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Sweet Sidecar story by Eric Sweet

A story about a WW 1 veteran that was part of it all 100 years ago.

Few of us living today have ever known anyone that was a soldier 100 years ago. This is a story about

“Chang” a Doughboy from World War One that I got to know a little over forty years ago when he was in his eighty’s.

But first a little background.

No photo description available.

When I started designing and building my Sweet sidecars in 1971 I was only in my mid twenty’s and by the time my business was running wide open I was only thirty years old. My customers came from all walks of life and when they would make their first visit to the shop they almost always stood and observed in amazement. The reason I say this is because we had such a diverse combination of young people working or hanging around the shop. Although the age of a sidecar customer could range from the late twenties to sixty-plus years old with the average being forty-plus years. The kids I had working in the shop were teenagers and my friends that I counted on to bounce ideas off were in their early twenty’s. I always knew that a potential customer thought that they would be dealing with people much older and possibly with more experience. That was until they made their first trip to the shop and got what we called “the five-dollar tour”. It was always interesting to see the look on their faces as they walked around the shop and in most cases asking questions and the young kids could and would answer whatever question they had; sometimes with a lengthy dissertation. The customer’s facial expression would light up with a smile as the young kids talked. I always wondered how often they would think; I wish my kid were as smart! The young kids at the shop were having a great time learning things and at the same time had plenty of pocket change to spend. But I think the biggest thing was they were conversing and dealing with adults in a businesslike manner. This they would carry with them into adulthood, and in the end, it helped them become better equipped to handle future life’s experiences. I always knew that the customers were impressed when they asked questions about how the sidecars were set up, and anyone in the shop could answer their questions. I would have liked for some of my friends from school to be part of our group, but most had settled down raising families and in most cases had been working the same job for ten years. Everyone in our group was single, and we were living a different lifestyle; no white picket fences or lawn cutting for us; that would come later.  Customers purchased my sidecar for many different reasons, some to carry the grandkids, and others to transport a canine buddy while a few used the sidecar to haul around their tools to and from work. The reasons were as vast as the colors of a rainbow so I never questioned the reasoning I just built my sidecars to fit their needed circumstance.

We had many WWII veterans, and at that time in history, they would have been in the prime of their lives not as we see them today with us losing twelve hundred a day. It was an interesting time and as I think back we were lucky to have been building sidecars at that time in history. So with different people from up and down the age spectrum coming in and purchasing sidecars, I had the opportunity to have many different conversations about many different things. I have two stories about two gentlemen from the upper age spectrum that you may find interesting. Chang was eighty years old when he rode into the yard. It was a warm summer day, and Chang seemed to handle his Honda 350 automatic motorcycle like a man with a lot of miles under his belt. Chang made his way into the shop and introduced himself and I said “you don’t look oriental”. He said that it was a nickname that he’s carried for over sixty years. Chang informed me that he needed just the sidecar frame and wanted it mounted onto his Honda “Motor Bike”. We gave Chang the five-dollar tour, and as we were showing him the different ways we made all the pieces of the sidecars he would stop and tell a little story about when he built airplanes back in the 1920s and later during WW II outside of LA and did almost the same job. He also mentioned that he drove different Harley and Indian motorcycles with sidecars for almost fifty years. The five-dollar tour ended up becoming a full hundred dollar tour with lunch thrown in. We were so captivated by the stories that I offered to take him to lunch with us provided he would ride in my sidecar because after all, we wanted to hear more stories. After lunch, we came back to the shop and a price of three hundred dollars was agreed upon for me to fabricate a sidecar frame and mount it onto his “motorbike”. Chang told us that he would be back once he had the entire three hundred dollars; he had a little more saving to do. It was about a month later and He came back for a visit and to inform us that he still intended on getting a sidecar frame. We were entertained with a few more stories and at the same time, Chang told me that he was getting close and was within fifty more dollars and he could order his sidecar frame. I pulled him aside so that no one could hear and I told him that I would consider financing the last fifty dollars for one year, and if he had trouble paying the amount within the year I would extend the loan for another year for three dollars interest charge. I wanted Chang to get his sidecar frame but at the same time, I didn’t want to embarrass him. He was a man of honor and integrity and if I would have offered to just give him the frame for the two hundred and fifty dollars after we had made an agreement with a handshake for three hundred dollars he would have been insulted, and that’s the last thing I wanted. He agreed and I told him to bring in his motorcycle the next Monday, and I would have the sidecar frame and all the mounting pieces fabricated and waiting for installation. He asked if it would be OK if he and his friend came by on the weekend and dropped off the wooden box that he was going to install on the sidecar frame. His friend had a truck that they could use to transport the box. I told him that we would be off racing our hydroplanes on the weekend but he could come by and place the box next to the building and that no one would bother it.

