Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remembering John Gerber

For a number of years I worked with John in producing the magazine for the Vespa Club of America. We spent countless hours on the phone, talking from one coast to another. We'd talk late into the night. I'd hang up and couldn't believe what time it was. For John, a self-professed night owl, it was always three hours later.

 A few years ago I put together a special tribute issues of American Scooterist, the member magazine of the Vespa Club of America. It was devoted entirely to John Gerber. For the next number of posts in this blog I will post some of the stories I put together for the magazine. Below is my opening editorial. It's my summation of John's contributions to the world of scootering.

John died unexpectedly June 12, 2010. He had mentioned that he had a serious form of cancer. Only a very few knew it was pancreatic cancer, which has a slim chance of recovery. In spite of this cancer’s almost universal deadliness, he appeared to be doing well and responding to treatment. It looked as though he might be one of the few who survive but something happened shortly after he returned from Amerivespa San Antonio. The doctor’s account was that he probably died of a common cold or something equivalent due to the state of his weakened immune system from chemotherapy.

From early on, John was a scooterist. Oklahoma, along with a number of other Midwestern states, allowed for a restricted 5 hp motorcycle license at the age of 14 and in the 1950s many kids opted for scooters. John’s Stillwater high school regularly had about 50 scooters in the parking lot; it was the “in” thing. The parking lot was strictly segregated into two camps: American-made models such as Cushmans and Mustangs and European-derived scooters, almost exclusively Lambrettas and Allstates. (The Allstates were of course Vespas but at this time few appreciated this distinction.) He was very clear with me that the coolest group, the ones who got the most action from the girls, were the owners of European scooters.

I theorize that this unique social environment, coming at a sensitive stage in his life, imprinted him with a certain inferiority complex that inclined him toward a lifelong fixation on scooters. As a freshman with a meager paper route income, all he could afford were mopeds. First there was a Montgomery Ward Mobylette (French). This was soon followed by a Puch. He rode the Puch all over the state and region. However, he wanted proper power and performance and scrupulously saved for a real scooter. Unfortunately, before his heart’s desire could be fulfilled and he could join his friends in the high school parking lot with a respectable ride, his family was forced to make an emergency move to Wisconsin. The focus of his adolescent high school obsession, joining the “in” crowd with a scooter, remained forever unfulfilled.

Shortly after his move, he acquired a used Lambretta LD and he rode this everywhere, including longer trips west through the Black Hills of South Dakota and to Denver, Colorado. On his return home from Denver, a broken fuel line caused the LD (along with all his belongings) to burn up by the side of a road. Undeterred, he hitch-hiked back to Denver and bought a used Series 2 TV 175 to get him home. This Lambretta got him through the remainder of high school and part of college. All told, he put 9,000 miles on his TV.

In 1964 he bought a brand new Vespa GS 160. He had grown frustrated with his Lambrettas’ breakdowns and constant difficulty in obtaining even-simple replacement parts. His new GS was almost perfectly reliable and this characteristic made him a lifelong fan of Vespas. (Later in life his favorite models would expand to include Heinkels.) With his GS, he set about taking extended rides all over the U.S. and Canada. This culminated with a trip in 1966 (during his junior year in college) to Panama on the newly-opened Central American Highway, a section of road that would soon become part of the Pan-American Highway.

In 1971 on an SS 180 he completed a tour of the full Pan-American Highway from Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost tip of Argentina) to somewhere just south of San Francisco. His original intended route was to continue on to Alaska, but the trip was abruptly interrupted when he was rear-ended by a drunk driver. (The accident kept him in the hospital for a number of months.) In 1978 he conquered the Trans-Asian Highway. He succeeded in doing this probably at the last point in history when it was politically possible to cross so many borders. (Michael McWilliams, former VCOA president, now owns the Rally 200 that was used for this grand adventure.)

Cars and John did not mix. His family related a story of him attempting to learn to drive a car. He ended up putting the car in reverse and smashing into a garage door. He walked away from this accident never attempting to learn to drive again. To get to work in Boston (where he lived most of his adult life) he either walked to the nearby MTA station or rode a scooter. Over the course of his life he tabulated 412,000 miles riding various scooters. John was particularly proud of his scooter travels and, even though his miles logged were modest compared to some, he should be considered among an elite fraternity of scooterists who have traveled the world by scooter. His first goal when he retired was to pick up “scootouring” again and in the next few years he planned to re-ride the Pan-American highway.

In spite of his formidable riding accomplishments he should be most remembered for his writing. I didn’t know it until after his death, but John had a PhD in history. His doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, was titled Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers' Self Emancipation 1873-1960. It is very academic, so much so that most people have to put it down after the first or second page. Still, this grueling effort demonstrates the discipline he devoted to developing his skill and integrity as a historical writer. We were extremely lucky to have someone educated to his level bringing his abilities to bear on the topic of scootering.

