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In the beginning there were the Boozefighters...
10/12/2011 11:41:20 AM
Back in the 1960s, there were two distinct American social subcultures evolving that were dedicated to motorised two-wheeled vehicles. The first centered on the younger middle-class people discovering the new style Japanese Honda motorbikes ('You meet the nicest people on a Honda!') and the other was associated with the post 'Wild One' outlaw bikers who favored radically 'chopped-down' Harley-Davidson cycles. It's sorely tempting to characterise it as the 'cycles & psychos' era, but that would be more than a bit unfair to both groups.
In the beginning there
were the Boozefighters…
I have occasionally made mention in past of the fact that I have spent a goodly portion of my life on two wheels. At the upper end of the allowable rider age spectrum now, I often find myself looking back on what it is all about, experiencing life on two wheels rather than on four. Whether on a bicycle or a motorcycle, there’s no denying that the two transportation modes (cycles versus cars), although ostensibly ‘sharing’ the roads, are worlds apart in any aesthetic appraisal of their essential, defining qualities.
One of the chief preoccupations that grips my thoughts whenever I am thus focused is awareness of the radically increased danger today’s crowded highways and freeways present to anyone brave (or foolish) enough to venture forth, precariously balanced on a vehicle that is inherently unstable at rest. With the concrete woods full to the brim (how’s that for a wretchedly horrid mixed metaphor?) with a host of potentially irresponsible, careless and unaware motor vehicle drivers, there’s never a paucity of related thoughts for a cyclist to worriedly ponder, since no matter how you assess things, the merest act of starting off on a two-wheeled journey (of any length) is no wiser (in an absolute sense) than throwing two hundred dollars down on black (or red) at the nearby friendly Native American gambling casino’s roulette wheel. The odds against a cyclist’s health and safety are about as equally divided and although both a ‘wheelman’ and a ‘biker’, I have chosen to direct my remarks that follow principally to the latter category: ‘murdersicles’ (sometimes also known as ‘motor-psychos’).
Motorcycle clubs have been a sub-cultural fringe element of American life for almost a full century now. Although dedicated cycle social clubs have been in existence almost as soon as the first motorised bicycles began appearing (in the early 1900s), up until about 1945 these clubs existed solely for socially positive and constructive activities centered on racing sports. They were most frequently started and populated by motorcycle racers and racing fans, although the concept soon expanded to include motorcyclists’ families and close friends, all of whom were captivated by the sense of mobility and unequalled sense of personal freedom that two wheeled motorised vehicles seemed to offer. Quite often they served as race enabling support groups, since motorcycle racing was almost as popular as automobile racing, way back in the early days of motorised transportation. In this sense, both human-powered cycling (bicycles) and motor-powered clubs had many congruent similarities and for their members they served much the same purpose as any club organised as a focus for shared interests and enthusiasms.
It is worth noting in passing that back in those days there was often a lot of overlap between motorcycle, bicycle and airplane clubs, since the central thrill for each group typically centered on speed and pushing the limits of ‘faster’ as far as extant technology would permit. It should therefore come as no surprise that many successful motorcycle racers later became skillful pilots, just as did many auto racers. Bicyclists who felt constrained in pursuing their own human-powered ‘need for speed’ not infrequently also became involved in motorcycle racing, by logical extension, or perhaps later still in airplane racing. Pursuit of ever-greater speed was the key element for most and only to a much lesser extent were the relatively aesthetic aspects of the activities themselves singled out for reflection, viewed and considered distinctly separate from the testosterone-catalysed impulse to go faster and faster. As might be imagined, these activities were typically limited exclusively to males, since traditional sexist bias was at that time still very much the predominating custom and well established throughout society. Although there were a very few women who took up such ‘daring’ activities, they ran the risk of being regarded as somehow ‘oddly off’, since although the conventions of polite society turned a blind eye to traditional ‘manly’ excesses, any woman daring to breech normative sexist biases of the era were usually regarded as morally deficit and un woman like (certainly not fit for marriage and motherhood, which were the only suitable roles women were expected to fill in early 1900s America). A few notable and not infrequent exceptions do come to mind (Pancho Barnes, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Harriett Quimby, etc.), but however skillful and/or successful they may have been operating their chosen machines, the attention they typically drew was for the most part similar to the type ‘wild’ tigers on display in zoos attract, rather than honest admiration for their inherent talents. Things continued pretty much along these lines until the late 1930s, when the opening rounds of what became the Second World War finally forever changed the old status quo.
