Mom: A motorcycle mama with wanderlust

Ethel McPeak Thompson on her Harley-Davidson in 1946.

We lost my mother seven-and-a-half years ago when her emphysema, COPD, and other health issues finally won. She was 89, less than three months from 90.

Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt was born near Meadows of Dan, a true native to these parts, unlike her son, who came along in Florida after she married William Douglas “Tommy” Thompson, a sailor she met while working the gas stamp office at the Norfolk Naval Yard in World War II. She settled there after traveling around the country with her high school friend Gaynor in a Ford V8 Rumble Seat Roadster after high school graduation.

During that trek, they stayed one night at the Mineral Springs Hotel in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois, just up the river from St. Louis. She said the mineral springs in the basement of the hotel were “wonderful.” I would learn more about that trip and that stop after I took a job as a reporter for The Alton Evening Telegraph in 1969.

At the Naval Yard, mom bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and dated cycle racer and Norfolk resident Joe Weatherly, who also worked in the Naval Yard.

In the gas stamp office one day in 1944, a tall lean sailor with coal-black hair came in to ask for extra gas stamps so he could ride his Harley down to Gibsonton, Fla., just south of Tampa, to visit his parents while waiting for reassignment to a new ship after old one was in for lengthy repair.

Because he rode a Harley, the later said, she gave him the stamps and expected to never see him again, but ran into him two weeks later at a bar with her date — Weatherly. The sailor, who had just returned from Florida, asked if he could take her to dinner as “thank her” for the extra gas stamps.  She said he would need permission from Weatherly and Thompson challenged him to a motorcycle race through the streets of Norfolk.  If he won, he got the date.

My future mother was sure that ended any chance of a date with the tall sailor because Weatherly was a champion motorcycle racer. But Thompson arrived back at the bar without Weatherly and said he won and her boyfriend went home mad. She never dated Weatherly again, although they remained good friends. Weatherly became a successful NASCAR race driver and was a good friend to Floyd native and fellow driver Curtis Turner, but died in a crash at Riverside, CA, on Jan. 19, 1964. Mom cried when she heard the news.

Dates with Tommy included rides with each other on their bikes, along with other sailors and their ladies, and love blossomed before orders came in for Thompson to report to San Francisco to become Electricians Mate, First Class on the U.S.S. Missouri, the battleship built to help avenge Pearl Harbor.

She had friends who had lost loved ones on ships fighting against Japan in the Pacific and worried but word came in that the Japanese had surrendered in a ceremony on Mighty Missouri and learned he was there and would be heading home. His return brought a proposal, which she accepted, and they married before riding their bikes together to Floyd County to meet her parents and planned to head down to Florida.

Her parents did not know about their daughter’s love of motorcycles or the marriage to the young sailor they had not met. She needed to calm them down before going to Florida, so she told him to ride down alone and she would head down in a couple of days. He worried about her riding by herself and told her to take the train.

Perhaps Tommy Thompson did not know his new wife well enough to understand that a motorcycle ride that long would be just another adventure. She called him and said her train would be arriving at 3:30 p.m. three days from the call.  Then she packed up her bike and headed south.

“I had all the things I needed for the ride,” she told me years later. The things included a carburetor rebuild kit, two sets of spark plugs, a set of points for the distributor, a file for the points, and two tire patch kits.

She had already used one of the tire patch kits before an overnight stay in Georgia, where she walked across the street from the motel to a diner, had breakfast, then rebuilt the carb at her table after eating.

Then she walked across the road to the motel, installed the rebuilt carb on the V-Twin engine,  put in new points and two new plugs, fired up the bike, and headed south.

When her new husband pulled up to the train station in Tampa, she found her sitting on her bike, waiting for him.

“He tried to act mad,” she said, “but he wasn’t.”

Gibsonton, known as Gibtown to the locals, was also the winter home of carnival workers. They settled into a house near a river that fed into Tampa Bay and he went to work as an electrician for the U.S. Phosphorus Plant.  They rode their bikes, sometimes in thrill shows, and danced together on roller skates at a local rink.

