Elementary, My Dear Watson: The Book Really is Free—By Steven L. Thompson

Elementary, My Dear Watson: The Book Really is Free

Elementary, My Dear Watson: The Book Really is Free

You don't get to choose your genotype, so I blame it for my instant desire to know by experience what it's like to ride every motorcycle I see if it's new to me. (Same goes for cars and airplanes, but that's another story.) That's one reason why I like to read first-hand accounts of riders who rode hardware in different times. Take the stories of guys who rode as dispatch (or if you're British, "despatch") riders in wartime. What was it like, especially back in, say, 1914, when all forms of motorized transportation were still new, and everyone from back-garden tinkerers to degreed engineers was pushing the boundaries of what could be done with their contemporary technology?

Such tales have been hard to find, but Project Gutenberg and other attempts to bring old books back to life using digital technology and the Internet are helping. And although, as I found out just now by searching for the origins of the expression, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," the truth of the expression used back in the saloon era of "free" lunches to lure people in who'd buy drinks hasn't changed. So, when we read about Amazon.com having free e-books for its Kindle users or Kindle-reader users, we can be naturally suspicious: What does Amazon get out of the deal?

Well, as I discovered, once you download the free e-reader to your Mac or PC, you naturally enough want to use it to read things…and shazam! Next thing you know, you've moved from just reading the free stuff to the gotta-buy-it stuff. Just like back in the old saloon days, when the "free" lunch made you want buy a drink…or more.

Even so, because I was able to download and read Major William Henry Lowe Watson's book, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, I was able to visit the early 20th century and share with a fellow motorcyclist some of those "adventures" in ways which no modern re-telling could possibly emulate.

Watson was an undergraduate at Oxford when he answered his King's call to arms. Reading about his and his pals' experiences in the war aboard his various motorbikes showed me anew how some things about the military experience never change, but also how terrifying it was for the young men of the time to encounter command cluelessness and the new technologies of war—machine guns and gas, especially. When added to the state of the roads, which then-Corporal Watson usually describes in terms of their relative "greasiness," the adventures of a dispatch rider in that war at that time and in those places can't help but cast new light on our own times' moto-adventures. Which are mostly not, as Watson's fellow WWI British Army field-artillery comrade Barney Stone wrote, one in which "the shells and shrapnels was flyin' round and over our heads thicker than hungry bums around a free lunch counter."

For which we can be as thankful as we ought to be that Watson and his contemporaries not only fought to win the war but fought to make motorcycles better and better.