By Ron Leir
In the movie, “The Misfits,” Gay, the cowboy character played by Clark Gable (in what would turn out to be his last film) tries to persuade two buddies to join in a “mustanging” enterprise.
“Beats wages, don’t it?” Gay asserts.
The implication is that you get to keep your freedom by living life on your own terms.
Hearing that phrase echo in my mind, just a few days later, I thought of Jeff Bahr, my former Observer colleague and friend from Bloomfield who was killed April 10 while riding his beloved 2012 Triumph Explorer motorcycle in West Buffalo Township, Pa.
Jeff was the kind of fellow who liked to go his own way, carve out his own path – (he loved to play drums but never for a band and he ran like the wind but never went out for the school track team) – and the entertaining and instructive “One-Tank” trip columns he wrote for The Observer evidenced two of his lifelong passions: writing and motorcycling.
If Jeff were writing about the day trip he’d made to the Keystone State that fateful day, he’d be sure to point out, for example, that West Buffalo Township was a rural 38-square mile area of Union County, Pa., pocketed by dairy farms and a population of 2,795 (as of the 2000 Census) and featuring as a unique attraction, the 63-foot-long, King-post truss Hayes Covered Bridge, built in 1882 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Longtime associates and loving friends of Jeff, including fiancée Maria Cirasella, reminisced about their fallen comrade Sunday during visitation at the Levandoski Funeral Home, Bloomfield.
Lifelong friend Joe Appleton, who attended the same kindergarten class in Oak View School, Bloomfield, said that, already at age 10, Jeff had accumulated an astounding vocabulary, reinforced by a voracious appetite for reading.
Jim McDowell, now a resident of Dingmans Ferry, Pa., who met Jeff as a teen, remembered Jeff confiding that he was thinking of quitting school. “He told me, ‘The teachers just don’t get me,’ so I asked him what he intended to do with himself and he thought about it and finally he said, ‘I’ll just become a wordsmith.’ ‘’
And so he did.
“The way he processed things was amazing,” McDowell said. “The angle through which he viewed things had a perspective like no one else. And he could find humor in everything. He could always find a way to make you laugh.”
Jeff’s writing career started by accident, Appleton said, when he was working for an environmental lab and his employer asked him to write something about the company. He went on to write for local newspapers, magazines and book series.
He was a contributor to “Weird NJ” and “Weird Virginia,” the “Armchair Reader,” “Amazing & Unusual USA: Hundreds of Extraordinary Sights” and Backroads: Motorcycles, Travel & Adventure magazine, a monthly publication that circulates on the East Coast.
Brian Rathjen, who, with his wife Shira Kamil, publishes Backroads, has enjoyed reading Jeff’s prose for more than a quarter century. “We’ve been friends and biking pals,” he said. “Last August, when Jeff had his cancer – and I had had cancer myself – we were a mutual support team. We kind of lifted up each other.”
As for the articles Jeff submitted, Rathjen said the author’s copy “had a fresh and vibrant style” and invariably featured “a wealth of bizarre and interesting knowledge.” And, Rathjen added, “If we needed to fill space at the last minute, you could always rely on Jeff to provide something. He was always upbeat, positive, one of the most unique guys I’ve met.”
Jeff’s ability to draw people out amplified his story-telling talent. As McDowell put it, “People fascinated him. He got them to open up.” And that probably explained why he was a CB radio operator. And why he outfitted his motorcycle helmets with radio units so he could carry on conversations with bike buddies while he was riding to share his adventures on the road with them.
Jeff’s fixation with bikes began officially in 1985 when, according to biker buddy and Netcong resident Paul Alesi, he got his first cycle, a Nighthawk 950. “He kept it for a year, sold it and got a 550E Suzuki. And then he went to a Suzuki Intruder 700,” Alesi said. “He’d take that up to New Hampshire to visit his sister.”
Warwick, N.Y. resident Dave Erfer, who rode with Jeff for the past 15 years after they met at a Backroads rally, figures his pal went through “eight or nine” bikes in his lifetime.
“The bike he was using when he was killed he’d had only two weeks,” Erfer said. “He said it was ‘close to perfect’ because it had anti-lock brakes, traction control and cruise control.”
“The biggest thing about Jeff was, he always knew his history about the places he visited,” Erfer said. “We used to say that riding with Jeff was like riding with Google because of all the facts he could recite.”
“I’m going to miss our morning wake-up calls. In fact, he called me at 9:10 [a.m.] the morning he died on his helmet intercom to tell me he was on his day ride to Pennsylvania. I was enroute to work. An hour later, he was dead.”
As he was working his way through his recovery from lung cancer, Jeff would work out in the basement of Appleton’s home. And, a week before the fatal accident, Appleton recalled, Jeff “rode his bicycle eight miles to try and get his wind back. He was so overwhelmed that he could do that, he pulled over and cried.”
For some reason, Appleton said, Jeff had a fascination for skyscrapers and high structures. “He’d drive anywhere to find one of those huge radio towers.”
Maybe now, Jeff is looking down from the ultimate height and realizing that he’s achieved all that he set out to do and that those he’s left behind appreciated – and were inspired by — the effort.