Dutch Parker was born to ride a Harley. The Tunica, Miss., cotton producer didn't discover this aptitude for the open road until one morning last June when Parker's friend, Clarence Cariker, arrived at Parker's John Deere store, riding a Yamaha motorcycle. The two starting talking about motorcycles and decided to drive up to Harley-Davidson of DeSoto County, in Horn Lake, Miss.

At the store, “Clarence wanted to trade his Yamaha for a Harley,” Parker said. “They frowned at that. They didn't want to trade. When we were walking out the door, they had a Harley motorcycle sitting there with a $20,000 price tag on it. I still don't know why I did it, but I asked, ‘How much will you take cash for this motorcycle?’ They said they would take whatever was on the price tag.”

Parker, who had never ridden a motorcycle in his life, turned to his friend and asked him if he would drive the Harley home. Cariker, 65, said yes and Parker promptly bought the machine.

Parker's love affair with motorcycles had begun. It was his 80th birthday. And he hadn't even told his wife.

That bit of a pickle was soon addressed, although not the way Parker would have preferred. As he followed Cariker to Tunica, his cell phone rang and sure enough it was his wife, Skeet. “Dutch,” she said, “somebody from up in Horn Lake called and said you left the keys to your motorcycle there.” (The motorcycle did not require the key to be started).

“I didn't know what to say,” Parker recalled. “I'm sure it was a big surprise to her that I bought a motorcycle. I said, ‘I really don't know what you're talking about,’ but of course the motorcycle was going down the road in front of me.”

A few minutes later, Parker arrived at his home in Tunica and took a quick riding lesson from his friend. “He showed me how to crank it, and I wobbled around in the yard and fell over two or three times and had to have somebody there help me pick it up.”

Parker took the Harley for a short spin on the road, turned around and was headed back to the house about the time Skeet was arriving. She recalls, “I followed him home not knowing it was Dutch. He turned in my driveway and I said, ‘Oh my, who's that?’ He had on all this gear — helmet and goggles.”

When she got close enough to see the rider was her husband of 62 years, the first words out of her mouth were “Dutch, have you lost your cotton-picking mind?”

But Skeet “never was really mad,” Parker said. “She tells me to be careful and enjoys seeing me ride it. I've always done a lot of hunting, and she's encouraged that over the years. She's always been fair-minded about everything I do.”

From that day on, Parker (as well as several close friends who also took up the sport) would be hooked on Harleys.

Not a week would go by over the next year and a half that Parker and his gang, er, buddies, didn't dream up an excuse to go riding — lunch in Forrest City, Ark., followed by a scenic drive along Crowley's Ridge, to Memphis for dinner, or a jaunt down to Key West for a little beach time.

Parker explains his sudden nomadic spirit this way.

“There's some kind of pride I feel when I'm on the motorcycle that I can't describe. It's one of the most relaxing and best things that's happened to me in my lifetime. And you'd think that it would be tiring, but riding 300 or 400 miles a day is just nothing. I wouldn't get in my car and drive 300 miles under any circumstances unless I was needing to go.”

Motorcycle riding, Parker says, “keeps my mind somewhere else I reckon.”

Not that Parker has ever been prone to stressing out. The World War II veteran is part of what many consider the greatest generation of Americans ever. They grew up in the midst of great floods and the Great Depression, defeated a trio of ruthless adversaries in World War II and those that returned to the South tamed the rough and ready Delta soils in the 50s and 60s.

There were few Harleys around when Parker was born in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1920. (Harley was founded in August 1903). Not hardly. In fact, when Parker was six months old, his family loaded up a covered wagon for a two-week trip over dirt trails to farm cotton in Marked Tree, Ark. Parker's two older brothers walked the entire way.

By the time Parker was 19 years old, he was ready to see the world and soon got his wish. He traveled to New York City where he caught a banana boat to Jamaica and got a job building runways for Warner Construction Co. Naturally, he drove a tractor. “I was making $1.50 an hour and thought that was great money.”

