Two lives, cut too short

We love motorcycles, but we never want to forget the risks that come with riding them. Every year, people are injured or killed on motorcycles, usually through a lapse in judgement.

This story by CMG Editor Mark Richardson was originally published in the 2016 anthology Motorcycle Messengers, edited by CMG contributor Jeremy Kroeker. It’s based on a series of events that began 10 years ago and which Mark learned of while riding to New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2009 with his then-12-year-old son Andrew.

If nothing else, this story is a reminder, as our riding season begins in Canada, that motorcycles must be treated with respect. Stay safe. – Ed.


At the south end of Saugerties, N.Y, near the gas station, there’s a larger than life photo of a young guy in a white shirt and jeans leaning against a tree. It’s printed on vinyl on the side of a small truck parked beside the road. Its message is alongside in foot-high letters: “To My Brother, My Sisters, All My Friends, Family And Brit; Please Remember How Quickly Accidents Happen.” Nothing else.

We stop for gas and when I go in to pay, I ask about the sign. “Oh, that was a young guy killed near here a couple of years ago,” the attendant says. “Motorcycle accident I think. His dad puts the sign out each summer. There’s a benefit coming up for him soon.” There’s a small poster on the local notices board inside the station announcing the benefit with another photo of the young man, alongside a picture of another guy. “That was his uncle. Killed while he was bush-hogging. A piece of the blade broke off and hit him in the head – real freaky.” Attached to the notice is a phone number and I write it down. Not sure why.

**

I ride on with Andrew, my 12-year-old son, into New York City. We follow 5th Avenue all the way down to 57th, where I jog west below Central Park and then start making the turn south onto Broadway. At the last moment, a cop walks into the road and, with a raised hand, stops my turn – there’s a crew setting up to paint the crosswalk. So I move back over into the lane to continue west, and at that moment, a silver BMW sedan with blacked-out windows brushes my right leg at high speed. It’s so close I feel its bumper riffle my jeans.

That was close! Far, far too close!

The BMW speeds up ahead on 57th and dodges around another car that’s pulling out of a side street. The driver’s not slowing for anything. He’s soon out of sight and gone. I ride carefully back to the hotel just a few blocks away. That really shook me up. Andrew doesn’t say anything – it’s clear he never noticed it, and I’m not about to tell him. I feel sick.

I park our Low Rider and we take the bags up to the room, which seems all the more dark and cramped for our day in the countryside. We hardly speak. Andrew changes and brushes his teeth and I leave him watching TV while I head down to the bar. That near miss has me rattled. I take every precaution there is, but it’s still not enough. In the back of my mind, I know if we’d been in a car we’d have been struck and bounced around but would almost certainly have walked away unscathed, but on the motorcycle….

There’s a table open next to the sidewalk and I order a beer, thinking through the near miss, over and over, wondering what I should have done differently to better the odds. Be even more vigilant, I guess, but I’d checked over my shoulder before moving back into the lane and the BMW wasn’t there. It was driving at probably 100 feet per second and just hadn’t registered in my mirror.

Please Remember How Quickly Accidents Happen.

I can see the dead boy looking at me from the vinyl poster on the side of the truck. I take my notebook from my back pocket and open it to find the phone number I’d written down from the benefit poster, then pull out my cell phone and dial the number. I have no idea what to say. The person who answers is the dead boy’s father.

**

Erich J. Rothe at home with his youngest son, Willie. Mark went to visit him later in the year.

Erich J. Rothe Jr. was 19 and working for his dad, Erich J. Sr., in the excavating business when he was killed two summers ago. He’d ridden dirt bikes all his life on the family’s 200-acre property outside of Saugerties, then moved on to road bikes once he was old enough – probably before he was old enough, if I’m reading properly between the lines of his father’s story. When he was 18, he’d borrowed his dad’s Harley Low Rider and went to Daytona Beach for Bike Week with his uncle. Apparently, there’s a photograph of him, seen in his uncle’s mirror riding behind, looking confident and like the King of the World. “I’ve never had so much fun with my clothes on!” he’d said at the time.

“I taught my kids to ride at a young age because I knew one day they would want to ride on the road and I wanted them to know what the hell they were doing,” explains Erich Sr. “My boys raced motocross for a while. Erich had just bought a new pickup truck and he said to me, ‘I’m going to buy a Jap bike.’ I said, ‘What the hell would you want to do that for?’ He said, ‘I can’t afford a Harley right now with a truck on the road.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to get a Jap bike – I’ll help you get a Harley.’ To be honest, I thought I was possibly saving his life, because them goddamn Jap bikes are just too fast. But that didn’t work.”

The two Erichs found a 2005 Low Rider, very similar to my own, “a purple-pink kind of thing; from a different angle, it almost looked greenish-blue; we really didn’t like it, but it kinda grew on you.” On the morning of Thursday, July 26, Erich Jr. went up to Catskill and passed the test for his motorcycle licence. That afternoon, he met up with his friend Zack after work. Zack was on his Kawasaki ZX-10, a monstrously fast sport bike. They must have looked like chalk and cheese: the Japanese race-bike rider, hunched forward with his face hidden behind a full-coverage helmet, and the Harley cruiser rider, stretched out, wearing shades and a half-bucket.