Eleven months later, I came along as their son. Nine months after that, my dad died in an industrial accident at the plant — electrocuted after another worker turned on the power to an electrical motor before he had finished working on it. I never got a chance to know him.

Most of what I know of my father came from stories my mother told during my childhood and stories from his parents (my paternal grandparents).

Gibtown was a fun place for kids. As a youngster, I got to take rides on the carnival rigs in the yards where the owners worked on them before starting outa new season.

We moved to Floyd when I was five, then relocated three years later to Farmville in Prince Edward County when she married Willis native Truman Bolt, who lived with three children from a previous marriage and owned a farm and sawmill operation there.  With two more children, a half brother, and a half-sister. we returned to Floyd County in 1961 after they sold the farm and sawmill and purchased the family farm near Willis.

After Truman Bolt died, mom’s desire to travel returned and she took trips to Australia, went on cruises, and visited other parts of the country.

I had left the area after high school graduation in 1965, worked as a reporter and sometimes photographer for The Roanoke Times until 1969 when I left for a new job in Alton, IL, the city she visited there so many years earlier. The family visited Alton while we were and I took her to the old Mineral Springs Hotel, which had become an antique mall with a theater for plays and a restaurant on a lower floor that covered the old springs.

“Not the same,” she said.

I had come to Alton with one wife, divorced in 1973, and left there in 1981 with a new one, Amy, and we moved to Washington, DC, where we lived for 23 years. After being widowed for the second time, mom did visit us in DC and we came down to Floyd when we could but Amy worked on projects in New York City and I was on the road a lot.

With my mother’s health failing, we decided to move to Floyd County in 2004.  When it became apparent she needed around the clock care, Amy and I asked her to move in with us but she said “no” but she fell at home and broke her hip and had to use a wheelchair and we made the difficult decision to put her in an assisted living facility near Radford that provided around the clock care and medical attention and was close enough for us to visit and be available when needed.

On Mother’s Day in 2010, I surprised her with my Harley in the lobby of the Assisted Care Facility and a lot of wishes from those who lived in other units. I took many photos of others who lived in the adjoining units as they posed with the bike.

Ethel Bolt in 2010 remembering her days as a “motorcycle mama”

In early August 2012, her health went into a downward spiral.  A week later, she said she had talked with her parents and her first husband, Tommy.  In the next week, she told one of the nurses’ aides she was “going home.”

Over the weekend of August, the decline deepened.  She couldn’t eat or swallow.  The doctors gave her liquid nutrients and increased the dosage of morphine to control her pain. On Sunday, she began telling people goodbye.  She opened her eyes and looked at me but didn’t know who I was.

But she had been this way before and always bounced back.

I visited her on Monday but she was sleeping.  Hospice called later in the day.

“You better come back,” they said. “She could pass tonight.”

I sat with her through the night, holding her hand, telling her that I was there and that it was OK.  At one point she squeezed my hand but didn’t open her eyes.

At 4:30 a.m., one of the staff who had taken care of her for two years came in.  It was her day off but she wanted to see how Ethel was doing.  She stayed with us.

Shortly after 5 a.m., Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt’s breathing stopped.

Her hands went cold.

My mother was gone.

About two months before, she said she wanted to be with both of her late husbands when she died. That would require cremation. After her funeral at Slate Mountain  Presbyterian Church, I scattered part of her ashes over the grave of Truman Bolt, gave some to her daughter. A headstone for her was placed next to his.

That left part of her with my dad, which is what she wanted, and I appreciated very much.

Then I mapped out a motorcycle ride down to Florida, using the same route she took in 1946.

Rest in peace, mom. You told me I inherited much of my looks and personality from my dad but I also got my wanderlust and independence from you and my love of motorcycles, particularly Harleys, from both of you.

Because of you, I knew more about my dad than I could have. With all my love, I thank you for that.

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