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Motorcycle Diaries

The Fifties were not a decade but a phenomenon that began shortly after the end of World War II and lasted at least until the early 1960s. Many of us reared in the era were indelibly stamped with its characteristics.

That is especially true for those who grew up in southern California, where surfing, motorcycles, drag racing, rock ’n’ roll, and fighting were teenage vocations. The climate co-operated, and California’s booming economy meant work for every kid who wanted money for his balsa wood (and later polyurethane form) board, ’40 Ford Coupe, or BSA. For the first time in American history, kids from middle- and even lower-class families had at least some disposable income. Teenagers—the word wasn’t coined until the 1940s—became a market.

I had an older brother and sister so had the benefit of being introduced to the good things of the Fifties well before my time. During the 1920s, Pacific Palisades developed on a small mesa sandwiched between bluffs that dropped into the sea on one side and the steep slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains on the other. The McGraths arrived shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Relatives had been there since the 1930s. I wasn’t born until the year after the surrender, but during the war, my 12-year-old brother helped patrol the bluffs and scan the beaches for invading Japanese. He carried a single-shot, bolt-action .22 rifle. Older boys and adult men carried 30.06 deer rifles and .12 gauge shotguns. They were ready to give the Imperial Japanese Navy what for.

Our garage contained some souvenirs left there by two cousins who had served in the Marines on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. We played in the open fields behind our house and fought daily battles with the Japanese enemy. I learned about Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and the many battles of the Pacific before I started kindergarten.

World War II was a part of many a conversation and looking back I can see that the adults were determined to make the most of their lives and give their children everything they could not during the rationing years of the war or the poverty of the Great Depression. Youth was indulged like never before, yet the church, traditions, and enough stern parents and tough cops were still around to set limits on the teenage beast.

One of the first manifestations of the Fifties occurred at Hollister, California, when several newly formed motorcycle clubs descended on the town on July 4, 1947, as part of an American Motorcycle Association sanctioned and Salinas Ramblers Motorcycle Club sponsored three-day “Gypsy Tour.” Dirt-track races and hill climbs were the featured attractions. Many of the riders were World War II vets and, having seen buddies die by the dozens on some God-forsaken battlefield, were not ready for the grey-flannel conformity of corporate America. The clubs had names like “Pissed Off Bastards,” “Booze Fighters,” and “Market Street Commandoes.” Upwards of 2,000 roared into Hollister, a small town known more for cattle and earthquakes than brawling bikers.

The local police were overwhelmed. Riders drank, fought, ignored traffic regulations, rode their bikes into bars and restaurants, raced in the streets, and crashed their machines. Like cowboys at the end of the Long Drive, the motorcyclists had “taken the town.” Lt. Roy McPhail of the seven-man police department dispatched an urgent request for aid. By the next day, dozens of highway patrolmen arrived, armed with shotguns and tear-gas canisters. An informal state of martial law was declared. “It’s just one hell of a mess,” said Hollister Police Chief Fred Earl. The police ultimately arrested more than 50 bikers, but confessed, “If we jailed everyone who deserved it, we’d have herded them in by the hundreds.” The emergency room at Hazel Hawkins Hospital was jammed. One rider had his skull fractured. Local accommodations were overwhelmed, too. Bikers slept in city parks, on the courthouse lawn, in fields, on haystacks. A San Francisco newspaper noted, “one out of ten was a girl, wearing slacks and a tight sweater and riding in tandems.”

By July 6, the bikers left. Chief Earl, a veteran of 43 years, called the rally “the worst 40 hours in Hollister history.” But the bikers felt that they were just having fun. “We like to show off,” said Jim Clearwater. “We make a lot of noise and everybody looks. It’s just a lot of fun.” Added Jim Long, “I like a bike with a lot of drag. Drag? That’s pickup. See how quick you can get to 90mph. I get a jolt out of that jerk takeoff. I like lots of growler, too. Growler? Why that’s funnel. Straight pipe. Roar.” Jerry Witcher concluded, “Autos are dead. Bikes aren’t dangerous. They don’t take much space and they go through traffic. I like to tear them apart and see if they go faster when I put them back together.” Autos weren’t dead, but speed and noise would characterize the Fifties.

Instead of reducing the population of motorcyclists, the Hollister rally fueled growth. The American Motorcycle Association claimed that 99 percent of riders were good, law-abiding citizens. Many began putting “1%” on their jackets.

In 1948, a club that would gain national, and even international, attention was formed in San Bernardino—the Hell’s Angels. These were the “Berdoo” Angels, and they dominated the world of outlaw clubs. Chapters sprouted throughout California and beyond. By the mid-’60s, the Berdoo chapter was fading, and the Oakland chapter under Sonny Barger had risen to prominence. By then, however, drugs, age, and the FBI were getting the best of the Angels. Like the Fifties, the Angels were becoming a relic of the past.