In today’s American society it is only occasionally noted by various ruminant observers that awareness of history, as a subject of keen interest and serious academic focus by students, is woefully insufficient in that part of our population under 35 years of age. Why exactly this is so is, in my opinion rather easily understood, but would require a not insubstantial and separate body of remarks to set forth both cogently and logically. Suffice it to say that America’s lack of concern with history and historically significant cultural antecedents in world affairs are the principal reasons why we Americans have been mucking rather badly about and cavalierly adventuring on tangents in the economic and political arenas for the past 30 years.
When the developments heralding the advent of the Second European World War climaxed with a US declaration of actual war with the Axis Powers in 1941, circumstances changed forever for America in terms of its prior tendency to remain localised and somewhat isolated on the North American continent. Nearly 4 years of war that ensued forever changed our outlook and our society in ways previously unimaginable, but no more so than in terms of the expanded worldly awareness of its citizen soldiers, who had been called away from the small farms and city streets of large urban cities of America to fight, thereby witness a level of modern and unspeakably violent savagery unsurpassed in history that completely altered their perceptions of life.
When the war finally ended on V-J Day (in August of 1945), hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of US soldiers began to return to the United States from across the globe where they had been fighting one of the most unrelenting conflicts in recent history. Although a great number of them had functioned in rear echelon status as support or logistics personnel, an appreciable number were combat veterans, many of whom were emotionally scarred by the intensity of the violence they had been exposed to. It is understandably difficult for an ordinary civilian, someone safely protected at home by the isolating boundaries of two oceans, to even begin to develop an understanding of what it was like to see human beings on either side of you blown to shreds, to see friends have their limbs and heads cut off by high explosives, or to be severely wounded by modern weapons of warfare, but in a manner similar to that following the First World War, these many thousands of cruelly traumatized soldiers had to reintegrate themselves into a peace-time society once more, when peace was finally declared. Many succeeded in coping to various degrees with their terrible personal experiences, but a great number were not able to. Known then variously as shell-shock, battle-fatigue and today as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), quite a few severely traumatized soldiers remained permanently, ineradicably adversely affected by what they had seen and witnessed, and many found themselves unable to fit in, to resume their acceptance of formerly placid peace-time life as it had once been.
Quite often their efforts to forget resulted in substance addictions to drugs and alcohol. A not insignificant number had discovered the mind and pain-numbing sensations offered by narcotic opiate use, in the course of being treated for severe wounds and injuries. The consequent post-war demand for illegal, highly addictive drugs of all kinds grew exponentially, fueled to a substantial degree by former soldiers whose minds had been torn apart and put back together inexpertly on the battlefields. Predictably, with a rising supply of these substances soon flooding into the United States, it wasn’t long before the recreational use of these drugs became a major part of America’s social difficulties as youths still in school also discovered opiates, stimulants or even worse drugs.
Concurrent with the above (substance abuse), another synergistic dynamic resulting from the disruptions of war was the difficulty many had in returning to the pacific, taciturn patterns of civilian jobs and work. In 1918 a similar wave of ‘readjustment’ difficulty had been prompted among many returning WWI veterans, even becoming presciently reflected in a popular song refrain of the period that went “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” The concept was simple to understand in that suddenly thousands of relatively uncomplicated rural youths had been precipitously thrown into a new world of action, excitement, heightened experience and rich cultural diversity by their entry into the ranks of Army soldiers sent to fight in Europe. An analogous and very interesting parallel is found in author Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 book ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. The book’s title harkens to the closing scenes in Wolfe’s novel when it dawns on protagonist George Webber that, "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
Far from being a new social wrinkle in the fabric of life, such profound turmoil characterises almost all human beings who have undergone extreme personal transformations of knowledge and experience, with the result that every aspect of their lives have been altered by radically new ways of thinking, acting, perceiving and behaving, for it is a known dynamic of human experience that as our knowledge and awarenesses expand, it becomes categorically impossible to retreat to any simpler, earlier or less complex consciousness once held or maintained.
Thus, several post-conflict effects of the Second World War came together to create a new wave of restlessness among certain younger members of society (many of whom were returning veterans) for a life of continuing action, renewed change, constant stimulation and a range of expanding sensory experiences. Many of those that were either unable to make the translation to peacetime or to resolve their still intensely fragile emotional issues eventually came together in their common love of mechanized fastness. For many who didn’t find themselves attracted to criminality or the more seriously overt forms of illegal antisocial behavior, this took the form of coming together with others similarly dealing with peacetime resettlement problems over an interest in the reckless and risky freedoms offered by motorcycles.
