaps out of necessity, perhaps he was just a kid trying to get out of his farm chores, maybe he just didn’t like to say: “ I don’t know how,” when other kids asked him to fix their bikes. I guess you’d have to ask him. Necessity, however, truly is the mother of invention and education.  Whether for escape or pleasure, he found his Zen, and he got damn good at it.

I do remember my first Cushman. I wasn’t very old, 13 or 14 maybe. It was a 1958 baby blue Cushman Eagle, the scooter I still ride today. He bought it and was going to sell it--he’s always been a swapper at heart--but I planted the notion that if we didn’t sell it, maybe I could keep it, fix it up. With a smile he reached over, took out a marker and wrote a new price on the machine…he added a few zeroes to the price tag and a few weeks later it was still sitting on the shop floor. We took the bike home and my true Zen training began.

 I was never mechanically inclined. I understood physics. Looking back that was and is still the extent of my knowledge.  That basic understanding of cause and effect was my first lesson. The second was to be cognizant of the whole. Each little piece affects how the rest of the motor runs. Engines, bikes, these things are nothing more than metal jigsaw puzzles. Its funny, though, that when it comes to bikes you never really learn to be the jigsaw master. Each issue is specific to a particular bike. This seems to be true in the case of Cushman scooters anyway. Someone who has put together many puzzles knows where to start, has a checklist, memory of past puzzles, but at the end of the day there might be a hundred places to check for a specific problem or there might be one. In working with my grandpa I learned how to differentiate the two, and I also learned about failure. The “well that’s not it” mentality. It never meant that we were done trying to solve the problem, it just meant that we hadn’t found the answer yet. This taught me perseverance. I learned how to pay attention to detail, because when it comes to fixing engines you have to make sure you aren’t creating any others along the way. All of these were extremely important life lessons, that, as I look back, continue to influence how I live my life. But these lessons aren’t part of   the Zen I’m talking about.

Zen, as it turned out, was a byproduct of the lessons, the problems and the solutions. Zen was hanging out with my grandpa for 4 hours in his shop. The time spent agonizing over a solution to get my Cushman running again introduced me to a sense of clarity: clarity in the problem, clarity in the search for the solution, clarity in the solution itself. This clarity of mind was our Zen, it was the best and our favorite form of meditation, a meditation that could be shared between my grandpa and I. Four hours in the shop would perhaps not yield a solution for the night, or might even unearth new issues with the bike--but a running bike wasn’t always the end goal of these evenings in my Grandpa’s shop. I left his shop every night, knowing that we had accomplished something together. That was Zen.

Only someone who has worked on or has built a bike truly knows the true thrill of riding. Balancing on two wheels is just a trick until you’ve built the machine that can do it. The maintenance brings with it a sense of accomplishment during the ride. Pride during the ride. My grandpa taught me countless lessons about how to be a good man, whether this was intentional or not is irrelevant. What matters is that it happened, on those nights, in his shop. Zen was found. 

Posted on April 12, 2014 .