In Tribute to Peanut’s Big Bear

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

On a late-summer day in the late 1960s, I found myself trying to keep my dad’s Ford station wagon moving along a sandy trail through the brush outside of Gainesville, Fla. I was on the way to pick up a motorcycle, looking for a beat-up mobile home that I had been told was at the end of the trail.

The bike was a Yamaha 250 Big Bear; if I could find it and its owner, I was to transport it back to Knoxville for my friend Grady.

It belonged to a man known to everyone as Peanut, a legend to motorcyclists around Knoxville. His reputation had been cemented when he participated in a Wall of Death attraction at the Tennessee Valley Fair a few years earlier. The Wall of Death stars bikers who go fast around a silo-shaped, wooden-floored track; the motorcycles and their riders are held up by friction and centrifugal force.

Stories of Peanut’s Wall of Death skills had quickly spread through Lincoln Park, where he grew up, and by the fair’s third day, he was drawing big crowds. But his stint soon ended—the Wall’s operators discovered that he was only 15 years old.

Knoxville police were also well aware of Peanut’s riding skills. He was adept at off-roading through North Knoxville neighborhoods with cops—limited to the streets—trying to pursue.

By the time of my trip to Florida, Peanut was in his mid-20s and had moved to Florida several months after the demise of a partnership with Grady. The pair had pooled resources to buy a 1948 Aereonca airplane, a purchase they made though neither knew how to fly. The deal died when Peanut crash-landed it while showing an official that it was air-worthy. The Yamaha was to pay Grady for his half-interest in the Aeronca.

I found the mobile home and Peanut, loaded up the bike, and eventually got it to Grady. Several months later, after getting hit by an un-seeing motorist on Atlantic Avenue, Grady worked out a deal with me: I traded him a set of drums for the now-banged-up Yamaha.

The Big Bear was designed for street travel, but one of my friends was into motorcycle off-roading, so we turned the Yamaha into an incongruous dirt bike. Basically, I had next-to-nothing in it and saw its role as providing adventurous fun.

Soon, my roommate and I were regulars at the dirt farm on top of Cherokee Bluff, a popular gathering spot for motorcyclists. Jumps had been built up and there was plenty of space for playing around. Since the Yamaha was unregistered, I avoided riding it on the streets—we would load it into the International Scout I was driving at the time and take it up to the Bluffs.

The engine was a two-stroke, which meant oil had to be added to each tank of gas. For that purpose, I carried an old Coca-Cola bottle, its 6.5-ounce capacity perfect for that task.

Eventually, we broke the end of the gear-shift foot peg. Replacements, I discovered, were not to be had. So we bent the rod out enough to get our foot under it to shift. Then the brake peg suffered the same fate—and the same fix.

On the bluffs, the Yamaha—easily recognized because of its touring design (complete with a headlight) and its off-kilter front fork—was soon a star. The dirt-bikers couldn’t believe we actually did some of the things we did on it. They didn’t know we were attempting such tricks out of sheer ignorance.

Crashes in the dirt were, generally, no big deal—riders weren’t going fast enough to do much damage. And I had learned how to stay on top when I had to lay down the bike on my first day of ownership—I had to put it in a ditch when the car in front of me on Rutledge Pike suddenly stopped.

Eventually, another friend and I decided to enter an enduro that was set up on wooded acreage at the foot of Chilhowee Mountain in Blount County. He not only had a dirt bike designed for such activity, but he also knew how to ride it.

We formed Paranoia Racing and paid our entry fees. Unfortunately, the Yamaha developed a problem with the throttle cable—it started sticking. Riding it became decidedly dangerous. So I had to scratch. The other half of our team made the race but failed to finish, though he did limp back to our vehicle covered in mud and looking like a veteran motorcycle racer.

I never solved the sticking cable and, after nearly breaking my neck kicking it off on a hill near my house, sold it for $50, my dream of a Wall of Death appearance at an end.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

Share this Post