Monday morning I was up bright and early after getting in late and a long hard weekend of racing hydroplanes in Canada. Around seven-thirty Chang pulls in with his “Motor Bike”. I had a spot all set for Chang’s “Motor Bike”. He didn’t realize that he was exempt from having to wait in line like all the other customers because he was only getting a frame and not the entire sidecar; plus I liked this man. As I was installing the front mounts on Chang’s “Motor Bike” he asked if he could help so I put him to work installing the rear mounts. Once the mounts were installed the two of us slid the sidecar frame in place and it was at this point that I knew I had a helper.  As I was heating and bending the mounting rods I asked Chang where he grew up. He told me he was from Canada and was born in 1898 out in the prairie in a place called Regina Saskatchewan and that his father was one of the original instructors at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police academy. He went on about how his Dad was a hard man and he, Chang grew up learning about life through discipline and hard work. After High School, he left home in 1916 and made his way to the states finding his way to the Pikes Peak area, and took a job as a fireman shoveling coal into the engines of the Pikes Peak cog railroad. When the US entered WW I he joined the US Army and became a doughboy. He went through his basic training and then was sent up to camp Custer in Michigan. Because of his background and his childhood at the Royal Academy he became a drill sergeant in short order and trained many of the men from the 85th Division. The entire group was sent to the Western Front in France and that’s when his entire life would change. His infantry unit of the 85th was reassigned to England and refitted with Russian equipment and sent to Russia. He found himself in Russia fighting against Bolshevik forces. It was late in the year and the cold weather came in and the Polar Bears as they would later be called were fighting for their lives trying to protect the Czech’s. This went on through the winter and into the next year. When the armistice with Germany on November 11, 1918, the Polar Bears were still fighting in Russia, and the war for them was still going on. The war didn’t end for the “Polar Bears” till June of 1919. They fought with such distinction and because of the unique circumstances they were allowed to wear the Polar Bear insignia on the left sleeve of their uniform for life. As he was telling me this story I never knew that we had soldiers fighting in Russia during WW I. Thing they don’t teach in schools. When we finished up bending and installed the rods it was time to weld everything up so I handed Chang a welding helmet so that he could observe. He got right into it and as I would finish up welding each bracket and would lift my helmet for a new rod he would give me the thumbs up as he handed each rod to me. Come to find out during WW II he not only worked in the airplane plants for the war effort he was a welding instructor and inspector. When I finished up all the welds and chipped the flux away he put on his glasses and inspected every weld giving thumbs up and voicing approval along with commentary on each weld. I stood there smiling the entire time. He then stood up and shook my hand with a “Very well done young man”. You know that made my day! We then lined up the swingarm and adjusted the sidecar wheel to the correct “tow-in” and “camber”. I then made the last welds and we were done. I carried in the wooden box and placed it on the sidecar frame and drilled the holes for the hold-down bolts; it was then time for a road test. I asked Chang if he wanted to take the first ride knowing that he had decades of driving experience with sidecars. He told me to take it out and run it around a bit”. I made a trip up and down the road and decided that it needed forty pounds of ballast. I took it down to the local hardware store and got a forty-pound bag of sand and placed it inside the wooden box. When I arrived back at the shop Chang was waiting to take it out. It was around lunchtime and I asked if he would be our guest for lunch and he agreed. The kids came in late; after all, they were up all weekend at the races partying with the grownups. Everyone loaded up in different sidecar rigs and we made our way up to one of our local restaurants for lunch. We put Change in the middle of the caravan and I took up the rear. Paul the leader took it easy keeping our eye on Chang. It wasn’t very long and Chang was lifting the sidecar up on the straightaways getting the feel of his new rig. I could tell that he had a lot of time driving a sidecar rig even if it had been quite a few years since he had driven one.

As we sat eating our lunch I asked Chang what he did after WW I was over and he made his way back home, and what home did he go back to; Canada or the US. He said that when they came and removed them from Russia they transported them to England because that was the country of origin even though they were US soldiers. He said that because he was a Canadian the craziest thing happened. He was paid for two years of service from England. He knew not to say a word to his US buddies and a few weeks later after spending some time in the hospital the entire unit was put on a ship headed for New York City.  But before he got on the ship he went to the local bank and exchanged his money from English pounds to American dollars. After all, he was headed back to America and he knew that they want no part of English pounds and that he would have a hard time buying anything with them. He said he had over eight hundred dollars after the exchange. He tucked the money in his left front pocket and kept it to himself.

