"Things Won't Be the Same..."

By Fred Pittman

     

“Fred, this is Terry Webb” is how the voicemail message began. “I just wanted to let you know we lost a good friend…” At this point, there was a typical Terry-style slight pause; my thought-process went into hyper-think mode starting to run through a fairly extensive list of people with whom I had become acquainted over the many years of association with the S.E.R.A. in general and the Masterlinks Enduro Team in particular to whom he might be referring. “…Ronnie Burks passed away.” Of all the people who flashed through my mind, this is the last name I expected to hear.

For a few seconds, it felt like August 16, 1977 when I awoke from peaceful sleep following a 12-hour night-shift babysitting a mud-logging operation connected to a drilling rig searching for oil beneath the red clay of Lawrence County, Mississippi. The first sound I recognized from the radio on the nightstand was the announcement that Elvis Presley had died. (You Junior Class riders can Google it but I don’t figure you will really understand…) For as long as I can remember, there have always been a few individuals around my small corner of the World who just seemed that they would live forever. It was unfathomable to imagine them ever not being around. Ronnie Burks, from my perspective, was one of those Larger-than-Life kind of guys.

Over the last several years, I have come to realize that the level of enthusiasm that I grew up feeling for the sport of off-road riding/racing is not shared by a lot of people presently involved in the sport. I suppose some of this results from so many riders having come into the sport only “recently” (as compared to a few of us still left around with almost five decades of involvement) and simply stepped into a well-established sport and one or more of several successful event-sanctioning organizations. Not long ago, Jonny Kemp (another over-the-hill old-timer) mentioned that he had been told recently that “Nobody is really interested in the history of the S.E.R.A.” I felt a certain pride when he went on to point out that he knows that as long as he & I are still breathing that this theory is not entirely correct. I have a deep and abiding respect for the rugged individuals who originally put together the Southern Enduro Riders Association. While the land-use obstacles are tougher now, the effort required to form a sanctioning organization out of a number of roughly associated independent clubs running under whatever rules (or maybe under practically no rules at all) had to have been a monumental endeavor.

My old pal Burks has told me stories of the “early days” when practically every rule proposed met with resistance from at least one rider who felt he was going to “ruin the sport” with all his new rules and regulations. One guy, who didn’t particularly like the new “No spectators in the Gas Stop” rule held the opinion that, “It’s my kid helping me gas up and if he gets burned up, so be it…” Some enduro riders were really hard-core back then.

I began my enduro riding adventure about ten years after the original establishment of the S.E.R.A. The organization was well into having most of the rough edges polished off. At the time, there were six sanctioned enduros within the state of Mississippi (how times have changed). As far as I knew, the S.E.R.A. had been around since shortly after the water receded following the ‘40 Days & 40 Nights Flood’ and the people who founded it had corner offices in some high-rise corporate S.E.R.A. Headquarters office complex. There may have actually been a Mississippi Hi-Point event the first weekend after the rain started. But I digress…

A few years into my “racing adventure” I became somewhat involved with helping to put on enduros and began to hear stories (some more scary than others) about some of the people who originally conceived and established the S.E.R.A. One of those people was some guy by the name of Ronnie Burks from Picayune, Mississippi. I sort of conjured up the mental picture of a straight-laced, strictly business kind of guy. I later discovered that I was mistaken.

The first “encounter” I had with S.E.R.A. Member #001 was when he was the featured speaker at the Awards Banquet for the 1991 Racing Season in early 1992. I discovered that the founder of our prestigious organization had a few rough edges and was not above resorting to some occasional “juvenile humor” (one of my favorite things in the whole world) to entertain, offend and/or otherwise entertain an audience. I took an instant liking to the guy, although some might describe him as “an acquired taste.”

The next time I recall seeing him was when he was signing up himself and his three sons for the 1992 Bear Whiz Enduro (my first effort at ram-rodding an actual enduro event). “Old Number One” was semi-patiently signing roughly the same amount of paperwork (Entry Forms, Minor Releases, etc.) as is typically required when refinancing one’s house, when he turned to no one in particular and asked, “Remember when you rode your bike to the race, paid your five dollars, raced the enduro and then rode your bike home?” As previously noted, times have changed…

I was on the verge of a nervous break-down the weekend of that enduro. I had consumed three bottles of Di-Gel antacid over the previous two weeks or so in anticipation of the Big Event and still had major-league indigestion. Working through the details required to compose an Old School Enduro Roll-Chart with (as I recall) 17 Speed-Changes & 18 Resets (I wanted to make it interesting), along with the work required to lay out and cut mostly brand-new trail for a 60+ mile enduro on National Forest Land can have an adverse effect. But again, I digress…

My yet-to-become-old-pal Burks signed up on Row 00; the first rider to start the first-ever Bear Whiz Enduro. This fact added to my anxiety, considering that the first person to officially ride “my trail” under actual competition conditions would be The Master himself. My reputation, what there was of it at the time, was on the line. I could only hope that my seriously small but dedicated band of associates had things under control. As I have stated many times since that day, primarily when things turn out to have gone smoothly following one of our events and somebody comments positively on the outcome, “I do everything I can to be ready; then it’s all up to God and the weather.”

