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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber


I bought my first Harley in 1976. It was the key that opened a door into a world that few get to walk through. I was sitting in the local McDonalds reading the Riverside Press Enterprise when I turned to the classifieds and saw this: “1970 Harley FLH, full dress, $1600.” Full Dress meant it had all of the touring accessories – saddlebags, windshield, etc. All of the stuff I didn’t need. But at $1600 it was a steal. The same bike today sells for around $8000 used.

I rushed back to the house and called the number in the listing. I told the guy I’d buy the bike sight unseen and was on my way with the money. He agreed.

I ran to the bank and made the withdrawal, then hopped on Interstate 10 west for the 40 minute drive to Redlands. The bike was beautiful, not a scratch on it. A repo. It wouldn’t start. The owner agreed to foot the cost of a new battery ($100), effectively lowering the price. I left with $100 in my pocket, assuring the owner I’d be back in the morning with a trailer to tow the bike home.

Unfortunately, in 1976, Hertz didn’t have 4x6 trailers with ramps to ride a scooter up on. I rented it anyway. Back at the house we found an old solid core closet door that Phyllis’ mom had removed because it was too heavy. I drilled two holes in it and threw it in the trailer with some rope. Phyllis accompanied me back to Redlands. The bike was now running and I took my first ride down the block.

It was a precarious ride. The spring-loaded seat made me about three inches too short to touch the ground with both feet. The handlebar mounted fairing / windshield made the front end so heavy it turned like a truck. I mentally disassembled the bike and figured it’d be fine once I got all the touring gear off. I still had to get it into the trailer. Sitting on the bike ( a good 800 pounds) with my toes barely touching the ground I began to slowly drive up the door roped to the trailer.

Gravity was my nemesis. About halfway up the rear wheel began to spin on the high-gloss oil-based paint on the door. It was slicker than snot and I was losing my balance. As a final act of desperation, I gunned the throttle, spinning the rear wheel faster until it burned through the paint, gaining the necessary traction on the wood. The bike sprung forward like a slingshot. I slammed on the front brake, stopping the wheel less than two inches from the front of the trailer. As the bike began to lean to the left, I kicked out the side stand and it gently came to a rest. This was ballet at its finest.

I had about six inches clearance between the bike and the side of the trailer, but it was enough to rope it down securely for the ride home. I was 50% exhausted and 100% excited. Couldn’t sleep that night. Got up at 3 am and as quietly as I could went into the garage, grabbed my tools and started to remove all of the accessories from the bike. The scoot boot (storage container that sits on the rack on the rear bumper) was first to go. No big deal. The saddlebags were harder – I only had inches to work in and the wrenches needed to be frequently repositioned to loosen the bolts that secured them. The front fairing popped off easily; it was only secured by the handlebars.

By six-thirty it was beginning to look like my motorcycle, but I still had to get it out of the trailer. Fortunately for me, the gardeners were gathering at the shack across the street, and without a word of Spanish, I commandeered six of them to help me. I had to go down the same ramp I burned up the previous day – backwards. I’m sure they were all praying with me. With three on each side to support the bike and me tiptoeing through the tulips again, we slowly eased it down to the ground.

I was ecstatic and very grateful for my helpers. One last challenge lay before me. The seat sat on a spring loaded post that helped absorb the ride shock, and that had to go if I was going to be able to rest both feet solidly on the ground. It was a much more complex job removing the post, which took several hours to accomplish. But once completed I was able to really ride the bike for the first time. I took it out for a spin on the roads of the country club Phyllis’ moms condo resided in. I was king of the world; it handled like a dream.

California was a hard place to make friends for me. The people here had a decidedly different perspective on loyalty and honesty – which was difficult to get used to until I started riding with 1%ers. I never joined a gang, but I did ride with at least one gang member. All of the guys I rode with were simple, down-to-earth, honest-as-the-day-is-long, good hearted individuals. My Harley was my ticket in, and I was exceedingly grateful for that.

I was driving down the street one day and noticed 3 guys wrestling with a Harley in a garage. They were working on George’s tricked out Sportster. He had swapped out his rear sprocket to change his gear ratio but now found himself with a rear chain one link too short to go around the larger gear. I said “No problem”, I live around the corner, I’ll grab and extra link for you and be back in 5. I did, and a new friendship was born. George was all of five foot five, maybe 115 pounds soaking wet, but a dynamo to be reckoned with.

He rode a kickstart only Sporty that had stroker flywheels and high compression pistons – a combo that made the bike hard to start, especially with only 115 pounds jumping on the kick starter. And I do mean jumping. I personally watched him stand on his seat in the winter and launch himself down on the kicker more than once to get the bike running.

George was a patch holder (certified gang member) in “The Magnificent Seven” a black only biker gang out of Los Angeles of which he was the only white member. That gesture by me of offering him a $2 chain link, asking nothing in return, made us brothers. Vern I met in a very different manner.

Vern was a big guy and was dating the sister of a Hell’s Angel. Me and George were hanging out at the Merry Mug in Palm Desert, a local bar that catered to bikers, when Vern rode his Harley up onto the sidewalk and through the front door of the bar. As luck would have it, he parked the bike in front of me as I sat at the bar. The roar of cheers throughout the bar was replaced with a moaning gasp as Vern’s carburetor backfired as he killed the ignition. Fire shot out the back of the carb, threatening to engulf the whole thing in flames. I grabbed a pitcher of beer next to me and poured it over the fire before it could ignite any further.

Vern beamed a sigh of relief and a massive smile as he pumped my hand up and down a few hundred times, then grabbed me in a bear hug as a sign of thanksgiving. Another brother. Vern worked at a local hardware store, George was a welder. The three of us became inseparable for many years, riding together every weekend. We picked up 3 or 4 other regulars, all salt-of-the-earth hard working and hard partying young men. We rode everywhere together, and always had each other’s back.

There came a day of reckoning though. The Mongols were in town, an ultra-violent Hispanic gang, and they had a bone to pick with George. There was no love lost between the blacks and the Mexicans. They despised one another. When the head of the Mongols found out a patch holder was in town -- a white patch holder in an all-black gang, things came to a head. The Mongols told George they wanted a parley on neutral ground, so a meeting was arranged in Cat City (Cathedral City) at a local bar. George asked me and Vern to back him up. Naturally, we agreed without hesitation.

The bar we walked into on Hwy 111 made sleazy sound like a place to take a chick on your first date. The first person we saw was ‘Mongo’, the enforcer for the Mongols. He only stood about five foot nine inches but looked to be in the vicinity of 400 pounds and most assuredly did not have an IQ that left double digits. As we entered his back was towards us, which turned out to be a very good thing. He put down his beer, backed away from the bar slightly, then pulled out his pud and began peeing directly on the bar. When finished, he returned to drinking his beer. George was undaunted, Vern and I were shaking a bit.

The Mongols were in a dark recess in the back of the bar. George went back alone; Vern and I slid onto stools a few feet upwind from Mongo. We were staring straight ahead as we pushed down our Budweisers, saying not a word. I was about two thirds done with my beer when George came up, with somewhat of a smile on his face – negotiations ended amicably. I got up to leave, but George said: “Finish your beer.” He didn’t want the locals to think we were frightened, but five more minutes in there and I would have peed against the bar also, except it would have been running down my leg first.

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