He was still at it six months later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Parker returned to the United States and joined the Aviation Cadets. “But they washed me out because I had an eye problem,” said Parker, who then became a radio operator on a B-17, flying reconnaissance behind the bombers.

After the war, Parker went back to Marked Tree to farm, then in 1955, the family returned to the Mississippi Delta, this time in a convoy of trucks. Parker, now farming on his own, began to develop the entrepreneurial relationships that would one day make him a wealthy man.

“I've been a partner with my wife, two of my brothers and Dick Flowers, Bobby Leatherman and Jack Day Perry,” Parker said. “To be a partner, you have to do your part, and I've had a good relationship with every one of them.”

Parker and Flowers bought Mississippi Seed Co., a delinting plant, which they later sold to Delta and Pine Land Co. At one time, Parker and his partners were one-fourth owners of Sure-Grow Cotton Seed. In the 1990s, the partnership took a gamble on four casinos at Mhoon Landing in Tunica County, “which were real lucrative.”

“I don't believe I recognize stress,” said Parker, when asked about the key to his business success. “I don't think I've ever worried about anything in my life. Sometimes I wonder where thinking stops and worry begins.”

He says the farm crisis has not hurt the John Deere dealership he bought in the mid-1980s “as much as you would think. We're one of the top 10 dealers in the Southeast, and we have been the number one dealer before out of 300 dealers. I think we're fifth or sixth right now.”

Again, he cites partnerships with customers and employees as a key to surviving tough economic times.

“We're fortunate to be in Tunica where we have real aggressive-type farmers. Most of them are young, and they give us all their support. I would think we have 99 percent of the business in the county. You can't complain about that.”

Parker has no plans on retiring from cotton production any time soon, although he did cut back to 3,500 acres this year, “so I could have more time on the Harley.”

“You have to have other interests besides what you do for a living,” Parker explains. “Mix it up and enjoy everything you do.”

As for the John Deere dealership, Parker's grandson and namesake, Parker Graves, who is graduating from Ole Miss this year, “is going to come in and sit right here (in Parker's office), and I'm going to take a desk somewhere else. I am going to let him grow into what I'm doing right now.”

Grandson Nicholas Graves has also shown an interest in farming and will attend Mississippi State University this fall. Parker will help him ease into agriculture upon graduation. Another grandson, Buckley Graves, who is going to college in North Carolina, “hasn't told me what he wants to do, and I haven't asked him yet.”

Parker has two more grandsons, Reed and John Carson, who live in Atlanta, Ga.

At the Harley store in Horn Lake where Parker bought his motorcycle, sales manager Ron Dunn refers the question, “What is so special about a Harley?” to a helmet sticker the store sells. It reads, “If you gotta ask, you wouldn't understand.”

But three things do set the big American-made machines apart from import bikes, according to Dunn, 60, himself a Harley man. “It's the name Harley-Davidson on the tank, the resale value and that big, jug, macho, rumbling sound.”

Parker can hardly wait until July when he, Cariker, Tunica farmer Tommy Harrison and several other area motorcyclists head west for a 7,000-mile, two-and-a-half week road trip to Yellowstone Park. The trip itinerary is a half-inch thick.

Parker will straddle a 2002 Harley ElectraGlide Ultra Classic with an 88-cubic inch engine for the trip, complete with AM/FM radio, cassette player, rear speakers, CB radio and cruise control.

He says every Harley motorcyclist he's met, from weekend riders to those whose only possession is a Harley, “have been gentlemen, 100 percent. I think a lot of times, once you start riding a motorcycle, you start playing a part,” Parker says. “A guy wants to grow a mustache or a beard or get a barbwire tattoo around his arm. But it's still the same guy underneath.”

A barbwire tattoo? Parker is pushing the limits of what a man in his 80s can do. But Skeet would probably draw the line right there.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.