Nine years ago Monday, Rich Armstrong drove a road near Newcastle, a community in the foothills east of Sacramento.
“I was on my motorcycle after playing tennis,” the 62-year-old Modesto resident said. “Somebody came out of a gas station without looking and hit me. I was only about a mile from my house.”
He suffered 13 broken bones, including vertebrae, and spent 51 days in intensive care throughout seven operations. He is paraplegic.
Later this week, Armstrong will do something that would qualify as a triumph of the human spirit, except that he’s a Harley-Davidson guy, not a Triumph aficionado. He will roll his wheelchair into the custom chariot he’s building onto the back of a 1997 Harley Dyna. He will lock the wheelchair into place, and go for his first motorcycle ride since his accident.
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“It’s a trike,” he said. Still, it’s his trike, built upon his own engineering and with his own hands from the seat of his wheelchair. No tire-cutters on the wheels, but otherwise Ben-Hur would have been jealous and impressed. It’s quite a comeback story, indeed.
Like anyone else, Armstrong had no idea of what it’s like to be in a wheelchair until the accident left him paralyzed.
“I know a lot now – more than I’d ever want to know,” he said. “The hardest thing is to get through the mental part. We all get the physical part.”
His natural demeanor certainly helped.
“I was an eternal optimist before my accident,” Armstrong said. “I always had great support behind me in everything I did growing up. I’ve always been very gregarious, and I think that helped me deal with (paralysis).”
When he got out of the hospital, he went back to work as a sales representative for Brown Strauss, which distributes steel used in the construction of high-rise buildings, bridges and the like.
“They were nice enough to allow me to do that,” he said. “I went back to work six months after the accident. I wanted to get back and see my friends. It was therapeutic, and the therapy was fixing me.”
Armstrong worked six years before retiring two years ago at age 60. Before the accident, he built one-of-a-kind rods and other machinery. Since the accident, his disability hasn’t stopped him from tinkering or thinking about tinkering. He started a business he called “Rolling on the River,” creating wheelchair ramps and lifts that enable disabled folks to venture up several decks to the bridge.
“I was outfitting boats for the handicapped,” he said. “I did it as a side job, but it didn’t work out so well. Most people in wheelchairs don’t have any money.”
He missed motorcycle riding – the wind in his face, the rumble of the engine. But with no use of his legs, a two-wheeler is out of the question. So, for the most part, is a standard three-wheeler Harley Outlaw model. He still needs to be able to get on and off of it. He set upon building the customized chariot.
“Last October, I bought a used Harley-Davidson and cut the (rear end) off of it and fabricated a chariot,” he said. “It’s taken me almost a year to get it to this point.”
He extended the controls and handlebars so he could operate the bike while sitting in his wheelchair inside the chariot. He’s done virtually every bit of construction, from adapting the Harley to fit the chariot frame he designed to installing the rebuilt motor using a hydraulic lift. He’s been able to do this from the seat of his wheelchair in his garage: the welding, grinding, electrical – all of it. Well, almost all of it.
“I just don’t do paint,” he said.
He designed the chariot to have plenty of flair.
“I wanted it to carry a Roman theme,” he said. “I found sword handles. I covered the gas tank in leather.”
Armstrong attached knives to the wheels for effect. He had Never Boring Design create the faux wood-grain look and his decal for the tailgate ramp. Next, he’ll build a folding trailer to transport the chariot whenever he wants to haul it to auto shows such as one in Manteca this weekend.
“To me, it’s no big deal,” Armstrong said. “It’s something anyone can do.”
He started the motor recently only to find it had a faulty oil pump, which caused some damage in less than 12 seconds. It’s now been rebuilt, updated to include a far superior oil pump.
And by this weekend, it will be running again. He’ll be sitting low in his sweet chariot.
“It makes me happy,” Armstrong said.
Wheels, you might say, for his wheels.