I don’t recall precisely how the Speed-Averages began that day. I do recall that the first checkpoint was on an old woods road that we had stumbled onto not far from Highway 98 and the road in to the East Gate of the Camp Shelby Military Training Site. I had arrived there a few minutes prior to Key Time for the first Row. Along comes the Row 00 riders, a minute early, and Mr. Burks is hollering, “There’s no check here; there can’t be a check here!!!” I attempted to smooth things over with a few kind and soft-spoken words and told him to kindly move along (or something to that effect).

We had a reset on the paved road a half-mile or so beyond the checkpoint. When I pulled up a few minutes later, Mr. Burks was smiling a smile that only an old-time enduro rider could appreciate. “You changed the speed-average on me! I like that; I would have done that.” It was at that precise moment that I felt like maybe I had a future in this enduro-promoting game. Not every detail of the remaining portions of the event went exactly as I had planned, but knowing that I had the approval of Mr. SERA put me somewhere near what I have always envisioned as “on top of the world.” The first “sneaky” checkpoint in the first enduro that I had ever attempted to put together and I had “burned” the man that started it all. The T-shirts for the 1994 Bear Whiz Enduro featured artwork that depicted a check-crew of bears and a rider with his head turned to one side while kick-starting his bike in the check. The flip-chart showed ‘-001.’ The row number on the side of the rider’s helmet indicated 00A. Several times over the next 20+ years my old pal Burks referred to himself as “the star of the ’94 Bear Whiz Enduro shirts.” I could not be more proud.

Naturally, there was all the typical good-natured bragging, complaining and allegedly truthful story-telling after the ’92 enduro. My old pal Burks was being his usual loud and bubbly self when I overheard him relating his experience in a rather tight and twisting portion of trail that we fondly referred to as “The Briar-Patch” which led into a similarly tight and twisting thicket of large pine trees that came to be known as “The Bob Section” which was pioneered by my close associate Bob Sills. Burks was describing how crooked the trail was in that area and how, although he knew he was the first rider into the section, he began to catch the occasional glimpse of a rider ahead of him going about the same speed he was. Then he noticed the guy appeared to be riding the same type bike he was riding. He started working to catch up, but the guy stayed ahead, just going out of sight around the next turn each time Burks started into the turn. Then he realized the guy was wearing the same type shoulder pads and helmet that he was wearing. Curiosity was getting to him, so he got on the gas a little harder to catch up to the guy. As the story went, he finally rounded one of the most seriously tight turns and was startled to discover that, as it turned out, the trail was so crooked that what he was seeing was actually the back of his own bike, helmet & shoulder pads. The guy could absolutely spin a tale and I loved him like a crazy older cousin for it. There is an old cliché used to describe some slightly eccentric individuals that states, “They broke the mold after they made him.” I read once where one of Lewis Grizzard’s (again, Google it if necessary) life-long friends described him in a manner that I sort of adopted as a fitting way to describe my old pal Burks: “They broke the mold before they made him.” That, I sincerely believe would explain a lot…

Mere words cannot adequately describe what it has meant to me through the years knowing that not only could I call Ronnie Burks a friend, but that, on numerous occasions in recent years he mentioned that we had been good friends for a long time. I hope he was aware of what an inspiration he was to me during numerous trying times that made me question the logic of continuing to pursue the goal of promoting S.E.R.A. events on National Forest Land. Riding dirt bikes has been something really close to an obsession for me since 1971, although various factors have combined to cut substantially into the amount of time that I spend doing it anymore. However, looking back over almost a half-century of involvement, in various roles of riding, racing, promoting, etc., I have been fortunate to know a few truly ‘Larger-than-Life’ individuals, a number of whom I consider to be my heroes. We just lost one such individual.

Ronald Truett Burks

S.E.R.A. Life Member #001 

& Inaugural Hall of Fame Inductee

1946~2018

And I always figured the ‘T’ stood for Trouble…

"Broadening the Horizon of the Column"

By Fred Pittman

     Over the last several years it has come to my attention that many amongst our ranks do not share my fondness for the “history” of our sport and/or our organization. It is somewhat discouraging that the collective attention span of the present population, in general, has become so progressively short that practically the only subjects of interest at any given time is whatever is trending on social media for the next few minutes.

