By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Erin Rucker is an unlikely candidate to run a motorcycle company. Tall and blond, she has grown up around motorcycle culture for most of her life, but she's never ridden one. Last spring, after graduating from Texas Christian University with a degree in English coupled with a minor in women's studies, she had planned to coast through the summer months with a stint at Rucker Performance focusing on public relations while she mulled graduate school. She yearns to be a writer. She stuffs her evenings with reading, writing and writers groups, exposing her prose to the glare of peers. She travels to writing seminars when she gets the chance. She's published some poetry. But her father's accident last August 19 changed all that.
At 23, Erin Rucker found herself directing her father's fledgling motorcycle company, taking the title of operations manager. She strikes a commanding pose in a high-backed chair behind a large wooden desk, where her father used to conduct operations. Behind her, rich wood bookshelves hold volumes by Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler and Anne Rice, forming a literary backdrop to a collection of model hot rods. "We're a big family of readers," she insists. "I always remember being surrounded by motorcycles, but it wasn't something that I was so interested in. It wasn't ever anything like, 'I need to get in there with my wrenches and learn how to do this.'"
Yet she has. She negotiates with suppliers, fires employees and cuts checks. It was under her leadership that Rucker's first production motorcycles were channeled to dealers after she held them to purchase agreements struck on her father's handshake.
"For a while there, I took care of everything," she says. "There were times when I thought this was too much and I'm not cut out for this. It wasn't my dream. It wasn't my vision." But it was her father's, and it suddenly became hers. The vision transference began with a phone call from her father's friend and fellow Sturgis traveler John Kaiser.
"The minute he called in the middle of the day, I knew something was wrong," she says.
Laura Rucker was riding on the back of her husband's Harley, 7,000 feet up on a mountain pass in Delta County near Montrose, Colorado. They had just begun their descent. It was then, as they approached a blind corner, that the Mercury Sable appeared.
Rucker had to make a decision framed in split seconds: lay the bike down to get to the inside of the car, or stand the bike up and hope to clear the Sable on the outside in the car's lane. Rucker opted for the latter. But just as he made his move, the driver suddenly jerked the car back into the proper lane. Rucker hit just inside the right front headlight, tumbling over the Sable's windshield, flying some 30 yards through the air before hitting the ground.
"Going through it, it felt like slow motion, just flying over the motorcycle, over the car," Laura Rucker says. "I was wondering when I was going to land, when it was going to stop, that feeling of 'When am I going to stop falling? Am I going to be alive? Am I going to be dead?' I'm thinking all of these things in my head, then finally landing and just laying there thinking, 'Am I dead?'"
She heard voices. Then it started to rain. She remembers her husband screaming out, asking if she was OK. She couldn't speak. She had scrapes, cracked ribs and knee damage. Bill Rucker says he didn't feel a thing. "I tried to get up," he says. He couldn't. His hip was broken in seven places; his left leg below the knee in six, including a compound fracture. He was put on an ambulance flight to Denver where he was put into a drug-induced coma for two and a half weeks while doctors set bones and installed screws. But his leg succumbed to gangrene, and doctors removed his foot and part of his shin. He was then flown to Baylor hospital where he stayed for almost two months. During that time, he contracted a staph infection in the stump, and more of his leg had to be amputated.
He went home just before Thanksgiving last year after spending weeks in a drug-induced fog. He began a regimen of physical therapy three times a week. In January, he got his prosthetic leg and has since relearned how to walk. Bill Rucker is anxious to straddle a motorcycle again. Laura is not. "I'm scared. I didn't ever want him to get back on another one," she says. "It'll take an awful lot for me to ever try it again. I just have that fear."