It was the oddest friendship of my life. I figured he was fifty years older than I was though, at fifteen years of age, I was a poor judge the gray-haired crowd. I came to refer to him simply as “The Old Man”, though I don’t believe I ever called him that to his face. He cussed every time he saw me ride up to his shop on my motorcycle, but The Old Man, Forrest Fernaays, continues to play a pivotal role in my life, nearly 45 years after our last conversation.
After spending much of his life in the navy, Forrest retired to Titusville, Florida, to open a motorcycle repair shop not far from where I lived. He was a touch over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a fairly full head of hair, gray as it was. Each arm featured faded tattoos, (this was before all the “chic” people went for the ink), and he seemed to have a slight limp when he walked.
He worked alone in his shop, which was filled primarily with older Harleys, Indians, and a British bike or two. When I rode up to his shop door after school, he usually shook his head and bellowed something like, “What the (bleep) do you want this time?” I usually just grinned back at his grumpiness and he never actually chased me off with a mallet. Besides, there was always a wink behind the scowl and each day, when I finally left, he would call out, “See you tomorrow, kid.” Still, I sometimes brought Forrest a peace offering of a cold soda just to be sure he wouldn’t get totally fed up with my hanging around.
On one particular day, I was sitting on my usual old stool and doing most of the talking while Forrest continued to wrench on a motor. I carried on about my bright future – the big home I’d someday own and the long list of toys that would fill my garage – when I heard Forrest drop a wrench and firmly state my name. I shut up to see what he wanted.
He was facing away from me, sitting on a bucket next to the motorcycle he was repairing, and I could see he was shaking his head. He turned and glanced at me, then looked back down at the floor in front of him. I remained silent as he let out a long breath, then rose slowly to walk toward me. He craned his neck to see if there were any customers behind me and I got the feeling he was either about to tell me a secret or he was finally going to knock me out. He certainly seemed interested in privacy at the time.
He drew close and began to speak to me with an earnestness I hadn’t seen before.
He said, “Wes, you’re an idiot. But that’s okay, because all kids your age are idiots.”
I wondered; “Was that the big secret or was this a preamble to a punch?”
Forrest continued: “You come in here and talk of all you are going to someday own and of all the people you are going to impress. But you don’t even know who you are and you sure don’t know what really counts. Now I’m going to share with you something I learned years ago – back when schools actually taught kids things – and I want you to listen closely.”
Forrest again gave the door a glance to make sure we were alone and he then presented me with the very last thing I could have expected from my burly friend. I sat dumbfounded as he recited from memory this poem:
When you get what you want in your struggle for wealth
And the world makes you king for a day;
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
It isn’t your father, your mother, or wife
Who judgement upon you must pass;
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
It’s he you must please, never mind all the rest,
For he is with you clear up to the end;
You’ll know that you’ve passed your most difficult test
When the man in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and chisel a plumb
And think you’re a wonderful guy;
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get a pat on the back as you pass;
But your final reward will be nothing but tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
(The Man in the Glass by Dale Wimbrow)
Forrest stopped. He looked back toward the door. He quietly added, “In the end, you need to be pleased with who you are, Wes. Just think about that”. With that, he turned and headed back to work.
I was still blinking into space when Forrest sat down on his bucket and picked up his wrench.
I don’t remember how I excused myself, but shortly after that repair shop recital I was riding home, slowly motoring down the long route.
I don’t know what amazed me most; that Forrest seemed to care that much about me or that a guy like that even knew a poem at all!
I thought about his message throughout the night and returned to Forrest’s shop the next day with pencil and paper in hand. To my surprise, Forrest didn’t seem annoyed as I asked him to recite each line of the poem as I scribbled it down. He again encouraged me to think about who it was I really wanted to be.
Not long after this, my father was transferred to Saudi Arabia and our family followed. Forrest and I exchanged letters for a time and he even admitted that he missed my pestering presence. By the time I graduated high school and paid another visit to Titusville, Forrest’s motorcycle shop was closed and I could find no one who knew where he’d gone. I had no photos of my friend but I’ve kept one of his letters and his image was burned into that portion of my mind reserved for mentors, idols, and exemplars.
I have lived a life tied to motorcycles ever since, having toured all across America and parts of four continents. I’ve used Forrest’s poem in many presentations over the years and my children have these verses memorized. I have published books of my own poetry (after deciding that such efforts are worthy of a “real man”), and I have attempted to live by the code Forrest suggested to me with his poem.
Just recently, in putting together material for a planned “motorcycle memoir” I am working on, I followed a whim and Googled the name “Forrest Fernaays”. This led me to a link on Ancestry.com where I found gold: Some member of Forrest’s family had taken the time to upload records and a dozen photos of my dear friend. Tears began to well as the computer screen brought up the image of Forrest standing in front of his motorcycle shop – then another of him sitting in his shop – others of him with his motorcycles – and yet others of a young Forrest in service to his country. I would have thought that the decades would have altered my memory of his face but, as the first photo appeared, the figure was an exact match to the image I’d kept bright in my mind for all these years.
I learned that Forrest had died in 2005 in Mississippi but that he’d remained active in motorcycling, having donated generously to the industry until the end. I took the time to leave a long note to his family on the Ancestry website, relating much of the above to them and expressing my appreciation for all that Forrest came to represent to me. I took another long look at his photos and basked in the resurrection of memories, emotions, and mentorship.
Learning of his passing brings no sense of closure and no feelings of mourning – I have no desire for this friendship to end and there’s no need for it to change. He’s out there, sitting on a bucket, tugging on bolts, and waiting to call out to me when I ride up, “What the (bleep) took you so long?”
But – for now – so long, Forrest – from a foster son who knew the greatness beneath the grease – Godspeed until we ride again.