   Be that as it may, though, I continue to cherish the memories made during the past 45 years, although many of those memories were born out of miserable circumstances (most of which became considerably less painful as the color returned to normal and/or the swelling went down). But I digress…

    For the benefit/entertainment of the few of us who continue to share my fondness for the aforementioned history, I feel compelled to share the following story which was forwarded to me recently by SERA Hall of Fame Member Jonny Kemp, an old friend and mentor who, although he assumes no personal credit, very well could be considered the primary contributor to the establishment of what would become the 20+ year run of my “career” as an SERA Event Coordinator.

    I feel relatively certain that there are still at least a small number of individuals who will appreciate the subject of this “guest column” due primarily to being reminded of some past similar experience(s) with the same sort of efforts. It goes a long way toward supporting my long-held theory that is truly amazing that so many of our SERA events over the last four decades ever actually successfully took place.  

I promise this story is true!  I have not changed any names to protect the innocent, the guilty, or anyone else for that matter.

Also, this is the (exceedingly rare) story that requires absolutely no embellishment!

First Check

     1981 was 35 years ago as I write this, and there is a great deal of which I do not recall of that year.  Of course these days if I can recall my own address I consider that a "good day".  There is, however, one incident that does stick in the remnants of my mind, and as clearly as if it were yesterday.

       That was the first year of the third re-organization of the Louisiana Trailriders, this time under the leadership of Kenneth “Fireball” Harrell (among others).  The “Prime Directive” of the club was to promote the Piney Woods Enduro in Chipola, Louisiana.  This enduro had been (is still being) promoted on a more or less regular basis since 1967. There was even a Piney Woods National in 1974 complete with John Penton and his boys.  Some new guy named Burleson.  The National was accompanied by copious amounts of rain, as seemed to be the norm for Chipola.

     Kevin Taylor once joked that Chipola was unique in that way.  “And now, the forecast for Louisiana:  Your weekend should be spectacular, as pleasant temperatures and partly cloudy skies will prevail throughout the state. Your temps will be warm and pleasant, a high of 78 degrees with a 20% chance of afternoon showers.  Except for Chipola, for which we have issued a severe thunderstorm warning, and a subsequent flash flood warning.  Eight or more inches of rain is probable. We have also issued two tornado warnings across all of St. Helena Parish, centered on the Picnic Grounds and Fluker’s Bluff.  These tornadoes will be preceded by five inch hail.  These warnings will be followed by a 60 degree drop in temperature by noon accompanied by blizzard conditions by mid afternoon.”
     I am not so sure Kevin was joking .  .  .  . 

    I was fortunate to have been born and raised approximately one mile from the Chipola Store, and was quite familiar with the Off Road Mecca that was Chipola.  I was on those trails from the age of six or so. Graduating from the back of Dad’s bike, onto my own “Honda 50 Cub” and eventually starting to understand more or less how off-road was done.  Then the Evil Paper Companies ran us off in the mid eighties.  I caught it just right.

    Ah, but I digress!  This was 1981 and the Paper Company storm clouds were not even visible as of yet.  We had a 65 mile enduro scheduled and I was to captain one of the early checks.  My indoctrination was to be somewhat of a trial by fire, but I had no idea.

     Chris Sellars (SERA number 002 or thereabouts) was referee for the event, he showed me how the clocks, the posters and the flipcards worked plus gave me a few tips and pointers.  I was a bit nervous that something might go awry, as I found myself captaining the first checkpoint that I ever worked.  And was basically just a dumb kid of 24 years old, not really what you would call seasoned.  Ah, but this is simple, what could possibly go wrong?  It was not even a tiebreaker!

    I was familiar with the location on a fence line across the back side of some property that my Dad owned, I had a good crew of faithful friends, and all the confidence in the world!  We had parked the truck on the blacktop ½ a tenth from the check and had packed all the chairs, ice chest, and necessary equipment in to get set up.  Time was a tiny bit tight, but we still had a few minutes before showtime.

    Having left a few instructions with the crew as regards stapling up the posters, driving the stakes for the flags, setting up the flipcards, etc I had trotted back to the truck to move it back so as not to tip off the riders as they crossed the road.  I had just fired the engine and still had the door open when Michael came flying out of the woods.  Literally flying.  His body was parallel to the ground arms outstretched and at approximately the speed of sound.  Superman should have been studying his graceful form and technique.  It was stunningly beautiful.  He maintained this attitude for several seconds before finally coming to earth in the ditch where he commenced to flip and flop on the ground EXACTLY like a fish that had been freshly caught.

