Saturday, July 19, 2014

Farewell to the Sarge

Photo by Mister G

Matthew "Sarge" Sargeant came caroming into my life a little over a year ago.  He'd inherited his father's Hi-Rider.  It had been sitting idle for a decade or so, and he was determined to put it back on the road.  His best friend was a neighbour who knew I was a Norton guy, so he gave Sarge my number.  I have to admit to being initially reluctant to get involved with the project, since I had enough on my own plate already.  I'm also not a fan of the Hi-Rider, Norton management's out-of-touch answer to the American chopper craze of the time.   Still, Sarge's enthusiasm was contagious and it was refreshing to meet someone almost half my age who loved the Norton brand.  The bike ending up in my shop for several months, and the two of us spent many happy hours tearing into it, and lightening a few cases of Heineken along the way. Sarge often brought his two young sons over to visit, who loved to be versed in gardening by my wife and to rough-house with my two adult sons who were home at the time.   My younger son would often join us in the shop for a beer, and he reminded me that Sarge invariably greeted him with "G'day, mister!"  We got introduced to his wife Lisa, who would come over looking for him when some mechanical challenge kept him here longer than he was supposed to be. Finally, the day came when the bike was lifted off of the bench, the tank was put back on, and the moment of truth arrived.  She fired right up, and the look of sheer joy on Sarge's face made the whole process worthwhile.  I got my Norton out, and in the ensuing weeks we took the two old girls out to test their mettle on the local swervery.  To see Sarge ahead of me, arms raised on the crazy ape-hangers and feet up on the highway pegs, throwing that bike into corners, knowing he had a huge grin on his face the whole time, was a wonderful experience. As the summer progressed, I introduced Sarge to my friends in the local vintage motorcycle community, and he even joined us on one of our regular Sunday morning rides.  Everyone liked him--he was just a big kid.   He read all of the Norton literature I'd shared with him, and became quite an expert on the Hi-Rider, knowledge which he used to good effect at the Old Bastard's motorcycle rally in Delta.  He absorbed the arcana of British bikes (Whitworth fastener sizes and threads, Amal carburettors and their "ticklers", and how to properly refer to fuel taps as "petcocks.")  He was a good wrench in his own right, and so was well prepared to assume the heavy, oily mantle of British bike ownership.  Although born a Lanark County boy with musical tastes running to country and western, he put up with the old rock-and-roll that I kept blaring in my shop, and was delighted to be introduced to Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle Song."

On one of our last rides, we went to Campbellford for lunch, where his Norton decided to make decidedly unhappy bottom end noises. We were pretty sure it was a main bearing gone south, a common malady on the earlier machines, but he managed to limp home, and to still ride the Norton to a vintage bike get-together in nearby Battersea a week or so later, where he and Mister G spent most of the time deep in conversation (and where Mister G took the photo above). I put him in touch with Rick Harrett of Highway Cycles, who took his engine and gearbox for a complete rebuild, both units coming back as good as new and ready for installation and years of fun.

The deal that I had made to help him with the bike was that he would match my hours working on his bike helping me with some projects around the farm.  True to his word, he showed up and paid in sweat equity, helping me to build a structure for my solar pool heater (christening it "The Leaning Tower of Solar Power") and expertly dropping a dozen or so large dead elms that I had been wanting to harvest for firewood, but whose size had intimidated me. (As a linesman for Hydro One, Sarge was an expert in this field.) Generous to a fault, he lent me the use of his woodsplitter, and we were planning to work together to harvest firewood for both of us this fall.

I didn't see him much all winter, but he showed up in the early summer with his two kids, to tell my wife and I that his marriage was on the rocks.  Although he was pretty broken up about it, he said that the two of them were negotiating the division of family assets fairly and equitably.  The plan was for the boys to stay with him at the house.  He told me he'd be in touch to arrange a time for us to deal with the job of putting the Norton back together.  I told him to take his time, because that job could certainly wait on the backburner.

On Wednesday, his best friend drove up my laneway on his tractor. I came out of my shop to find out what was up.  He told me that Matt had taken his own life on Monday.  I'm still in shock.

Matthew, thank you for coming into my life.  You made it richer.   Ride free, my friend, ride free.

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