A former member of the Pagans tells how an attack against the South Philly mob helped create a biker legend.
Dawn coming up over a line of motorcycles on the front lawn of the clubhouse, and a bunch of brothers covered with stale beer, blood, barroom dust and road grease, all curled up with their old ladies on damp and dirty mattresses on the floor of the clubhouse basement.
Beating a bar full of citizens unconscious with chains and rendering the place to splinters in a matter of minutes--and for what? Because somebody said the wrong thing to a brother who couldn't even remember what was said the next morning. Walking into a courtroom with black leather jackets, knee-high boots, earrings, chrome chains and swastikas, then sneering through your beard at a jury of straight citizens and defying them to convict you.
And all of you getting handcuffed together and carted off to jail in the end, howling and laughing about it like all hell, but not having put a dime in your pocket. Then getting out and scraping together gas and beer money so you could do it all over again.
Maybe he had a point.
Today every department store in the country sells black Harley-Davidson T-shirts that proclaim: "The Legend Lives On."
But it wasn't Harley-Davidson that made the Legend; it was the people who rode them during a time when Harley-Davidson was working hard to disassociate itself from the people who were building the Legend that later saved the company from bankruptcy.
The Legend that transformed country music singers from crooning cowboys into longhaired rednecks. The Legend that transformed the fashion industry so that middle-aged professionals no longer went to country clubs dressed like Johnny Carson on weekends but instead dressed up like '60s outlaw bikers, with bandannas, denim vests and knee-high leather boots as they putted around the block on $40,000 machines.
And the Legend that enabled outlaw bikers to displace Nazis as the No. 1 bad guys popping up in the neurotic nightmares of suburban middle-class Americans.
I thought about all of this as I washed the beer glasses, wiped the bar, pulled up the rubber mats and began mopping the floor. Soon I forgot what I was doing and started thinking about a lost time when things were different.
A time before helmet and drunk-driving laws. A time when America was still half-free. A time when the Jersey Meadowlands wasn't a sports complex but a real meadowlands with grass and flowers that we roared past on the way to Pennsylvania. A time when Reading wasn't the world's largest factory outlet, but a real hard-ass Pennsylvania Dutch working town with mills and breweries and railroad yards.
A time when my buddy Blackie wasn't dead and decomposing under a black granite tombstone behind a factory, but riding past that same cemetery with the sun in his face, the wind in his hair, and a black pointed beard like a Persian caliph. A time when Jane wasn't yet a grandmother, but when her own kids were just out of diapers and she herself was still an auburn-haired little Pennsylvania Dutch teen angel with soft green eyes and the sweetest little Dutch futz that ever warmed the passenger seat-pad on a chopped hog.
I was thinking about all this, and suddenly everything was changed. Changed utterly. The place no longer smelled like stale beer and it wasn't dark and late on a winter's night. No. Now the sun was shining brightly in the late morning sky, and everything smelled like fresh spring grass as a pack of custom choppers roared through Jersey and Pennsylvania in a blur of chrome, polished candy apple lacquer, black leather, blue denim, grease, sweat, exhaust fumes, long hair, beards and swastikas.
The sun was shining in our faces, Dark Surt was grinning on our backs and the Pagans were on the run.
I was back in 1967. The year the Legend of the Pagans was born.
John Hall, a former chapter president of the Pagans motorcycle gang, is the author of the recently published Riding on the Edge: A Motorcycle Outlaw's Tale (www.motorbooks.com) from which this excerpt was taken.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
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