Charles Umbenhauer

"It was never about the helmet, it was about choice."
—Charles Umbenhauer

Charles Umbenhauer

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politics—BIKER STYLE
Between the Lines January 2018 issue

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How I learned to love the motorcycle

Growing up I had no interest in motorcycles.  There were a few in my neighborhood that were loud and basically dirty and just completely turned me off.  So how did I learn to love the motorcycle?  We have to travel back to 1968, I was wrapping up my tour of duty with the US Army while I was stationed at the Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, PA.  I got discharged in September and headed back to Harrisburg where I grew up.  Now remember if you can 1968 was before Woodstock (69) and before Easyrider hit the big screen. 

My cousin Bob was already into motorcycles and had a 350 Honda Scrambler and he immediately started to work on me and said I had to get a motorcycle and I said why?  He told me for one thing bikes are a chick magnet.  He did not have to go any further, this was an idea I felt I had to explore.  So in September of 1968 I coughed up $800 and bought myself a brand new orange 350 Honda Scrambler.  Bob owned a gas station which was across the street from the Honda dealership where I picked up my bike.  I had never ridden so much as a single mile but he convinced me how easy it would be and we pushed the bike over to the gas station where he showed me the basics and left me circle the gas pumps for fifteen minutes.  After that he said you are ready for the road.  I took off and travelled quite a few miles before I got up enough nerve to turn the damn thing around and head back to the garage.  But in time I got to love that little bike and just in case you were wondering, Bob was right, those bikes were chick magnets, but those are stories for another day.  Within a few days of my purchasing my Honda a dark cloud was gathering over the capitol in Harrisburg.  And on Friday September 13, 1968 just happened to be the day that a new state law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets became law.  Prior to that date you did not even need a license to operate a motorcycle.  Bikes were required to have handlebars not exceeding 15 inches above the level of the saddle, clipped or cut away fenders were prohibited, baffles could not be removed from the muffler system and the bike must be maintained as they were provided by the original manufacturer.  Excessive noise also was not permitted.  Two police officers who hear and agree that the noise level is excessive can make an arrest on that basis alone.  Can you believe that noise is still an issue today?

Just about a few days after that happened Bob and I decided to go for a ride and he did not put his helmet on.  I said what about the helmets?  He said who needs them so off we went.  We had not gone more than a country mile when we heard Officer Friendly’s siren.  Bob decided to skip the ticket and make a run for it.  I decided against that with my limited time in the saddle and waited by the side of the road where I got my first lecture about wearing a helmet for my own good and received a $10 ticket.  You know that could have been one of the first tickets ever written for not wearing a helmet.  I wish there was a way to find out but what would it matter now.  Who would have thought that 12 years later I would join ABATE and begin leading the charge to modify or repeal the state’s mandatory helmet law.  And as they say, the rest is history. 

Here it is 2018 and we will be celebrating 15 years of riding helmet free in PA.  This year at the L & L Seminar we will have 150 commemorative coins for sale for $15 each to celebrate our legislative victory back in 2003. 

So to wrap things up since 1968 I have owned a dozen motorcycles, Honda’s Yamaha’s, and several Harley Davidson’s.  My riding days have now come to an end but I have many fond memories of motorcycling and my days as a leader in the motorcyclists rights movement. 

Let me leave you with this thought, do not ever become complacent and think that the helmet law will not return to PA.  Always remember what our good friend Senator John Wozniak said, “Freedom was obtained with the stroke of a pen, and freedom can be taken away the same way, with a stroke of a pen.”  Stay free, enjoy life and love your motorcycle. 

See you all at the L & L Seminar.