On the ship headed back to the states, the men rested and laid out on the deck in the warm June sun, and for the first time in years, they were at peace. Some of the guys if not all were shell-shocked so the words, “at peace” might be a misnomer. But Chang and the men were headed home.

When they arrived in New York the US Army also paid him for two years’ service. He was discharged and never said a word about getting a double payment. Once in New York, he had over nineteen hundred dollars in cash; a small fortune in that time in history. He said the problem was they paid us in fives, tens, and twenties so he had a big pile of cash. There was a bank just down the street from the discharge area so he went into the bank and had the cash broken down into eighteen one hundred dollar bills. With all this money he needed a wallet to put it in to keep it safe. They walked a few blocks and found a store that sold wallets. He paid one dollar for the wallet and put all but twenty dollars in it and tucked it into his left front pocket. Like he said he could touch his left thigh and feel where his money was at all times.

He was with his buddy from Michigan and they made their way down on Canal Street and noticed a sign “surplus motorcycles for sale”. Out on the street, there were motorcycles lined up and some even had sidecars attached. The two of them looked at each other and ran over to where the bikes were. They ran up and down the line of machines and couldn’t believe it. It was the first time that they had any money in their lives and right in front of them are all these brand new surplus motorcycles even with sidecars. Right off they were drawn to the sidecars. They had seen the Russian sidecar during the war and knew how handy they were. They made their way into the store and hadn’t gone ten feet and saw a box of bayonets. Chang grabbed two and had one in each hand. Then he put one back, figuring that he only needed one. They walked a little further into the store and on the counter were dozens of 1911, 45 pistols. Chang put the bayonet under his armpit and grabbed three 45s. He looked them over and then right on the counter he started disassembled one, checking every piece. He screams out to his buddy, “they’re brand new and have never been fired”. He and his buddy were like kids in a candy store. He said that up to that point he had felt naked not having a weapon. They left their weapons in Russia and just couldn’t get used to not having some kind of weapon on his person, you know, just in case. He then placed the bayonet and the 45s on a separate counter and started checking out all the other neat stuff. He grabbed ten woolen Army blankets and stacked them up on the counter. Then a winter jacket, even though it was early July. He couldn’t help think about how cold it got in Russia and he was never going to be that cold again. Then towards the back of the store, he saw all kinds of rifles. He looked through the stacked rifles and found a Winchester 1887.

It had been almost a year since the war ended and he was just getting back home. He went into the store and for a little over a hundred dollars he had himself a war surplus 1918 Harley motorcycle with a sidecar. He said for $1.50 the guy put a New York license plate on it. He threw his Army clothes in the sidecar and gassed it up and headed west. He traveled around the country for the next few years making his way south for the winters and ended up in Montana in the Spring. He worked as a cowboy mending fences and rounding up the cattle till the cold weather came in. He was asked to deliver some packages for a family that he met to someplace wherever he was headed and this gave him the idea to start a delivery business. It was the “roaring 20’s“and money was flowing everywhere. He drove the wheels off that old Harley running package all over the southwest for the next few years. Like he said he got to see just about every part of the old west. He would look up old abandoned towns and mines from Montana to New Mexico. Then he decided that it was time to settle down. He made his way to the LA area and took a job at the Douglas aircraft factory starting out hand stitching the fabric on Biplane wings. He then enrolled in the welding school and became a welder making twenty-five cents more an hour; a big pay increase at the time. He said over time he welded every piece of an aircraft and eventually became a welding inspector. Later he was asked if he would like to move to the aluminum forming shop knowing that all the new planes were going to be built out of aluminum. He worked in the aluminum shop and one day was asked if he would like to fly in the new planes doing inspections of the joints in the fuselage under heavy stress loads. He had a chance to fly with the test pilots and they got him interested in flying so he went to flying school on the weekends at a few dollars a lesson; it was during the depression. He flew planes for fun up until WW II started. They needed a master welder, inspector in the steel fabrication department. He worked as the head of the inspection department until the war ended. He was then promptly laid off along with one hundred thousand other workers without even a warning. He had been working in the aircraft industry for twenty plus years and knew that it was time to try something different. He had worn out his Harley sidecar rig and after war II he saw another ad selling surplus Indians motorcycles. He made a phone call to the east coast asking about the surplus motorcycles, and guess what? It was the same company on Canal Street that he had gotten his Harley from twenty-five-plus years earlier. He got on a train with nothing more than a few bags of luggage and left LA for the east coast. He had never married and had no family so he had no reason to stay in the LA area, plus he never liked it there. At the time I remember thinking that Change at this point in history had been through so many of life’s adventures and I was less than a year old.