“They were stopped at a stop sign, pulling out of a side road onto the two-lane. They were going to go to my house, but Erich said, ‘Let’s go for an ice-cream.’ He had a smile from ear to ear, and he said, ‘Let’s ride!’ That was the last thing he ever said. They only went a quarter-mile.”

**

As it happens, Zack is there with some other guys visiting Erich Sr., and he takes the phone. Speaking about this, even to a faceless stranger, helps him to heal, he says.

“Every day that goes by, I think about it. It’s the sound I think of – it’s a sound I’ve never heard before. The impact was just so loud. I heard it over my bike and my bike was pretty loud because I was shifting gear. It happened so quick – I was looking down, then looked up and it was over.”

Erich Sr. couldn’t explain why his son was in the opposite lane when he crashed head-on into “a little Toyota, just a $500 piece of shit,” but Zack knows full well his friend was riding too fast into a right-hand curve and drifted wide into the oncoming lane. The two were pegging their throttles – racing their bikes – and the Harley just wasn’t designed for that kind of speed into that tight a corner. It was Erich Jr.’s bad luck that adrenaline got the better of him when another car was approaching. When they hit, he was thrown a dozen feet into the air and his helmet – loosely fastened, if it was fastened at all – flew off; when he landed, his head smacked the ground.

The right-hand curve. Erich and Zack would have been riding toward the camera at about the point where the car is seen here.

A car following the Toyota swerved when it struck the bike; it forced Zack off the road, but he dropped his motorcycle and ran over to hold his friend’s hand on the asphalt. “I think he knew I was there because he wasn’t breathing, but then I stood up and I started to cry and I said, ‘My best friend is dead!’ and then he gasped for a breath. His eyes were open, looking straight up. Every time I yelled, he gasped for air, but every time he gasped for air, blood would trickle out of his mouth.”

Zack left his friend then. The ambulance was coming, and he rode his motorcycle to get Erich Sr., who lived just a few miles back along the twisting road. He tells me he rode like the wind.

**

Zack finishes his story and goes to find Erich Sr. to take back the phone. I feel stunned. I didn’t know what to expect when I dialled the number, but I sure didn’t expect this. Traffic on the street drives past. A car somewhere nearby jumps on the brakes and there’s the sound of squealing tires and a horn. No thud, though. No impact.

**

“There wasn’t a mark on his body, except for a perfect cross cut into his right cheek,” recalls Erich Sr. of when he arrived and saw his boy. “It was like the man above put it there.”

The paramedics were already at the accident scene, but they called for a helicopter and the father and son flew to hospital in Albany. For five days, doctors told Erich Sr. his son would make a full recovery. That all changed early in the morning of the sixth day. The teenager’s brain had swelled and his brain stem was damaged. His heart pumped 180 beats a minute, struggling to feed the brain. A doctor walked in to give the blunt prognosis that “your son will never breathe on his own again.” And that was that.

Four days later, the entire family gathered at the hospital. Erich Jr.’s mother, estranged from his father for 10 years, was there, as were his younger brother Willie and two younger sisters, one of whom had rushed back from vacation in Germany. Another 30 or so friends and relatives were also at the hospital, including his girlfriend Britney, who was at his bedside.

“The six of us were in there with Erich. His heart was beating out of his chest. I apologized to him for letting him die in a goddamn hospital bed, and I told him I couldn’t stand to watch him there, so I told him I was going to leave him now and I left. Willie said goodbye too, and left with me. We went out to the big maple tree on the hospital lawn. For nine days, we’d felt so helpless – there was nothing I could have done for him. But then I turned to Willie and I said, ‘There is one more thing we can do for him.’ We went back inside and he was in the same situation and I looked at his mother and said, ‘enough is enough – let’s end this nonsense’ and she said okay. And I turned to the nurse and said ‘Let’s turn this thing off, or whatever it is you do,’ and she said, ‘okay, let me get a doctor.’

“It seemed like an hour but it was probably only four or five minutes and the nurse was back, and I said to her that ‘I’ll tell you one more time to go get that doctor and get his ass in here or I’m going to pull the plug on this thing myself.’ He then came in, they gave Erich 10 mg of morphine and they just turned the dial down to slow the respirator right down. I just said my goodbyes, pretty much word for word what I’d said before, and I left. After everything we’d been through, I didn’t want to watch him take his last breath – I didn’t need to do that. Fifteen minutes later, my youngest daughter came out and said that he had passed. My youngest son carved Erich’s initials and a cross into that big maple tree we were sitting under, and we went home.”

Erich Sr., an excavator by trade, dug his son’s grave with a backhoe at a small cemetery near the house. At the funeral, there was a procession of more than 200 motorcycles. Erich Sr. rode his new Electra Glide Ultra without his helmet in defiance of New York State’s compulsory helmet law. Then after the service was over, he fired up the backhoe and filled in the grave himself.