Accordingly, not long after the war had ended (1946), an entirely new type of motorcycle club was founded in the San Diego area of California. Named the ‘Boozefighters’, the group came had its formative origins one afternoon, shortly after founding inspiration Willie (‘The Wino’) Forkner, who was attending a local motorcycle race, got on his bike (doubtless quite well lubricated…Willie, that is…not the bike) and crashed through the course barrier to join in the motorcycle race event spontaneously as an uninvited participant.
The motorcycle racing/social club Willie was with at the time apparently didn’t share the same free-spirited outlook as Willie, since it responded to his drunken exuberance by ejecting him from both the race and the club. Undaunted (and likely feeling no subsequent pain anyway), Willie soon found a bunch of like-minded pals to hang with (reportedly containing Fatboy Nelson, Dink Burns, George Menker and others) and in a neighborhood bar favored by many former WWII GIs (the All-American Bar in the South gate, LA area), the Boozefighters MC came into being as one of the very first post-war ‘new gen’ cycle clubs. So the existing historical accounts go, the ‘All-American Bar’ regulars were all veterans who had all shared the uncommonly divergent bonds of brotherhood that only modern war, with all its technology-enhanced violence, can forge and with that status serving as a catalytic nuclear core, the Boozefighters MC quickly grew into a group of motorcycle enthusiasts with a thirst for both ETOH and excitement.
In fact, since its founding over 65 years ago, the Boozefighters are not just still around but are thriving, with chapters all over the nation and abroad. Although greatly transformed from its original ‘drink & raise hell’ origins, today the club has a more altruistic and socially responsible nature, organising fund drives for charities, hosting social events and settling into a more ‘mature’ senority as its members have similarly matured and mellowed. Not without a healthy amount of obvious whimsy, the Boozefighters like to regard themselves as ‘A drinking club with a motorcycle problem’. Each chapter is slightly different, with slightly different rules, but all pride themselves as loyal and affiliated offshoots of the original BFMC and all will quickly state the fact that the Boozefighters were the first of a new sub-culture of motorcycle enthusiasts .
Back in its earlier formative days, BFMC wasn’t quite as benevolently oriented as the club is now and drinking, street racing, and generally riotous public carousing all went hand-in-hand whenever the brothers convened. Perhaps the most notorious instance took place over the July 4th 1947 weekend in the small coastal California town of Hollister, a placid village of only a couple of thousands souls, when the American Motorcycle Association held a rally there called the ‘Gypsy Tour’. Although intended for a far smaller crowd, more than 4000 bikers turned up, including the now famed Boozefighters MC. Given a definite lack of facilities too support such a great number of motorcyclist participants, the scene soon degenerated into a mixed melee of street racing and other displays of public disorder. Once word reached the Hearst newspapers up north of what was going on down in dinky little Hollister, the San Francisco Examiner quickly dispatched a team of journalists and photographers to document the event. Not content to remain dispassionate and journalistically objective (they were William Randolph Hearst’s spawn, of course), the more sordid aspects of what is called ‘yellow journalism’ soon surfaced, as news reporters contrived staged photos of obviously very drunk bikers swilling beer, surrounded by empty bottles, that quickly hit the front pages of the Hearst papers. Before long, the factual events in Hollister were overtaken and surpassed by lurid and sensational reports of general mayhem and violence. The police response to the Hollister mayhem was unfortunately somewhat confused, chaotic and itself contributed to gross exaggerations of public disorder in the streets there. Surpassing all reasonable accounts of what actually went on in Hollister during that event, the staged Examiner photos (helpfully assisted by the willing complicity of a few very drunk Boozefighters) eventually came to symbolize across the entire nation all the evils of American hooliganism at its worst; the impact of that state of affairs resulted in the beginning of that distinctive combination of antisocial traits the average public person now perceives as the mythical (and much exaggerated) reputation of ‘outlaw biker’ gangs.
Alert to all that had happened up in tiny Hollister, the entertainment community of Hollywood wasted no time exploiting this event by soon after producing a new movie titled ‘The Wild One’, starring rising young movie star Marlon Brando. Based loosely on the events in Hollister and drawing heavily upon the new sub-culture of ‘chopping’ the excess bodywork from Harley Davidson motorcycles and turning them into artistic, hopped-up street machines, the new Brando movie quickly seized the public’s imagination and the idea of free-spirited, lawless ‘biker gangs’ immediately found favor and fertile ground in rebellious adolescent minds.
