Remembering my motorcycle mama

Ethel MacPeak rode her Harley from Meadows of Dan to Tampa, Florida, to meet up with her husband-to-be -- one of her adventures in a long, full life.
Ethel McPeak Thompson on her Harley-Davidson in 1946.

We lost Ethel MacPeak Thompson Bolt 12 years ago when she died in her assisted living apartment in Radford . She was 89, three months shy of age 90.

I pause each year at this time to remember her, my mother, who raised me as a single mom after my father died in an industrial accident at work when I has nine months old. Wife Amy and I had cared for her for the final years of her life.

On Aug. 27, I had made my daily visit to see her and the doctor pulled me aside and said “she’s failing fast.” She had failed often in her final year, with her unable to remember my name or even hers on some visits.

Later that evening, a phone call from one of the nurses caring for her . “Come now,” she said. I arrived shortly after 7 p.m. and sat beside her bedside through the night, holding her hand and talking to her, hoping she could hear me. Shortly before dawn, her hand went limp. She was gone.

We had asked her to live with us after a fall broke her hip, but she refused. Finally, she agreed to enter assisted living and asked me to promise to never, ever, put her in a nursing home.

I kept that promise but we were running out of money. The doctors had estimate she had six months to live when she went into assisted living. She hung in there for more than four years. We were running short of money but continued to pay the costs, selling jewelry and other items.

Was it worth it? Of course. She had cared for me for the first 17 years of my life, the least I could do was make sure she was comfortable for her final years and months.

Ethel MacPeak managed the gas stamp rationing office the Norfolk Navel Base during World War II and had to decide on whether or not to issue eastra stamps so her could drive his Harley Davison motorcycle from the base down Gibsonton, Florida, where his parents lived, to make what he felt could be a last visit before heading into certain death. The small town was called “Gibtown” by the locals and was the winter home for “carnies,” those who worked for the carnivals.

Mom later told me that the man who would later become my dad was borderline to qualifying for the extra gas stamps, but she also rode a Harley with the local chaper of the Motor Maids.

She never epected to see the young, tall, sailor again. He was set to ship out to the Pacific for serve on the U.S.S. Missouri, the battleship built after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in a Norfolk bar with boyfriend Joe Watherly, a Norfolk/Newport News motorcycle champion rider and William D. Thompson walked up and thanked her for the help on the gas stamps and asked her out.

“You will have to talke to Joe,” she said, motioning to Weatherly. She said their relationship was fun but not serious. Weatherly challenged Thompson for a race on the streets of Norfolk for the right to see his girlfriend.

Ethel figured that, again, would be the last she would see of the sailor until they walked back into the bar with Joe’s head hanging. “The SOB beat me,” he said. He finished his drink and left the bar, leaving the young sailor with a first date that turned into many more.

She remained friends with Weatherly, who later became a NASCAR stock racing legend. She cried for weeks after he died in a 1964 crash at Riverside in California.

The following year after meeting the woman he would later marry, Thompson was Electricians’ Mate First Class on the Missouri was it sailed towards Japan to be part of a grisly ground campaign that was expected to leave more than a million Americans dead or wounded. He expected to die in that battle.

But a successful test of the new atomic bomb lit up the skies over the New Mexico dessert on July 16, 1945, and the Air Force dropped a nuclear bomb that leveled Hiroshima. When Japan refused to surrender, another bomb wiped out most of Nagasaki and surrender came. My dad ended up in Tokyo, not in combat, but standing on the deck of the Missouri in his dress whites as Gen. Douglas McArthur accepted surrender by the emperor of Japan.

When he arrived back int he States, the sailor, William Douglas Thompson, known better as “Tommy,” dropped to his knee, pulled out a ring he as kept with him during that final tour, and asked Ethel McPeak to marry him.

After the war, they rode their Harleys to Meadows of Dan to visit her parents and his future in-laws. Tommy left early to ride down to Florida and my mother would join him a few days later. He told her to forget riding by herself, but she did anyway, on a grueling, there-day ride that took her from Virginia through North Carolina, then South Carolina.

In Georgia, after spenidng thhe night at a motel, she noticed the Halrey was running ragged. She replaced the points but the problem continued. After breakfast at a diner acorss the street, she took our a carb rebuilding kit from a saddlebag and rebuilt the carb in a corner booth. On a trip that followed the route she took in 1946, I found the diner and it was still owned by the game family. A young man told me that his grandfather ofren told a story about a young woman with a Harley rebuiding the carbs at that corner boothe.

“Place smelled lilke gas for a month,” he remembered his grandfather. I would later send them a photo of her on that ride and was told it now hangs on the wall of the diner along with a story about her ride.

“When I left on the trip, I had what I thought I might need,” she later told me. “Two sets of points, the carb rebuild kits and two sets of patches for the tubes in the tires. I needed all of them before pulling into Tampa on a Sunday afternoon.”

They married and continued to ride their Harleys on the streets of Tampa, the roads of Florida and in thrill shows. I came along in late 1947 but he died before I got a chance to know him. My mother told stories about him and their times together and we lived in Gibtown until I was five and she decided to move back to her birth home in Floyd County.

She continued to ride until she remarried in 1958 to a divorced Floyd County native who has a sawmill in Farmville before the new, expanded family that included two step sisters, a step brother and a half sister and brother. She gave up the Harley afrter her new husband didn’t want her riding “that damn thing around people we know.”

Mom outlived both of her husbands and, later talked about longing for a bike to ride. I had ridden for years but sold my Harley after surgeries on my knees and hips, but her longing became mine and a new Harley found its way to our garage in 2008. I put more than 100,000 miles on it before a crash with a steer put me in Roanoke Memorial for more than two months. Yes,, I still have the bike and I still ride.

Her heatlh had declined to a point where she could not ride evern as a passenger but I brought my Super Glide into the lobby of her assisted living facility to help her celebrate her 89th birthday in 2011.

A lot of her friends greeted her as she wore a Harley vest and my helmet. Many wanted to have their photos taken with her and the bike.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “This brings a lot of memories.”

When Mom died, we held a “motorcycle funeral” with help from the Roanoke Valley Harley Owners Group and members of the Motor Maids, rode down from Philadelphia to remember and honor her.

Thanks, mom, for all the years. You lived long in a full life of adventure and service.

Ethel MacPeak Thompson Bolt in 2010 remembering her days as a “motorcycle mama”

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