Remembering Fred

My older brother, Frederick Lee Pulliam, was stricken with terminal cancer at 68. He passed on December 22, 2020, and was laid to rest on January 4, 2021. My condolences to his son, Jared, and his widow, Debby. Our niece, Stephanie, put together a wonderful slideshow of photos (here). Fred and I grew up sharing a small bedroom in the attic of our parents’ house.

Fred Pulliam was taken from us too soon, which is tragic. But during the all-too-short time he trod this mortal earth, he lived a full life. Some people lead timid lives—hesitant, fearful, reticent. Fred was not one of those people. From his first birthday, when he pushed the birthday cake on to the floor from his highchair, it was full throttle, all the time. His life was an adventure, a noisy fireworks show, not a sedate sunrise or sunset. He did not hide his light under a basket.

Fred was a complicated person: he had intense passions, maniacal energy, a restless intelligence, and above all a stubborn, independent streak. Until he learned to focus this powerful life force in a constructive way, he was defiant, rebellious, and at times self-destructive. But like a mechanic fixing a broken engine, or tuning a carburetor, Fred eventually got his own internal operating system humming, with the help of a 12-step program—and plenty of coffee, his only remaining vice. Many of those who knew him as an adult saw the de-bugged version–Fred 2.0.

Growing up with him at 3013 Findley Road, I saw both versions. And what a show it was. The only person I know who was as stubborn as Fred was my father, and they had some epic conflicts. They shared many of the same qualities, including the fabled “Pulliam mechanical aptitude” (which I wholly lacked, in addition to being left-handed), such as a fierce work ethic, self-discipline, perfectionism, and a rigidly-binary worldview. After our father died, I think Fred realized how much he resembled our dad (and how much grief he had caused him in his youth), and became the most devoted to his memory among the three siblings.

Fred was never much of a student, but in street smarts he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Fred was a mechanical genius. He could build anything, or fix anything. Wood or metal, foreign or domestic. Auto or motorcycle. Standard, metric, or Whitworth, it didn’t matter. I was always jealous that I did not inherit this gift. His high school shop project was a furniture-quality stereo console. Fred kept the decrepit fleet of Pulliam vehicles in repair, no matter when, where, or how they broke down. When my first car, a rusted-out 1950 Chevrolet, got into an accident, Fred went to Dollar George’s junk yard with a tool box, procured the necessary body parts, and repaired the old heap. When I seized the engine on my 350 Honda, he fixed it. That’s not to say our childhood was always amicable. We fought, as all siblings do, and he played his share of pranks on me—once convincing me that I was adopted.

But what I remember most about Fred as an older brother is him introducing me to motorcycles (not to mention beer runs to Morris Miller across the D.C. line). When he brought home his first bike, a black Honda 305 Dream, and parked it in the back yard, it was like a rocket ship had landed. I was entranced. I could sit on it and imagine having the wind in my face, which I managed to do eventually with a 350 Honda scrambler of my own. By this time Fred had progressed to a “big displacement” bike, his 650 BSA, and he would sometimes let me tag along with him and Tommy Spruill on rides. It was hard to keep up. This never changed.

Fred was many things to many people. He was a son; a brother to me and Kathy; a father to Jared; a fun-loving uncle, grand-uncle, cousin, and in-law; husband and widower to Sue; husband to Debby, stepfather to her kids, and “Grandolph” to her grandkids; an ace mechanic; a businessman and employer; a civic-minded neighbor; an enthusiast of (among other things) guns, cars, tattoos, Hooters, motorcycles, Sons of Anarchy, Terri Clark, monster trucks (above all Grave Digger), Facebook, and especially of all things Harley Davidson; and a loyal friend (actual and on Facebook) to many people I never met. We will all miss him. (How obsessed was he about Hooters? When the Hooters on the Outer Banks closed, we rode 150 miles to the next-closest Hooters for lunch. Any excuse to ride.)

I moved away from Maryland in 1977 and, while I returned periodically to visit, I was out of Fred’s orbit for many years. My kids barely got to know him. I am glad we were able to take some motorcycle trips together in the past decade or so: to Death Valley, Outer Banks Bike Week, the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina, and locally to Leesburg, the Vietnam Memorial “Run for the Wall,” and the back roads around Montgomery County—sometimes stopping at one of his haunts, Lu & Joe’s. Fred collected H-D T-shirts from every dealer he stopped at, and he tried to stop at them all. He would like to stroll around the showroom and ask the salesmen technical questions about various models. Invariably, Fred knew more than the salesmen and was able to hold forth in mind-boggling detail.

I will end with a few motorcycle-related reminiscences. The first illustrates Fred’s generosity and passion for motorcycles. During one of my visits to Maryland, he innocently asked me what color my first bike was. (As a teenager, I had owned a used Magna Red 1972 Honda CL350, which I sold to pay for college.) The next thing I know, when I returned to California, he emailed me a photo of the exact year and model of my first bike, in the appropriate color, sitting in his garage. He had found a replica on E-Bay and bought it.  He felt that everyone should have their first motorcycle as a memento, or the closest approximation thereof possible.  I had the bike shipped to California (and later to Texas), where it became the bike his nephew Charlie learned to ride on. 

On our Dragon trip in 2013, we rode all over western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The scenery is beautiful. Little did I know it at the time, but Loree and I would eventually move to Tennessee, about 30 minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whenever we visit the Park, or Gatlinburg, or Townsend, or the Blue Ridge Parkway, or any of the many windy roads between our home and Asheville, I see landmarks that remind me of that trip. Memories of my adventure with Fred literally surround me.

He once took his niece, Melissa (riding “bitch”), on a motorcycle trip from Daytona to Key West. Just the two of them. Our sister Kathy—Melissa’s mother—is not the fan of tattoos that Fred was, to put it mildly. And we know, from growing up with Fred, what a “bad influence” he could be. So, Fred and Melissa played a practical joke on Kathy. While on the trip, they found a Henna tattoo and Melissa placed it prominently on her anatomy. It may have been a “tramp stamp.” They took a picture of it and texted it to Kathy, without explanation. Fred and Melissa thought it was funny, but Kathy didn’t. She didn’t find out until they returned that it was a hoax.

I will finish with this. Fred and Debby visited Loree and me in Tennessee in February 2020. He drove over from North Carolina, in his truck, via the Dragon—at night. Those 318 curves are much more formidable in pitch darkness. “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing” was his motto. We showed them our new home and some of the local sights. (Of course, we visited the local H-D dealer.) At the time, I was motorcycle-less following the move. He was slightly under the weather with what he thought was a virus, but otherwise he was hale and hearty. After they left, within a few months the terrible reality was discovered.

The next time we saw him, in October, he was apparently near death in Montgomery General hospital. He could barely speak. Mostly I talked to him, unsure whether he could even understand me. I mentioned that I had finally bought a Harley during the summer, after many years of owning BMWs. He immediately perked up. “What model did you get?”, he asked.  I told him, and added that it had the newer “Milwaukee-Eight” engine in the smaller configuration. “107” he whispered. To the end, Fred was devoted to his beloved Harley-Davidson brand.   

Fred, you are gone but not forgotten. You are finally free of speed limits and gun laws. If it is true that “He who dies with the most toys, wins,” you definitely won. Ride on, brother, and rest in peace.

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