It is interesting to note that the concept of ‘biker gangs’ struck a strongly resonant chord in the collective American experience, somewhat if not completely paralleling that rough and wide-open lawlessness of the early American ‘Wild West’ era and further reflecting the tradition of 1920s and 30s metropolitan gangsterism. It was not coincidental that this new phenomenon received further synergized energy from a growing adolescent rebelliousness that embraced (not in exact order) the anti-establishment sentiment of the 1950s’ ‘juvenile delinquent’ generation, the artsy-minded James Dean individualist clique and the evolving counter-culture beatnik movement that fed on all of the above. As usual, Hollywood’s sleazy and amoral movie studio culture quickly sensed easy money in co-opting the spirit of new rebellious youth and co-dependently helped foster the subsequent social protest era (of the 60s) by making endless cheap and easy ‘youth exploitation’ movies that further fostered the growing admixture of anti-social protest that all these elements of social change embraced. Profoundly echoing Wolfe’s ‘no going back’ literary sentiment, one thing led to another as a series of progressive social changes occurred that culminated in the Vietnam War protests and the ‘Hip’ movement of the late 60s and early 70s.
Interestingly, the Boozefighters today insist that they are not ‘one-percenters’ (a phrase that may or may not have been originated by AMA spokesmen who declared that the sort of violently antisocial public disorder occurring in Hollister were the doing of only “one percent” of the motorcycle enthusiast public) and although no one wants to think that the Boozefighters has degenerated into a group of mellowing, older senior citizens, all settling comfortably back to collect their veterans and SSD benefits in peaceful harmony, the BFMC are indeed not outlaw motorcyclists in any sense of the word.
While there are still a few truly violent and lawless motorcycle groups that actively engage in out-and-out illegal activity (principally now consisting of illegal substance activity, with its multi-million dollar profitability potential), they are indeed only a very small part of the entire microcosm of motorcycle culture. In fact most of what were formerly viewed as being ‘lawless biker’ groups have in fact matured to such an extent that many today count such thoroughly bourgeois members of society as doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock-brokers, and even news media anchors among their members. This development seems to be a win/win situation that works both ways, in that the biker groups gain ‘legitimacy’ and reflected prestige from having such upstanding members in their midst, while the otherwise thoroughly civilized (and often mild-mannered) doctors and lawyers revel in putting on their ‘biker-dude’ duds and pretending to be as ‘bad’ as they appear to be on their custom hogs.
On a related tangent, I recall sitting in my study a few nights back reflecting on the whole matter of motorcycling safety (yet again) and analysing the question of what works most effectively to keep motorcyclists safe on public roadways, filled up as they are with impatient and distracted motorists that a number of safety studies have clearly shown just don’t ‘see’ two-wheeled vehicle riders. Among some of the more amusing thoughts that occurred to me at such moments was a bit of whimsical speculation that ‘outlaw bikers’ deliberately set out to cultivate an atmosphere of fear in onlookers stemming from a simple desire to protect themselves. Clearly, by way of illustration, no cell-phone using yahoo speeding carelessly along in a car might bother to take pains to avoid a cute little fluffy bunny hopping across the high-speed lane of the freeway, but what if the cute little bunny was…allegorically speaking… armed to the teeth and could shoot your ass half-off on a casual whim? QED the ‘bad’ looking biker who cultivates an image of being someone you would NOT ever want to mess with (or even glance sideways at), under the best of circumstances. As a symbolic gesture, this dynamic seems to have some functional substance, since anything that draws attention and produces generalised anxiety has a certain utility that may be usefully exploited. Many gangs employ a similar affect in their efforts to gain what they regard as ‘rightful respect’ from others. Aside from the fact that most would agree that respect is something that is earned rather than just handed out gratuitously, if failing to ‘respect’ someone will unfailingly result in your being the target of a lethal fusillade of automatic weapon fire, the process becomes a self-fulfilling one, regardless of the actual precipitating factors involved.
There’s no arguing that the potentially dangerous ‘look’ accomplishes almost as much as an actual (physical) threat, since who among us fails to suppress a slight shiver when two big, mean, nasty bikers zoom by on the freeway, mounted on radically modified Harleys with exhaust notes that fall just a few decibels short of an F-16 on full afterburner? Since loud noise can also constitute another form of overt threat, the combination of seeing two of JRR Tolkien’s Nazgul Black Riders blasting by, accompanied by a synergistic wail of obnoxious noise that is almost physically impactful in its intrusiveness, does achieve a certain powerful effect. At the very least it says ‘Hey, look this way and don’t miss seeing me,’ and you can’t make that sort of ‘don’t tread on me’ statement half as effectively on most conventional Japanese crotch-rockets, given their excellent noise-dampening exhaust systems and low-profile rider posture.