He chronicled his own scootours in scooter and motorcycle magazines of the time but his most significant contributions came later in charting scootering history, and most particularly in our own unique and somewhat-forgotten American scootering history. In many ways American Scooterist, the member magazine of the Vespa Club of America, was his magazine. He led the production of a number of significant theme issues over the years, including the sidecar issue, the Heinkel issue, and the Lambretta issue. His Boston issue inspired me take up the cause of the magazine and the club. Much of my work with the magazine was to help give further voice to his work. The key story in the Boston issue related the history of Boston Vespa and Vescony, the distributor for Piaggio for the eastern half of the U.S. in the 1960s. This article helped me appreciate the scope of his mission: to construct a comprehensive history of American scootering. (I attribute reading this issue to me taking up the cause of working with John and club to help with the magazine.)

Two other issues stand out: the 50th Anniversary of the GS issue, and the Beat issue. Again, the important quality is his authoritative record of how these topics related to American scootering. In many instances he is responsible for preserving invaluable information. He interviewed a number of people shortly before they died. His work with the Beat issue pretty much single-handedly defined the true character of scootering in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Europeans had their Giornos, national rallies and the FIV; the British had the Mods. John taught us the primary driving force of early non-Cushman/Mustang scootering in the U.S. was the Beat culture. This is our legacy as American scooterists today.

Some members are probably aware of the all-Lambretta issue produced by the our club in 1997. It is now a rather obscure and rare magazine. While the layout and production were not particularly flashy, the quality of the content -- the words on paper -- remains unassailable. John gathered guest stories and, most significantly, mapped out the history of the various early Lambretta distributors in the U.S. This was information he pieced together over years of painstaking work, interviewing certain individuals, saving notes, magazine ads and sales brochures.

Even though John was a long-time member of numerous scooter club it should be mentioned that John did not have a high regard for the relatively-new club the Lambretta Club USA (LCUSA). He felt that a national Lambretta club should be part of larger umbrella organization. To him, in spite of our name, this was the Vespa Club of America. Well before the inception of the LCUSA, he worked with Lambretta enthusiasts to maintain a regular Lambretta-only column, the Lambretta Way, in American Scooterist. It was a good column, but, as with many volunteer efforts, it petered out after a few years.
John had strong opinions about many things. To some he came across as strident and angry. Working closely with him over the years, I certainly experienced this aspect of his personality. However, this was not a dominant character trait. Much of this might be explained by understanding his exposition style. As a shy person, he did much of his communicating by way of writing. Some of his writing was for magazine “letters” columns and editorials. In this writing he often used a somewhat old-fashioned didactic writing style where lines were very clearly drawn and there was no room for ambiguity. I sense that part of this style came from his academic background and his socialist leanings.

Some of his most strident letters related to Piaggio dropping production of manual-geared scooters. He saw this as an urgent pressing issue and the tone of his letters reflects this. John loved the Vespa scooter and the engineers and workers who created it, but after many years of negative experiences, he was either indifferent or scornful of the corporate organization, Piaggio.

We had strong debate with him over the inclusion of the LCUSA at Amerivespa in Denver in 2006. He was stubbornly opposed to this, feeling that this club was riding on Amerivespa’s success, but in the end he was significantly outvoted. To his credit, when he was overruled he went along with the decision and did his best to support the rally. I maintain great admiration for his faithful adherence to the democratic process in group decision-making and I use it as another example of how his writing style didn’t exactly represent who he was in person.

It is much more important to remember John’s incredibly supportive and generous nature. He was very conscientious about maintaining correspondence with scooterists all over the world. He was happy to share his own personal knowledge and information from his archive (probably the biggest collection of scooter paper in the world) and he would go out of his way to do so. He spearheaded an open exchange of articles with the VCOA and other world clubs such as the Veteran Vespa Club Great Britain and the Lambretta Club of Great Britain.

He did not, however, abide people whom he felt were gathering information for their own personal gain, private collections or fiefdoms. Scootering shares a peculiar trait with other collector-type hobbies: it tends to attract hoarders. He had a number of odd experiences where people would bizarrely withhold information from him. This was particularly galling when his motivation was to bring information to the larger scootering community. It’s worth noting he did all of this work with no remuneration and on his own spare time.

John Gerber was a visionary. As with many visionaries he was a little out of step with the larger community but he burned with a passion for our hobby that no one can match. He knew what scootering used to be (and almost became) here in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, and he selflessly lived to share and promote this knowledge with others. He worked tirelessly to bring greater depth of interest to our hobby. For this, we all owe him a debt. It is important that we learn from his life and continue to carry on his great work.

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