Nicknames in sports can wrap up an athlete's grit like nothing else. In the late 1920s, on dirt motorcycle tracks in the Northeast, a wiry racer with dark eyes and big grin earned the nickname "Demon."
Other racers on the competitive amateur circuit knew that Fred Marsh rode Indian motorcycles with a calculated intensity. When he raced, he favored the throttle. Braking was for losers.
Today, "Demon" Marsh squeezes a red helmet over his head, sits on a raspy little moped, and circles the parking lot of Marsh Motorcycle, grinning and loving every rasp.
Mr. Marsh has reached 100 years young, and still believes in forward motion. He loves the fact that he's probably the only guy his age to ride a moped and own a motorcycle shop despite an inability to see well these days.
Single all his life, Marsh lives now in back of his showroom together with his buddy, Romeo, a kindly German shepherd. "I raced just fast enough so I could race the next day," he says of his racing years as a crafty amateur who won the Northeast Amateur Championship in the 1920s.
"It was a half-mile track," he says, seated like a leprechaun spinning tales in the showroom. Glistening motorcycles surround him. Romeo is curled at his feet. A cane nearby has a grip shaped like a motorcycle handle.
"We'd wire the throttle wide open and hit a kill switch going into the corners," Marsh says of the boiling-hot day he won the championship. "We'd coast around the corners and then take off again, but that day my throttle stuck open in the heat." He laughs. "I learned how to ride through corners faster than I thought I ever could. That's how I won the championship."
Marsh chuckles through his next story, suggesting that he was the "first boy in the world to 'steal' a car." Seems a neighbor driving a new Model T Ford one day in 1913 stopped by the farmhouse where Marsh lived as boy.
"It was bright and shiny with brass around the hood," he says. "I went out by myself to look it over. I turned the crank in front, started it, and rode in low gear along a rutted, dirt road to a store where the trolley line ended. They chased me in a horse and buggy. I got balled out quite a bit. 'Course I wasn't stealing it; just wanted a ride."
Marsh, who was born in Italy in 1900, was still a baby when his mother and father immigrated to the United States. Marsh's mother passed away when he was 11. His father was a laborer near Hartford, Conn., earning $18 a week for a 10-hour day; not much support for five hungry children. Marsh and a sister were sent to a farm with a big family. "We were happy there," he says today, but he never managed a closeness to his father after that.
At the farm he bought his first used motorcycle for $100 and thundered around the dirt roads, banging himself in falls and slides, but learning the skill of going fast. He dropped out of high school and worked at odd jobs.
Always strong and athletic for his size, Marsh loved competition and speed, as so many young men did in those years of explosive growth for automobile and motorcycle manufacturers, the counterpart of today's dotcom boom. He transformed an old Harley-Davidson into a racing machine and started going to dirt tracks. His first trophy, a silver cup won on July 4, 1925, sits dented and tarnished on a shelf.
"Eventually I became a known rider," he says, "and I got a little money, $15 or $20, for just being there. As an amateur I got merchandise like gloves, headlights. But when I got money from championships, I was a miser about it."
At nights he was the physical instructor at the Hartford Good Will Boys Club and helped several generations of boys learn basketball, wrestling, boxing, and other sports. In the 1930s, Willie Pep, the legendary world featherweight boxing champion, fought there as an amateur. Marsh sparred with him and refereed a few of his fights.
Seldom did Marsh turn down a physical challenge. "I went to a fair once and a guy there would give you $5 if you could wrestle him for five minutes," he says. "He was 50 pounds heavier than me, but I managed to roll him out of the ring. It was the worst thing I could have done. He jumped back in the ring, picked me up and dropped me on my head, but I got the $5."
Marsh sits by the front door of the showroom. People drop by to talk, ask for an autograph, or sit with him for a photo. He rises early, eats when and what he wants, and lets his nephew, Allen Marks, run the business.
"I was never much interested in girls," Marsh says, stroking Romeo. "My motorcycle came first. I probably should have married and been just a regular guy with a lot of kids running around. But I have no regrets." Romeo jumps up in the chair next to him. "That's my doggy," Marsh coos, rubs the dog with affection, and grins at his guests as if he just crossed the finish line to the checkered flag.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society