He arrived at Grand Central Station in New York City and took a taxi over to Canal Street to look over the surplus Indian motorcycles. Over the years he had heard good things about the Indian’s but had yet to own or drive one. When he got to the surplus dealer he walked around and noticed shelves and shelves of surplus parts. He knew from experience that the parts will wear out and replacements can cost big money years down the road. So he made a deal for a complete motorcycle and sidecar rig along with extra wheels and an engine and transmission with five extra chains. He filled the sidecar up with parts and tied the wheels onto the body and in between the bike and sidecar. I then asked what you did for a license plate and where was the next stop. He laughed and told me that he brought his Harley plate from California with him and just screwed it onto the back of the bike and forgot about it. He had a friend from the war; that was WW I that lived in Massachusetts. When he was in WW I almost all the guys in his unit was from Michigan and his buddy from Massachusetts and he was considered an outcast because they weren’t from Michigan. His friend had always wanted him to visit him if he ever got back east. His buddy lived in Lawrence so Chang headed northeast to the famed mill city. He visited for a while and then took a job in the mills. He found himself an apartment and moved in and for the next fifteen years worked for Raytheon Company. As I would find out later my aunt Evelyn worked with Chang the entire time he was at Raytheon. Towards the end of Chang’s time with Raytheon, they were getting ready to build satellites. My aunt built them up into the early eighties. Like they say sometimes; the world is a small place. When Chang retired he had only saved a small amount of money and lived off his social security check month to month. Like he said he never thought he would live this long. He drove the Indian into the early ’60s and sold it to some young guy for no more than the price of scrap metal. When he retired he moved across the border into New Hampshire up next to the University of New Hampshire to a senior’s facility that had small apartments.