Reiterating some comments I made in an earlier expostulation on motorcycle safety, a couple of informal studies of motorist behavior seem to demonstrate that most operators of automobiles on the roads are prone to a process of automatic and largely unconscious ‘selectivity’ when it comes to maintaining vigilant awareness for potentially dangerous or hazardous roadway situations. One such study was undertaken by a motorcycle journalist writing a story on motorcycle safety who decided to ‘test’ motorists on their alertness to the presence of nearby two-wheeled vehicles. For an entire week, in each of three successive weeks, this journalist wore a different set of protective gear and rode a different type of motorcycle. The first week he drove a conventional American road machine (a Harley Davidson) and wore the sort of black gear favored by most ‘hog’ riders. The second week he drove a bright yellow Japanese ‘Sportsbike’ (i.e. street homologated ‘racer clone’) and high-visibility helmet and jacket. The third and final week he rode a black and white street bike and the sort of protective gear a motorcycle policeman usually wears. The object of his study was to determine (if possible), whether motorists took more note of one mode of visual appearance more frequently than others (by gauging whether motorists ‘gave’ him more safety margin space on the road).
Surprisingly, the ‘cycle cop’ affect produced the most notice (and the most respect), while the highly conspicuous (bright yellow hi-viz gear) affect ranked much lower on the list of motorist responses. This led him to conclude that human brains are hard-wired (via the Amygdala, that primitive center of ‘flight or fight’ fearfulness we all have) to detect threats first and foremost. It is as true on the highways, apparently, as it is anywhere human beings interact with their environment. That is, motorcycle cops pose an instinctive threat that motorists quickly detect, while a highly conspicuous (but otherwise harmless) cycle rider wearing hi-viz gear does not. Thus the cop is afforded more consideration and the reverse is true for the poor cycle rider who hopes that being more easily seen will help keep him safe!
It is tempting to draw an interesting parallel to anyone riding a big chopper who comes across visually as a mean, nasty, outlaw biker, since such a person could conceivably pose an obvious threat and may thus be automatically ‘respected’ more than some poor ‘safety nerd’ on a ‘rice-burner' bike who thinks fluorescent safety green riding gear will save his nether extremity from being inadvertently taken out by some distracted young cell-phone texter. It is certainly a thought worth pondering, at any rate, and whether functionally relevant or not, it should serve to remind us that visual appearances play a far more important role in governing our behavior than any rational appeal to our centers of reasoned intelligence!
I’ll close this with a story (perhaps apocryphal) that was circulating back in the early 60s, when I had barely had my 1962 Honda C-110 Super Sport (50 cc) motorbike for less than six months. In those days the notorious Hell’s Angels MC was still a pretty raw and lawless group and the story was that a young lad about my age at the time was riding his small Honda 50 motorbike on that stretch of Highway 466 (now simply State Route 46) that runs from the small town of Wasco (think roses and felons, since the two most noted characteristics of that town are its thousand acres of commercially grown roses and its thousand or so hard-core criminals at the Wasco State Prison) to a juncture at Highway 99 (Famoso, site of a former drag-strip back in the 60s).
As he was sedately roaring along at 45 mph (top speed for the Honda), two parallel columns of Hell’s Angels roared up to enclose him in a sort of box-like formation, which they then eased over to a stop at the roadside. The startled kid probably thought he was about to meet a grisly end at the hands of crazed biker dudes, but instead of harming him, the Angels grabbed tools and beer from their bikes and gathered around his new Honda. In the next fifteen or so minutes they proceeded to dismantle the kid’s little motorbike, bolt-by-bolt and piece by piece, until all that was left of his 50cc machine was a small pile of parts, components and hardware, neatly stacked up, just off the shoulder of the road and under some orange trees. With that (so the story goes), the Angels waved a good-natured goodbye to the flummoxed kid and roared off in a cloud of carbonized rubber dust, doubtless grinning broadly over having had such a ‘fun’ opportunity to express their disdain for the new Japanese imports. The story doesn’t record the kid’s feelings, but one can only imagine at the range of thoughts running though his adolescent mind!
It’s impossible to guess whether or not ‘Willie the Wino’ and his Boozefighter MC cohorts might have done the same thing had the chance presented itself, but the story that survives is unequivocal about the Angels having been the participating bikers attributed this particular bit of outlaw legend.
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