**

Erich Rothe Sr. with his son’s marker, at the site of the collision.

We’ve been on the phone more than an hour – I hadn’t expected to talk this long. I certainly hadn’t expected a conversation like this. I’m thinking of all the responsibilities that a man takes on when he becomes a father and I realize Erich J. Rothe Sr. has been tested on every one of them. He encouraged his son to buy a motorcycle; he was there at his son’s side on the road; he was with his son when he died.

“Erich was my best friend,” says his dad. “Most parents can never say that, but we really could. This has just been so horrible that I still really can’t believe it, but it helps me to talk about it. I just pray for you that nothing like this ever happens to you.”

My cell phone battery is low and after a few more minutes I thank him and say goodbye. He gave me an invitation to come up to Saugerties to fish on his property – that’s his passion, fishing and hunting. His late son’s, too. He set up a scholarship fund at Erich Jr.’s high school that awards bursaries of $1,000 each to students who excel both in their schoolwork and in outdoorsmanship; the upcoming benefit is to raise funds for that prize. The award is in the name of both his son and his brother, the man killed by the flying piece of metal while bush-hogging. That way, he told me, in a hundred years people will still remember their names. He could do with some of that money himself, though. He’s worked just six weeks so far this year, and he’s already behind a couple of payments on the mortgage. “I’ll tell you though,” he said, “after what I’ve been through, there’s a worse thing than being broke.”

Erich Jr. doesn’t have a gravestone yet – his dad is still trying to get together the money – though there’s a giant stainless steel cross donated by one of his friends in place beside the road at the accident scene. The truck with the vinyl poster that caught my attention is donated by another friend, and Erich Sr. said he put it there just before graduation, so maybe its message might help someone else. So some good could come from this tragedy, after all.

Zack remembers his friend with a tattoo: Erich had a German eagle etched into the skin over his rib cage and teased his friend that he wouldn’t have the courage to submit to the needle, so Zack got himself an eagle over his ribs, with the letters EJR. And Erich’s dad and his brother mounted a third mirror on their motorcycles. On that mirror, they’ve placed the photo of Erich Jr. riding behind his uncle in Florida, so he’ll always ride with them.

**

When I get back to the room, I turn on the laptop under a small sphere of light above the  tiny work desk. I’d asked Erich Sr. the name of the person driving the little Toyota that his son crashed into, and he told me it was a young guy named Darrin Francis. An accident like that must have affected him greatly, and I search for his name to see if I can find out more.

The name comes up quickly in a police report. Eleven months after the accident that killed Erich Rothe Jr., Darrin Francis was riding his Yamaha sport bike at 3 am northbound on the New York State Thruway with another motorcyclist. They lost sight of each other. He’d told that rider that he’d meet him at the Saugerties exit 25 miles away, but never arrived. According to a news report at the time, “after daybreak, state police patrols located the missing motorcycle off the right shoulder of the roadway, down an embankment in a small, barely visible marshy area. Francis’s body was located close by, where he was pronounced dead by the Ulster County Coroner. State police state that excess speed and driver inexperience are probable contributing factors.”

In bed now in the darkness, with Andrew sleeping safe next to me, five hundred miles from home, it’s time to take stock of the situation. I feel I’ve been reminded of reality with a punch against the wall and a kick to the gut. The full weight of all my responsibilities as a father presses down. I’ve chosen to take my son away from his mother and brother on a vacation, and I’ve chosen to do it with a motorcycle, decried by many parents as far too dangerous to consider.

Mark and Andrew, setting off from home on their ride to New York and Washington in 2009.

My wife and I went through all the questions months ago when this trip was first being planned seriously. She knows I’m careful on a motorcycle, and I’ve reminded her many times that I think of myself as safer on the bike than I am in the car, with less distractions and more focus. It wouldn’t have helped us tonight, though. It sure didn’t help Erich Jr. and Darrin.

But we’re different, aren’t we? I’m older – through the luck of the draw, I got away with my reckless behaviour and went on to learn from it and become more careful and more experienced. I always make sure Andrew and I are dressed properly, I double-check everything and I slow right down. But how much of that leaves the motorcycle and crosses into our regular lives? As my son is about to enter his teens and launch headlong into his own Age of Reason, how much do I give, and how much do I take away?

I look over at him. There are no shadows on his face from the soft, dim light that comes through the window, for there’s only a wall opposite our room, nothing moving in the night breeze to play games with my mind. I reach over and stroke his hair, then kiss the end of my finger and touch it against his nose. He doesn’t move. His breathing is quiet and slow, and content. Complete trust.

Andrew in 2009 at Whiteface Mountain, near Lake Placid, New York.

**

A week later, in a hotel in Washington, I turn on the laptop and check the Internet connection. There’s an e-mail message from a guy named Kevin. He read my note on MySpace a couple of days ago and wants to talk to me about his best friend, Darrin Francis. Here’s my number, he says. Give me a call.

NEXT PAGE: DARRIN FRANCIS, THE GUY IN THE CAR

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