Iowa State Sen. Chaz Allen lost his brother to a motorcycle wreck in 2011, then this year his dad died in another motorcycle accident. Yet the motorcycle and Harley-Davidson lifestyle remains a comfort to the Allen family. Kyle Munson/The Register
Newton, IA. — When Chaz Allen buried his father a few weeks ago, one of the sounds that surrounded and reassured him was what might as well qualify as a sweet hymn to his family: the deep rumble of motorcycles.
“It’s one of those things,” Allen said. “Everybody comes, hundreds of bikes show up, we want to show our respect.”
That was his sentiment despite the fact that his father, Tom, 75, was killed June 9 on his Harley-Davidson in an accident that also nearly claimed the life of his mother, Mikki, who clung to her husband. The Chariton couple hit a deer around dusk in rural Wayne County and were flung off the bike.
Compounding this, Allen’s younger brother, Keith, 34 and an Army veteran like his dad, wrecked his motorcycle on a corner south of Milo and died just six years ago.
I’m not a motorcyclist. When I saw the sad news of Tom’s death, then noticed that it was a tragic echo of Keith’s, I assumed Allen and his family might be more than ready to park their bikes forever.
Just the opposite.
I’m a bicyclist, so can I understand the feeling of freedom on two wheels. But mine is a tamer, slower escape that comes with more fatigue.
To try to better understand my motorized brethren I sat down with Allen in his basement office in downtown Newton, his political headquarters as a Democratic state senator and former mayor.
The 47-year-old who also owns a welding firm and is a county economic development director, was born in Georgia and lived in Louisiana before his family moved to Chariton, where he was raised.
“It doesn’t seem real yet to me,” he said of his father’s death.
His sister, Melinda Miller, read the same biker poem, “The Ride to Anywhere,” at both funerals.
Allen sorted through his father’s belongings and found nearly 100 custom T-shirts — many of them crisp and never worn — collected at motorcycle benefit rides, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota and other events.
This would have been Tom and Mikki’s 23rd annual trek together to Sturgis in August.
“It’s kind of like your RAGBRAI,” Allen said, referring to The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa that serves as a summertime homecoming for pedal junkies from around the globe. “People kind of lose themselves for that week.”
I had a cousin who died a horrible young death on a motorcycle more than 30 years ago. Largely because of that my mother probably would have preferred that I run off and join the circus or become a bank robber in my 20s rather than announce that I had purchased a motorcycle.
I do have friends and family who ride. But the culture still feels mostly foreign to me.
The first time Allen uttered the word “dresser,” I thought he was talking about bedroom furniture. I finally figured out he meant a big bike fully equipped to make longer rides comfortable.
When I hear about bikes often it’s through road statistics. The Iowa Department of Transportation tracks annual motorcycle fatalities that generally hover from around 40 to 60 statewide among nearly 273,000 licensed drivers.
Generally, about three times as many of those fatalities each year aren’t wearing helmets, compared to those who do. (Last year, 47 people killed on motorcycles in Iowa weren’t wearing helmets, compared to 11 with helmets.)
Iowa is one of just three states (with Illinois and New Hampshire) that lacks a helmet law. (Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have “universal helmet laws,” while laws in 28 states require some use.) Neither Tom nor Keith wore a helmet in the crashes that killed them. Even now Allen believes that bikers should have that choice.
The motorcycle crowd above all seems to prize its sense of freedom, of the wind whipping through the hair and the whine of the road outside a sterile car or truck cabin.
“You smell, taste, feel, hear everything,” as Mikki put it.
Mikki, who wore a helmet in the wreck that killed her husband, suffered a broken foot and road rash and required major dental work. Nine years ago she nearly lost her right leg in another motorcycle accident in California. Four years ago she injured the same leg again in Missouri — tore her ligaments — and didn’t walk for months. At that time Tom questioned whether they should ride again. But by then Mikki was as resolute as any biker.
“I find great comfort in all my motorcycle friends,” she said, what she called a “common joy.”
“When you sit behind someone as many miles as we’ve ridden, it’s a pretty bonding experience.”
Plus her late son, Keith, once observed that if you sit on a curb in front of a Buick and sip a cup of coffee, Mikki said, nobody is interested in what you’re doing. But do the same in front of a Harley and soon you’ll be asked where you’re going and get embroiled in a conversation with a new friend.
‘I guess we’re going to be bikers now?’
Tom was a student at the University of Missouri when he borrowed a motorcycle and Mikki hopped on behind him for the first time. But it wasn’t until decades later, as they were becoming empty-nesters, that the couple became immersed in the lifestyle.
Tom and Mikki in 1995 were in the middle of selling their southern Iowa clothing stores to open a bargain warehouse. This was after they had run a pair of gas stations in the South.
“He went from slopping fuel and oil to selling women’s clothes,” Allen said of his dad.
That summer Tom embarked on a road trip with a pair of high school buddies from his 1960 graduating class for what the family assumed would be a night or two. It turned into an odyssey of a week and a half.
When he returned to Chariton and walked in the front door of his store, at first Mikki didn’t recognize her own husband with his beard, boots, jeans, leather and do-rag.
“I guess we’re going to be bikers now?” she said.
At least Tom and Keith died doing what they loved to do, both Allen and his Mom said.
“I don’t regret a mile or a minute of it,” Mikki said.
She was there for all those miles, all over the continent. Including her husband’s last mile. I had nothing more to say after that. Maybe I understood: The motorcycle is a metaphor and reminder for how we should feel lucky that we have any time at all to enjoy the ride of this life, no matter how brief. Regret isn’t part of the equation.
Allen doesn’t have much time to devote to motorcycles these days, between work, politics and a pair of teenage daughters.
But shortly after his father’s death, when Allen stopped by C&C Cycle in Chariton to borrow a bike to ride to his father’s funeral, he definitely felt the urge.
“I got that bike, got outside of C&C, got on the highway, and just thought, ‘Man, I just want to go,'” he said. “‘I just want to go.’”
“Any kind of ride, you just kind of lose yourself and what you’re doing.”
Allen longed to feel the freedom and let the wind lash his face as he mourned his dad. I get it.
Assuming she’s healthy enough to travel, Mikki will return to Sturgis in August, her first rally without Tom.
But in a concession to age, her recovery and her nerves, she’ll go in a car.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or [email protected]. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
Welcome Home Soldier Monument
A cause that the late Tom Allen, a Vietnam War veteran, cared deeply about was the nonprofit Welcome Home Soldier Monument in Albia. The Allen family is directing memorial contributions to the monument in his memory. Learn more at welcomehomesoldiermonument.com. Or contribute via the Welcome Home Soldier Fund, Monroe County Veterans Affairs, 1801 South B St., Albia, IA 52531, 641-932-5622.