Ryan Stewart: Forever Young
Words by Ryan Stewart | Photos by Ben Giese
I had only known him for an hour or so before realizing that I wanted to share his story with our readers, to introduce this person, and to celebrate his desire to live a life that embodies everything we stand for at META. I have met many impressive humans along this road called life, but once in a blue moon I stumble upon a person who truly inspires me. Somebody who helps me to seek more, to wake up and smell the roses, and to long for a fulfilled life by way his of example. It is with honor that I introduce you to Ryan Stewart. –Andrew Campo
Stockton, Kansas, was a great place for a kid to grow up in the ’60s and early ’70s. It was probably like growing up in any other part of the country in the ’40s and ’50s. My parents were both from farming families. I spent a lot of time working in the country, although we lived in Stockton itself. My dad seemed to know how to build and do nearly everything. When he wanted a fishing boat, he built a fishing boat. He had tools, and he knew how to use them. He was also quite literate. He wrote a weekly column for a newspaper. Didn’t matter what needed to be done, he knew how to do it or figured it out on his own. He came down with multiple sclerosis when I was young, and he became unable to do the things he liked to do. Many times I became his hands and feet, doing the work while he explained what needed to be done. He expected me to pay enough attention to what he was doing to be able to anticipate his next move without having to tell me what to do next. He didn’t like it if I wasn’t following closely or if I couldn’t anticipate where to hold the light next or what tool to place in his hand without him asking. It was a good way to learn how to do things.
My dad didn’t teach me how to do everything I know how to do today, but he taught me that I could learn to do anything I wanted to do. That is a fine thing. And he rode motorcycles. One of the last times I saw him ride his motorcycle, he had to use a cane to walk to where it was parked. After getting on, he strapped the cane to the handlebars with a piece of leather and took off. Good lesson there: Don’t stop doing the things you like doing just because life has made it a little more difficult. He started me on a mini-bike when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I’ve not been without a two-wheeled machine since.
Stockton, Kansas, also happens to be the home of the longest continuously running motorcycle race on the planet. The Stockton Half Mile dirt track race has been going on at the Rooks County Fair in August since 1906. I’ve been to close to half of them, either watching or racing a motorcycle myself. As a kid, I watched top riders from all over the country slide through the corners of that famed half-mile, and I wanted to do it myself. There was a man in a neighboring town by the name of John Bird who had a small motorcycle shop. John helped many youngsters either build a flat track bike or get started racing. He helped me build mine. It was a Bultaco that we put together from leftover parts from other bikes. He did the same thing my dad would do; he would sit on a stool and tell you what to do while he supervised your work. It’s a great way to learn. He also played the guitar and still does. He’s in his 90s now and lives in the same house as he did when I was young. When I am in Kansas, I’ll stop by and visit with John about motorcycles or flying and maybe play him a song that I’ve written on my guitar.
The South Solomon River ran through the southside of Stockton just south of the half-mile race track. Many of my best memories are from the time that I spent on the river or that track. We’d sneak onto the racetrack in our cars at night, after hanging out and drinking beer down on the river, turning laps until we would hear the sirens coming. I wrote a song a few years ago called “The South Solomon River.” It came to me while working on the lathe in my shop. While running the lathe with one hand, I wrote the lyrics on the back of a brown paper grocery bag with the other. One of the verses goes like this:
“I’d ride my motorcycle over the banks and miles along the sand. Ducking under those barbed wire fences not caring who owned the land. Chased off more than once by a farmer in a four-wheel drive, then I’d hide down on that river man, it’d make me feel alive...
...On the South Solomon River on the south side of town, it was usually just a little stream a’running along the ground. Until they opened the Webster gate and the water came tumbling down, the South Solomon River on the south side of town.” I still have the brown bag with the lyrics and still play the song. Never stop doing what you like to do.