Chang spent part of the afternoon with us and said his goodbyes and headed home with his sidecar with the wooden box. Less than a month later Chang pulls in with his “motorBike” with its sidecar with the wooden box. He pulls me aside and hands me the fifty dollars that were owed on his sidecar frame. What he did for extra money was to set up a delivery business just like he did in the 1920s with his Harley sidecar rig. He found that all the retired people in and around his apartment complex didn’t like doing their grocery shopping. He started with one customer and grew his little business to include almost everyone in the complex. He would take the shopping list with the customer’s money and do all the shopping and deliver it only charging a small fee of between $2.50 and $3.00 time’s fifty customers. Chang was back in the chips. Over the next few years, Chang would stop in from time to time and we would always take him out for lunch. Then one day he drops in and asks how much I would charge to install his sidecar with the wooden box onto his new Honda 450 automatic motorcycle. I told him $150.00; my standard rate at the time for a remount. He said, “let’s do it”!  At that time in history, the shop was in a transition period. I had just finished up my 55 T Bird project and the first kit had been sold and was being delivered to Colorado. Some of the young guys had never seen the country and an old friend of mine had agreed to deliver the T Bird kit to the customer in Colorado and the young guys were welcome to come along for the ride. At the same time, some of the girls that hung around the shop were making a two-month-long trip around the US seeing the sites. I had also just made the final arrangements for leasing a twenty thousand square foot manufacturing plant to start producing my Sweet 55 T Birds and I would be moving the shop in less than a month. The shop was the quietest that it had ever been in years with everyone traveling around the country. When Chang came in for his remount I had plenty of time to work on it. The new bike was delivered to the shop by the motorcycle dealer and Chang drove over with his old Honda and his sidecar rig with the wooden box. As he pulls in a car follows him in and behind the wheel is a lady that looked to be Chang’s age. She got out and Chang introduced her to me as his fiancée. They had been seeing each other for some time and decided to get married at eighty-two years old. I couldn’t have been happier for them both; I guess it’s never too late. I told Chang that he could pick up his rig at the end of the week and he and his fiancée left for home. I cut the old rods off the sidecar frame and moved the old bike out of the way. I then moved the new bike in place and looked over at the wooden box and thought “what a waste”. The new bike was that Honda bright orange and with the bike being brand new it was looking good. I fabricated the mounts and set up the rods completing the job in almost record time. As I stood there looking at the wooden box and the brand new bike I thought for a second “this isn’t going to get it”. I took a walk out back of the shop and lying on its side was the original Harley steel sidecar body that I made my fiberglass mold off sometime earlier. My Dad had found the complete Harley sidecar in Portland Maine in a scrap yard for fifty dollars. I had taken the steel body and did all the body and finish work on it and put it in primmer. I then built my fiberglass mold and when I removed the mold from the Harley body I had the kids place the steel body in the back yard. I picked up the body and carried it into the shop and placed it on a stand and gave it the once over. It had just a few scratches on it and a few imperfections from when I pulled the fiberglass mold off from it. I got out the auto body filler and within an hour the body was ready for another coat of primmer. The next day I removed one of the side covers from the orange Honda and made my way down to the local auto supply store that I had been dealing with for many years. Gary the paint mixing man came up with a color match and I had him mix up a quart matching orange paint. I made my way back to the shop and spent part of the afternoon spraying the bright orange paint on the metal Harley sidecar body along with the trailer fender that was on the sidecar frame. My helper Kelly the only one that stayed behind got into the project. She got a boot out of Chang and at the same time had built her own sidecar and I mounted it onto one of those Honda 500 twins with shaft drives. Kelly’s sidecar was one of my fiberglass Classic models that we had started to build some time earlier. She helped me cut out the upholstery and I stitched it up along with a tonneau cover to keep the rain out. We had three days so I let the paint cure for an extra day and on day three both Kelly and myself color sanded the paint and I power buffed the body to a high shine and then we installed the upholstery. That night we took the rig out for a shakedown run and went to dinner parking it in front of the entrance door at a local restaurant. It was as nice a rig as I had ever put together with the orange paint and black pleated upholstery. The next morning Kelly and I wiped down the bike and sidecar one last time and covered it up with a white sheet. When Chang and his lady arrived we met them in the driveway and as we were walking towards the shop Chang stopped us and announced that he and his Lady had gotten married the day before. Hugs and congratulations were given all around and the timing couldn’t have been better. As we walked into the shop everyone stopped and I walked over to the rig and pulled off the sheet that had been covering it up. Chang just stood there looking at it and I walked over to him and said “this is for you for being an exemplary citizen for your entire life”. At that point Chang started crying, his wife and Kelly put their arms around him to give him comfort. Once the tears were wiped away we pulled the rig out of the shop and Chang got on board and fired it up. The smile on both his and his new wife’s face made it all worth it. I suggested that the two of them take a ride. His wife got in and he took her for a short ride around the block. When they pulled back into the yard they were smiling from ear to ear. Chang loved his new rig and thanked Kelly and me more than once. Before they left for home I asked Chang to come back to the shop so that the kids could see his rig but within the month I had moved the shop into the twenty thousand square foot factory and if he came by he wouldn’t have known where we had moved to.  Just before Christmas that year I received a package in the mail at my post office box; it was from Chang. As I opened it up I pulled out a handmade leather wallet with custom leather artwork on it. It had a boy and a girl riding a motorcycle with the girl’s hair blowing in the wind. Sandwiched inside the wallet was a handwritten letter from Chang thanking me one last time. The writing was some of the best cursive writing that I have ever seen; it looked to be calligraphy. The letter was beautifully written and I have it somewhere in my files. I never saw Chang or his new wife again but people that I knew would see Chang’s rig in the yard as they drove by on their way to the beach; he lived on the main road on the way to the ocean. I would get reports from time to time and then a few years later the sidecar rig was gone. I’ve met thousands of people in my life with some being more memorable than others, but Chang was really something. In my lifetime I’ve known what it is to be in harm’s way but even as bad as it got I always knew that somewhere not too far away our guys would come to get us if things got too bad. I’ve often thought about Chang fighting in Russia just to stay alive and the world that was finally at peace forgetting about them and letting them fend for themselves while they fought for their lives. What a cold thought as the rest of the world just kept rolling along. In all the discussions we had I never once saw a time that Chang was bitter because of what had happened to him. The sad part is that I never knew what Chang’s real name was; he was just always called Chang. And it would have been nice if Kelly and I had thought at the time to take a few pictures, but as they say, we were just living life to the fullest at that time in history. Lately, I’ve been wondering about what men like Chang, my Dad, and my uncles would think about the direction that the world has gone in. I did ask all of them at one time or another; what was the most exciting thing that happened in their lifetime? The answer was always the same; “when they landed on the moon”. I was lucky to have known such a man as Chang. He lived in what most likely will be considered the most interesting time in history. I’m glad that I could bring this story to you and thanks for reading.