At Cousin Ricky’s fiftieth birthday party, the topic of our Dutch-Indonesian heritage came up and Tante Pauline mentioned an auto repair shop nearby. It was run by Dutch-Indonesians. Since I’d just bought a second-hand Honda Civic, I decided to check it out and while there, had an extraordinary flashback to 1956. To Indonesia, where I grew up. I was just eight years old when my father took me to my first motorcycle race. And on the track I saw a rider who—next to Dad—was to become the most important man to shape my life.
The auto shop was run by Geoff Mesman, a youthful forty-year old. Geoff had the features and coloration shared by most Dutch-Indonesians. Instant recognition! We chatted a bit, and then I noticed a photo on a wall. It was Geoff, carving a corner on a Honda CBR600. A Mesman on a motorcycle! The image transported me back to Indonesia, 1956. My father Johannes, a lifelong motorcyclist, rode a German NSU 250 Max and taken me to a motorcycle race through the streets of Surabaya, our home town. As we stood on a curb watching motorcycles zipping by, Dad pointed to a competitor, also on an NSU. “Dat is Mesman; hij rijd goed.” Indeed. Mesman and his NSU promptly won the race. Other than the rider’s name and the bike, I don’t remember much of the event. But the imprint stuck; I begged Dad for more. But he had other things on his mind. Our world was about to collapse. Indonesia had been a Dutch colony for 400 years and intermarriage between Dutch colonists and Indonesian women created a subgroup of the population: Dutch-Indonesians. That was us. We had Dutch names, spoke Dutch and carried Dutch citizenship. And the Indonesians despised us. Post WWII, Indonesia sued for independence and when the Dutch resisted, things turned violent and ugly. It was no longer safe to stay in Indonesia. So Dad packed up the family and by 1960, we’d settled in an idyllic place for a young man to pursue his motorcycling passion: California. Within days of turning sixteen, I bought a used 125cc Honda CB92 Benly for $200. I rode the Benly for two years, then decided to race it. But once again, dark clouds interfered. A pale yellow letter arrived: “You are hereby ordered to report for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States……” On the other side of the world, in a place called Vietnam, the Army needed doorgunners for their new fleet of Huey helicopters. I flew my first combat mission in April 1968 at age nineteen and in one year lost four helicopters and two pilots to enemy action and crashes. The last crash sent me home with injuries that took a year to heal. I was discharged in July 1969, then landed a job in a juice bottling plant for $1.35 an hour. And I spent every penny on a succession of Yamaha road racers. I entered my first pro race at Daytona Beach, Florida in 1972. But after the leaders lapped me on the banking I had an epiphany. As a racer, I sucked. Deeply disappointed, I traded the Yamaha for a 1969 Honda CL350 scrambler and enrolled in California State University Long Beach. Four years later, with an Engineering degree in hand, I worked my way across the Atlantic on a Norwegian freighter, hopped off in London and bought a clapped out Honda CB250 for $400. The CB took me to the Isle of Man, the Dutch TT, and the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francochamps. There, I met American racer Pat Hennen. Pat needed a mechanic; I needed an adventure. Three weeks later, Pat won
the Grand Prix of Finland, becoming the first American to win a World Championship event. Next thing you know, Suzuki signed Pat to join Barry Sheene on the factory team for 1977/78. Pat won two more GP’s before his career ending crash at the Isle of Man in 1978. Both of us came home. Once back in California, I joined Kawasaki to test engines for the Superbikes that Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey rode to National championships. In my spare time, I built a 750 Kawasaki endurance racer and in 1982, co-rider Roger Hagie and I won the AFM 6-hour in Riverside, California. Racing success at last! But not for long. A soprano named Karen stole my heart and shortly, two babies came. Money was tight, and I left Kawasaki for better pay in the medical device industry. I also had to sell my 1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900 and figured my motorcycling days were over. But one babe had other ideas. At age ten, daughter Sara—out of the blue—asked if I could teach her how to ride a motorcycle. My genes had transferred! I bought Sara an XR70 and in the years since, we have ridden about thirty different bikes. Sara is now twenty-seven and rides a Kawasaki KLR650. Other daughter Hilary tried motorcycling as well but eventually chose a second hand Honda Civic for transport. And that’s how, in the spring of 2014, I ended up in Geoff Mesman’s auto shop, pondering a photo of Mesman on his motorcycle. As the memories of that race in Indonesia 1956 came flooding back, my eyes wandered to a second photo on the wall. And I froze. The faded black and white print showed a young rider leaning a vintage roadracer with a dustbin fairing into a corner. “Who’s this Geoff?” “My father. He used to race motorcycles.” The hair on my neck stood up. “Where?” “Indonesia, mid fifties.” The words tumbled out of my mouth: “I saw him! I was eight! I saw your dad race!.” Geoff gave me a “Yeah-sureyou-did” look. “My dad had an NSU 250!” Geoff came around: “That’s an NSU in the picture.” I looked, and it was. Then Geoff dropped a bombshell: “Dad is seventy-seven and no longer rides. He owns this shop; he’ll be in next week.” Precisely one week later, I met Harry and Monique Mesman. The NSU racer who kick-started my motorcycling passion fifty-eight years ago on the other side of the world and I shared lunch. I also set a place at the table for Dad, but he didn’t show. Dad passed away in 2002. Still, I’d like to think he was there. After all, who else do you suppose could possibly have arranged the meeting?
ABOVE CENTRE Frans and his sister aboard dad’s NSU Max. ABOVE Frans gives his sister a demonstration of his cornering skills on his Honda 125 Benly.
Frans with Harry and Monique Mesman. In uniform in Vietnam. On the European GP circuit: Frans (left) with Pat Hennen. Prior to Hennen’s fateful Isle of Man debut. Frans with Mike Sinclair. Victory at Riverside. What’s left of the helicopter after Fans’ last crash. Banged up but alive.