Fast cars and fast motorcycles during my childhood made me realize that I wanted to go faster than I could go on the ground. I used to look at the sky while driving a tractor, and I dreamed of being up there. When I was three or four years of age, I would sit in a box on the floor of my grandmother’s house in the country and place an old electric fan in front of the box. The box was my cockpit, and I’d turn the knob on the fan to the highest setting for my imaginary takeoff, then dial it back to medium for cruise. Low setting for landing. How I knew to do that, at that age, is beyond me. Possibly it was innate, because I didn’t get a ride in an airplane until I was in high school. Just always knew I’d fly one day. I read every book on flying I could find in both the school library and the town library. Actually, I read nearly every book in both libraries anyway, sometimes reading a book a day. I loved to read, and I still do. Never stop doing the things you love to do. I started flying the summer after high school. I’d worked part-time that summer, when I wasn’t on the tractor, for a local crop-duster. I loaded chemical, flagged and cleaned the airplane. I couldn’t wait to get started flying. Oddly enough, I didn’t really study flying in college; I did that on the side. I studied English, literature, philosophy and theology instead. By the time I was a senior in college, I had accumulated all of my pilot ratings and was working nights hauling freight in an old twin-engine airplane. I went to classes, flight-instructed and taught two classes as a professor in the physics department during the day. During my freshman year of college, I kept my Bultaco Astro race bike in my dorm room. I overhauled it in there several times between races. My roommate was a very patient and understanding guy. I was a little wacked. There’s been a dirt bike or flat track bike in my garage or shop ready to go riding or racing, when I am not in the air, for over 40 years.
I’ve been a pilot for a major airline for over 30 years. At one point they sent me to the company psychiatrist. I had gone through a period where I had missed quite a bit of work from racing injuries – 147 broken bones and a number of serious surgeries over the years. They tried to convince me to quit racing. It never would really take.
Mark Twain said, “Giving up smoking is easy… I’ve done it hundreds of times.” That sort of on-again, off-again racing behavior led me to rewrite (with his permission) Owen Temple’s rodeo song called “Swear it Off Again.” Verse two of my rewrite goes like this: “Well, I’ve gotten off hard and been left in the dirt, cheered by fans through a lot of years of hurt. Going to hang up my number and walk away, but that’s never a place that I’m able to stay.” Then into the chorus, “So I still ride in a race a few times a year. I get tossed and broken and then I ride enough I get dirty and bloody and I swear it off again.”
On May 22, 2010, two months shy of my 54th birthday, I was racing in north Denver when I went down in the middle of turns one and two. Low side. No big deal, I thought. I had the clutch in and was going to stand it back up and get back to racing when I got hit in the middle of the back with a front tire. Three riders hit me while I was down. My back was broken in two places, along with six broken ribs, a cracked sternum and two broken fingers on my left hand. I got a decent third verse for the song out of the deal though: “One summer in Denver going round and round, it was halfway through the race when I hit the ground. While sliding through the corner and across the track, I got hit from behind and it broke my back.”
I built a banked half-mile oval racetrack in my backyard around 15 years ago. It’s a pretty decent track. Straightaway speeds are around 80-90 mph depending how well you’re ridingit. I have had a lot of riders, including several Grand National riders, come practice on it. I host six to eight track days every year, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I live in a valley in the country. I’m very fortunate to be able to come home after a flying trip to a place that has all the things I like to do in one spot. I built an airstrip and a hangar across the creek from the racetrack, and that allows me to keep my airplanes close and fly them often. My hangar has one room that is pretty near and dear to me. I call it the “machine room.” It’s where I build my motorcycles, and it houses my welding machines, lathe, milling machine and some of my favorite items. If I’m not flying or riding, I’m probably in that room working on something.
Life is short, and this isn’t the dress rehearsal. Life goes by quickly. If there is something that you think you would like to do, then I would suggest that there is no time like right now to start. Mandatory retirement age for an airline pilot is 65. I’ve been asked if I’ll keep at it five more years. My response to that question is exactly the same as it would have been back when I started the career: I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m still enjoying it. The first day that comes along that I’m not still enjoying it will be my last day. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, though. I have a part-time tow pilot gig at the Air Force Academy that doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age, and neither does my racetrack or my shop.
I feel very fortunate to have the life that I have. I’m enjoying life more and feeling better at 60 than anyone has a right to, especially after having busted myself up so badly so many times. I feel like a kid in a candy shop when I look at all the choices that life presents. Keep doing the things you like to do as long as you can do them and enjoy them. I was working on a song ten years ago about Frank Buckles. Frank was the last living American military veteran from World War I. He was quoted as saying “When you think you’re going to die, DON’T.” That’s great advice. There might come a day when I have to use a cane to get to my motorcycle. Once I get there, I’m going get on it and strap the cane to the handlebars and take off. I learned that as a kid.
Read the story in Volume 010
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