No matter how much time goes by, every time I pass by Razee’s Motorcycles, my mind is going to wander back to a time more than 40 years ago. A different time for sure, a war that divided a nation was just beginning to become a thing of the past; a thing of the past that would continue to shape the future though. The world was changing rapid-fire, the Arab Oil embargo essentially ended the era of cheap gasoline, distrust was perhaps the only thing that united our nation and an awful lot of young men straight out of school, young men like yours truly, spent a lot of time wondering what had happened to the seemingly straight forward simple world that they had grown up in. We continued off down the path of rebellion worn deep by the young people who had graduated a decade prior to us, but we were not so much driven by causes like “Civil Rights” and “End the War Now” as we were by the malaise that was affecting the whole nation; “What had happened to our country?” I most surely was a part of all that, as was every young person who came of age in the 1970s, although I’m not sure that I had the perspective necessary then to understand it or articulate it.
What I did know though, was that this boy from the sticks, this bumpkin from Wickford was going to grab a piece of adventure for himself, in whatever fashion was available at the time. Hitchhiking, one of those things that, as a part of the collective “grown-up world,” I told my children never to do sounded pretty adventurous to me. From Lou Reed to the Eagles and everywhere in between, it colored the music of the day, it showed up in popular literature as well, and in movies and on TV; cool people did it, rebels did it and I figured it was something I was going to do as well. So, after securing “buy-in” from my best friend in the world at that time Craig Deragon, whom I had given the moniker “The Big Reach” for his uncanny ability to get paint into the most impossible corners known to humanity (we painted houses together to fund our adventures), TC and the Big Reach — hey everybody needs a cool alter-ego at some point in their lives, decided to hit the road in search of adventure.
We hitched up, down, around and all over New England for a while, visiting friends on various college campuses along the way, staying with relatives when we could, slept under overpasses when we had to, ran off into the deep woods along I-95 in Maine to get away from “staties,” state troopers, who actually took that no hitchhiking thing seriously, when it was necessary. We laughed and talked and lived as big as we could. And boy did we meet people! Good people, talkative people, quiet people, old people, young people, even people who were just a little bit scary. The “Big Reach” was a blessing at every turn; he was kind and blessed with the gift of gab when it was necessary and big and imposing enough to make the very few scary folks stop and think twice. Everywhere we went, everyone who picked us up, the opening question was invariably the same, “Where are you boys from?” followed quickly by “Where you going?”
The “where you from” almost always was a conversation starter, an ice-breaker as we all rode down the road together. Lots of folks had never heard of North Kingstown; but those that had, knew it consistently for one or more of four reasons. Quonset/Davisville and Wickford are the obvious ones of the four, but the other two always surprised us, mostly just by how regularly they entered the conversations; Custy’s Buffet Restaurant and most amazingly, Ralph Razee and Razee’s Motorcycles.
It seems no matter where we were, the back roads of Maine, the highways in Massachusetts, the byways in New Hampshire, the long lonely stretches of road in New York State, or the congested interstate along the Connecticut shoreline, everyone inclined to take a risk and pick up two ragtag Rhode Island hitchhikers knew about Razees! Later on, on adventures of the like without the Big Reach, long hauls to DC to visit college friends and even a West Coast swing that involved planes, buses, rent-a-cars, and of course hitchhiking, I found the same thing to be true; folks all over the nation knew about Razee’s Motorcycles. I’ve kept this amazing fact in the back of mind for all those years, and recently decided I ought to look into the “Razee’s Phenomenon”, that I uncovered.
Razee’s Motorcycles was begun in 1947, by WWII veteran Ralph Razee, a sergeant who served in the European theater. Like so many young men of his time, he fell in love with motorcycles while serving his country and opened a shop on Post Road in North Kingstown, on land that was long owned by his mother Ella’s family the Essex’s of Essex Road fame. In that shop, which was on the site of the present day Roberts Automotive, he sold and serviced his two absolute favorite bikes of that time; Indians from America and BSAs from England. He was a huge fan of the Indian line of bikes and was so loyal to them that even after the company folded in 1953, he refused to sell Harleys; heck he was an Indian man no matter what! He left North Kingstown for a short while and moved Razee’s Motorcycles to Broad Street in Providence, but by 1963 he was back in town looking for a bigger site for an expanded shop that would feature the prominent bike of the era, the Honda motorcycle. He chose his present location on Tower Hill Road in that year and has been here ever since. Along the way, he raised a family; two sons, one of which Gordon Razee, carries on today running the shop, and founded the Rhody Rover Motorcycle Club, an organization that just celebrated its 66th anniversary. Ralph went to work, doing what he loved, until he was in his eighties and he passed away in 1999; leaving behind a legacy, one that I just stumbled across as a hitchhiker, which truly spanned the continent. Gordon Razee, who stills runs the place now, carries on that tradition – an old-style motorcycle shop owned and staffed by motorcycle aficionados, people who live and breathe the same rarefied air that old Ralph Razee did back in 1947 when he climbed off his big Indian bike and opened up shop that first day on Post Road.
Me and the Big Reach, well we just don’t talk enough these days and after thinking about this story for the last few weeks, I’ve just got to get in touch with him. Once I do, just like always, the conversation between us will begin with banter and end with the quiet understanding that what we shared during those months “hitchhiking our way across the USA” shaped us both, bound us together forever, and just exactly what Ralph Razee stood for was, front and center, along for that ride as well.