"The Uncle Henry"
Every once in a while fate hands us the rare opportunity to travel back in time. This is one of those opportunities. The time: 1948-1951; the person: Henry D’Arcy Gerstell Smith. Through his memories and words we’ll be able to ride beside him and experience for the first time that which he has relived many times. Through the cooperation of Henry, the generosity of his nephew Duncan Smith and Ron Prediger, who’s love for motorcycles started the ball rolling, a piece of American Motorcycling History is not lost and can be enjoyed by the rest of us.
The setting is Maryland, 1948.....
Henry was experiencing his first year as a Harvard Graduate student after having served as a "Captain in the 3rd Armored Division with campaigns against Hitler’s best, and in the occupation of Germany" (1941-1947) when he read an ad that claimed "100 miles to the gallon". Not having a car at the time and realizing the advantages of the gasoline mileage, and the apparent maneuverability of this small bike he purchased a Harley-Davidson Model 125, serial number 48S 7079, that would eventually take him on his adventures and later become known affectionately as ‘The Uncle Henry’. He was 33 yrs old at the time. The following is an excerpt from his personal memouirs’:
"Around 1948 Harley-Davidson marketed a light motorcycle
that could make 100 miles to the gallon. I bought one in Baltimore, rode it to
the Department of Motor Vehicles, where a cop told me to take it around the
block, adding, "if you come back alive, you’ve got your license!" A trip to the
Farm (Keyser, West Virginia) broke the new machine in. When Fall arrived I
loaded down the motor with baggage for Cambridge, decked myself out in German
Army boots and cap, German Air Force Goggles and a US Army field jacket. Then it
was off to New England via (the) Pennsylvania Turnpike, George Washington Bridge
and White Plains, NY, where I stayed overnight with prominent Hungarian
Next day I reached Cambridge after stopping by the Wellesley College campus to ask if I happened to be on the right road to Harvard University. A student assured me I could not go wrong by continuing on the same road. Then, intrigued by my outlandish outfit, she inquired if I happened to be a GI returning from duty in Europe. Waving farewell, I yelled as I gunned the motor, "No, Harvard Professor!" This was true, though somewhat exaggerated."
Henry continued on to Harvard where he met with a friend, Gerard, who had the distinction of having been selected to perform the "Goose- step" before Adolph Hitler at the Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg (later to escape to his freedom through the French Foreign Legion).
"Gerard’s bedroom abode became mine when he joined his mother and sister in a rented home. Thanks to an exceptionally kind landlady, the more than fair room charge included a ‘garage’. She allowed me to park the motor just inside her front door. How accommodating!
Soldiers Field and its soft tennis courts across the Charles River were now within easy reach by motorcycle. When we went to play, Gerard had to 'roughride' in back. Jaunts like this and others just circling around the Cambridge area seem nothing in comparison to the solo sally I made in June 1950. Starck and Belial both be damned! I needed a vacation.
So trout fishing gear replaced tennis equipment, and off I took for Canada via Maine, my ultimate destination Quebec’s Laurentide Park, where I had reserved a cabin in one of its best fishing camps.
Only a bird on the wing can have the freedom that a man on a motorcycle enjoys, freedom plus open-air closeness to nature, plus power at the twist of the throttle. Like old Chiron, the man-horse of Greek mythology, master and machine are welded together, wedded in the pursuit of a common goal. My ‘Harleyhorse" didn’t bite or kick, cooperated completely, obeyed instantly, all without the use of words, reins or the lash. Ideal transportation for the individual in ideal weather, but when it rains, hell!
Pulling off the paved road at a police station as the drops multiplied, I donned my Navy rainsuit and kept going till I reached the turnoff that would take me to my camp. A short distance down this dirt road and bump, bump, bump! Not a single mishap all through Maine and much of Quebec. Now in this desolate wilderness a flat tire on the critical rear wheel!
Pushing the cycle down the road, I pondered having to junk my "Harleyhorse" and head home via the first transportation I could find. Then I struck gold, as it were, when I stumbled upon an almost invisible camp where a young medical student worked. He took me to the kitchen, filled a dishpan with water, rotated the punctured tube in it till the telltale air bubbles told us where the repair patch had to go. (ed. note: when the restoration work was done the patch was there!)
Guests and their guides had abandoned camp for the day. We were alone and on our own. It took us two hours to put the wheel back on properly, a major endeavor for non-mechanics and complicated by my poor French and his non-English. In the end "mon ami" made it possible for me to survive this" tragedy" and turn it into a triumph of sorts.
But still facing me were some 30 more miles of rough road worsened by the relentless rain. No traffic coming or going, only crossing in front of me in the form of wild animals. The rain loosened the rubber grip on the throttle, making it difficult to maintain any speed. I slipped and skidded along slowly, but reached camp before dark, where they welcomed me with, " We expected you sooner!"
A West Point graduate in the next cabin, all excited about the latest news, wanted to share it with me next evening as I finished dining on the delicious trout I had caught earlier. "We are at war with North Korea!" he beamed. This news didn’t excite me at all. My war, all I could stand, ended five years before. "This time Sambo (ed. note: Uncle Sam)," I told myself, you’re not going to get me." Boy was I wrong.
The motor made me mobile enough to dispense with guides. I took off cross-country on my own, fishing the less accessible smaller streams, like West Virginia’s Difficult. In my three full days of this sport I totaled 50 beautiful brook trout.
Halfway between Quebec and Montreal a cop signaled me to move from the middle of a long line of cars all the way to the front and lead the column across the St. Lawrence. A rare consideration for the individual indeed! Were it not for the cold weather, Canada would be my favorite country.
For the American portion of the journey home, I chose a route via Vermont, past New Hampshire’s White Mountains, through the Holland Tunnel, down the New Jersey Turnpike, finally to Baltimore, where I recorded the gas and oil expenses for the entire trip to and from Canada as under six dollars!"
So ends the saga of the trip of Uncle Henry but not that of The Uncle Henry. The motorcycle was soon retired to storage after that as Henry found himself able to purchase a car and he moved on with his life. The Korean conflict gathered him up in the service of ‘Uncle Sam’ once again and the H-D 125 and his adventures astride it were replaced with new challenges. The motorcycle sat until one day when Ron Prediger happened to notice it. His curiosity about it lead to the coordinated restoration of it by Henry’s nephew Duncan and himself. After completion it was presented to Henry in 2001. Anyone seeing the look in the eyes of the man known as Uncle Henry in the photo will see all they need to know.
True Antique Motorcycle Enthusiasts know that we are only temporary caretakers of these fabulous machines and whether 1 hp or 500 hp each one has its story to tell, it’s memories to share and the men and women who have shared the journey. As Henry said:
"Only a bird on the wing can have the freedom that a man on a motorcycle enjoys, freedom plus open-air closeness to nature, plus power at the twist of the throttle. Like old Chiron, the man-horse of Greek mythology, master and machine are welded together, wedded in the pursuit of a common goal".Brent Dugan, March 30th, 2004