The best-selling novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” wasn't so much about motorcycle maintenance — it was about a philosophy for life.
On Tuesday nights in Omaha, teenagers meet with adult leaders to rebuild a motorcycle, but the larger point isn't so much about rebuilding a motorcycle. As with the 1974 novel, the group project is also about a life philosophy.
To wit: If you can rebuild something as complicated as a motorcycle, you can rebuild a life.
“The motorcycle and the message,” emphasized events manager Trish Haniszewski of the Omaha Home for Boys. “The motorcycle and the message.”
Eight teenagers gathered this week in a wood-floor workshop decorated above with checkered flags at the home near 52nd Street and Ames Avenue. The students followed guidance from the father-son team of Mike and Jeremy Colchin, owners of the Black Rose Machine Shop.
At a large table, teens learned to solder wiring. Several feet away, others removed a stubborn bolt from the stripped-down 1999 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
They learned about intake manifolds, carburetors and plans for long-handled “ape hanger” handlebars. Everyone seemed to get along.
“Everybody is having fun with it,” said Austin, 17, who has lived at the home for six months. “There's no arguing, and there are lots of smiles.”
He is a junior at Benson High School and hopes to return in the fall to his mother and siblings in Lincoln, where his father is “no longer in the picture.”
Austin hopes to become a mechanic, so the 16-week motorcycle project, called “Restoring Hearts With Bike Parts,” is good practice.
“I just pretty much need to switch my life around and do something good,” he said. “When I go home, I'll have a new way of seeing things.”
When the home asked the Colchins for volunteer help in rebuilding a motorcycle, they readily agreed.
“Within five minutes, I knew I wanted to be involved,” said Jeremy, 33. “It's an opportunity to use what I know and to teach kids something good.”
Jeremy, a 1998 Westside High graduate, said he loves the class and loves his profession of working on motorcycles.
“I make a living working on Harley-Davidsons,” he said with a smile. “I get to customize our customers' personal touches. I like the mathematics and the artistic side, and I get to spend time with my dad. This is an awesome way to make a living.”
His father, 64, not only remembers parts he read of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” but also still owns a copy.
The book poses questions about what constitutes quality and where it originates. From our rational side or our emotional side? From objectivity or subjectivity? Or somewhere in between?
Mike Colchin agrees with the life advantages behind the Tuesday-night mechanical sessions.
“It has a lot to do with giving these younger guys and gals direction, something to shoot for,” he said. “It is a philosophy. And I enjoy giving guidance. When we first started, some of them didn't know one end of a screwdriver from the other end. It's really been rewarding to see them learning, and their enthusiasm has been very rewarding.”
Some started the class with a built-in interest.
“I've been mechanically inclined since I was knee-high to a gnat,” said Tony, 18. “I've always loved taking stuff apart and putting it back together.”
He arrived at the home six weeks ago, having dropped out of school. “I had a lot of family issues that needed to be resolved.”
The idea for rebuilding a motorcycle came from Laura Klock of Klock Werks Kustom Cycles in Mitchell, S.D., who developed the program for use around the country. A big part of the project involves safety and learning about tools.
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In a class that started in January, the motorcycle that the Omaha Home for Boys bought at a discount is being deconstructed, repaired, customized and painted, with design ideas from the students. A number of Omaha companies have donated services.
The motorcycle will be raffled off at a Sept. 26 dinner at the Hilton Omaha to raise funds for the home. Actor, producer and author Henry Winkler, who played “The Fonz” on TV's “Happy Days,” is the featured speaker.
“When it's finished,” said Jeremy Colchin, “this bike is going to look like something you'd see in a magazine.”
About 60 youths who attend public schools normally live at the Home for Boys campus, with a typical stay of 12 to 18 months.
“Our mission,” the home's Trish Haniszewski said, “is to reunite them with their families.”
Youths may be assigned to the home through court or state placements because of neglect, poor environment, truancy, poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse or the inability of their families to support them.
Rebuilding lives and rebuilding a motorcycle makes a nice analogy. The latter project has some students revved up.
“It's a really good experience for me,” Austin said. “I work on bicycles all the times, so this is a good way for me to step up my game and find a good career.”
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