       I literally could not comprehend what I was seeing. I sat frozen in amazement with my mouth hanging open for several seconds.  I was just starting to become alarmed when finally Michael magically levitated off the ground to find his feet and take off running down the hill toward Pee-Wee’s house.  As he departed he let loose a tortured scream of one word: “BEEEEEeeeeeessssss!!”  I swear I heard a nice Doppler as he was quickly vanishing.  I never saw Michael the rest of the day.  When I did see him Monday, he was so swollen I didn’t recognize him.

     By now all of my attention was turned to the checkpoint as I was dragged from my mesmerized state by the sounds of people screaming, fences squeaking and trees crashing that were now to be heard emanating from the woods across the road.  Oh (insert four-letter word of your choice here)!!!  All I can do is run to see what is happening and is there any way I can salvage this.  Both questions were answered as I ran headlong into the checkpoint to see a huge ball of Yellow Jackets boiling up out of the ground right at the check location.  My forward momentum was such that stopping would have put me right in the middle of them so all I could do was pour on what little speed I had left and ran right through the middle of them.  This tactic must have caught them by surprise as I was the ONLY ONE that did not get stung that day.

     I needed to be on the other side anyway, as that is where my check crew was (aside from Michael) and about a hundred yards further I found them.  Good friend Allan, his wife Ms. Kim, my wife Ms. Karen, and good friend Pee-Wee.  It was utter pandelerium as clothes were coming off, hair was coming out, they were flailing about and seriously beating on themselves and each other as their squalls, curses and screams filled the air.  The scene was not then nor is it now adequately describable.

     We were just getting everyone calmed down somewhat and were discussing our next move when five motorcycles came hurtling at us at approximately 24mph.  These riders were flailing about and screaming and yelling just as the check crew had been several minutes previous.  This did add a bit to the stress and strain of the situation, but they eventually moved on (pretty quickly actually) and left us again to our own defenses. They incidentally did drag a few more angry yellow jackets with them as if we did not already have enough to contend with.  About this time Allan mentioned that Ms. Kim was allergic.  This added an additional layer of urgency and of course we couldn’t get back to the road from the way we came, so we proceeded to break trail through the woods (jungle of privet) back toward the road well North of the checkpoint and the angry insects.  About halfway back to the road we heard (could not see) the telltale of revving motorcycles, along with cursing and screaming men quickly fading into the distance.

     We do eventually break out into the road and make our way back to the (still running) truck.  As we were bundling Ms. Kim into the truck Chris Sellars rides up and asks what in the blue-tar cornbread (again insert four letter word) were we doing.  He had not gotten the words out of his mouth before five more motorcycles came busting out of the woods, across the road and shortly thereafter into the miniature hell of increasingly angry insects.  Their screams and engines were fading into the distance when Chris (cool headed, as he had experienced none of this Bedlam) suggested that we get Ms. Kim to the ambulance and he would flag the riders down the road to where they would pick up arrows and everything would again move forward with the race.

      We did indeed get Ms. Kim to the ambulance where she received a shot of Benadryl and a ride to the hospital “just in case”.  Turns out she was just fine and got back home that day in good shape.  Everyone else was stung up but otherwise okay other than Michael, whose head swole up about like a balloon.  I never got stung even once.  Not sure about the fifteen or so competitors, but didn’t get any complaints after the race.  I think the story had gotten around…

     Later, I asked Pee-Wee what had actually happened.  He told me: “Jonny, everything was beautiful!  We had the posters stapled up, Allan was driving the stakes for the flags and I was looking for a way to drive the flipcards into the ground.  Looking around, I saw a hole in the ground that looked to be perfect, so I jammed the flipcard pole down into that hole.

     Dramatic pause here .  .  .  .  .  .

     I have to ask, what are the odds?  I have in my 60 years encountered maybe a dozen yellow jacket nests.  Fifteen tops.  Have received two, maybe three stings total. What are the odds that there would be a substantial nest at exactly 12.80 miles on the enduro course?  Not just at the 12.8 mile marker of a 65 mile course, but at the EXACT LOCATION .  .  .  .  .  . TO THE INCH .  .  .  .  . that the flipcards would go!!!  Murphy?  No, I do not think even Murphy has that much power.  Gotta be more to it than that.  I suppose, considering all of the crazy things that have happened to me, around me, or as a result of my actions that this should have been considered a bellweather.

Prologue

      I can’t promise, but to the best of my knowledge those flags and flipcards are still right there. Sure wasn’t anyone going in to retrieve them!  I should go look for them .  .  .  .  . certainly after thirty five years the yellow jackets are long gone.  Probably a den of rattlesnakes have moved in.

And all this time I was thinking I was the only one who had that sort of luck try to put on an enduro.

Fred …