The rally at Hollister also inspired Hollywood. Directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Marlon Brando, “The Wild One” was released in 1953. It is so bad that it might rate some cult status. Brando spends the entire movie posing, his face fixed in his best sullen youth look. The plot is thin and contrived, with only occasional similarities to the Hollister explosion. But motorcycles fill the screen. Bikes slide, wheel stand, bolt to high speed, roar. We loved it.

Most of the bikes were Harleys. Brando himself rode a Triumph. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was becoming a fan of British bikes, at least the flat track or scrambler versions. They looked lean and mean and race-ready. I wanted one. I wasn’t quite seven.

Difficult as it is to believe today, the Palisades was still on the edge of the civilized world then. The canyons hadn’t been filled, and the mountains hadn’t been sliced and graded. Open fields and vacant lots were everywhere. One of the principal streets of the town’s commercial area was La Cruz, except no one knew it by that name. Everyone called it “Bumpy Road,” as it was dirt and not regularly graded.

Cops were infrequent visitors to the Palisades, and 13- and 14-year-old guys were usually left alone to ride motorcycles on back roads and dirt lots. Before houses crept up the canyons and the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, dirt fire roads began just a twist of the throttle north of Sunset Boulevard.

When I was young, I watched our local teenage motorcyclists with awe as they climbed steep hillsides and raced on homemade oval tracks on vacant lots. Kemp Aaberg, who was one of Los Angeles’s best pole-vaulters while at University High School and later became a legendary surfer, was one of these. He started with a little 125cc two-stroke Husqvarna and graduated to a four-stroke 500cc Velocette. His younger brother, Steve, followed with a 250cc two-stroke Dot Villiers. The youngest brother, Denny, and I would watch them ride, anticipating the day we graduated from bicycles to bikes.

When Steve was 16 in 1957, he bought a customized 500cc Triumph twin for the street. The engine was built with every speed component available. He put me on the back, and we ripped through the Palisades. With each shift of the gears, I thought that I was going to be blown off the back.

By the time I turned 15, I had managed to save some money from my paper route, from day labor at construction sites, and from working for my older brother’s janitorial service at night—jobs President Bush tells us Americans won’t do today. By then I was on my second surfboard and fourth bicycle, and it was time for a motorcycle. At 15 and a half, the state issued learners permits that entitled one to drive as long as a licensed driver was in the vehicle—with one exception, a motorcycle. I was determined to buy a bike and roar down the highways of California before I turned 16.

My first was a 250cc BSA. It was a single cylinder “thumper” without much horsepower, but I was stoked. I really learned how to ride—and how to fall—on that “Beezer.” I slid the thing, crossing up the front end to maintain balance, and screwed on the juice to increase traction. I stood it up and rode on the rear wheel. I downshifted—brakes were only for coming to a stop at traffic lights—and accelerated through turns. I leaned until I scraped the footpegs, beveling the rubber on them at a 45-degree angle. No helmet, no gloves, no leathers. No brains, either, I suppose, but the thrill was on.

Within a year, I upgraded to a 650cc Matchless Scrambler. I bought it used, but it was nearly brand new. The whiskers were still on the tires. The guy who owned it was a senior at Southern Cal. He dumped it on one of his first rides and, scared silly, locked it in a garage. I heard about it from one of his fraternity brothers and, knowing that particular model was the cleanest and leanest 650 that Matchless produced, made him an offer. He told me to come and pick it up. I was there the next day.

I now had a bike with nearly triple the horsepower of my 250 BSA. The Matchless Scrambler was very low geared and wouldn’t do much more than 90 mph, but it got there in a hurry. In its day, it was the smoothest and best handling of all British bikes. The 650 Triumph was faster. So, too, was the 650 BSA. But I could throw that 650 Matchless over in a turn and cross it up in the dirt like it was a lightweight 250.

One of my good buddies, Scott McKenzie, had beaten me in the race to get a bike. He was a bit older and had managed to buy a 650 BSA before I had gotten my 250. He was only 15 and a sophomore at Palisades High School, but looked like he was an All-American college football player. He was already 225 pounds of pure muscle, bone, and sinew and was a two-way starter on the varsity football team. Not only was he big, with a bone structure that could have carried—and later did—another 20 pounds, but he was fast. Moreover, unlike most guys who were taller and heavier than anyone else their age and, as a consequence, rarely faced challenges and were usually mild sorts, Scott had a horrific temper. I’m thankful he was my buddy.

The football season had only just begun when Scott was reported dead. The report actually had it wrong—but Scott should have been dead. He was riding his BSA on Sunset at 65 mph near the “Will Rogers turn” in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of the Palisades when he came up behind two slow moving cars, side by side. He thought he could accelerate by them on the left side of the road and slip back before a car came the other way. He was wrong. He hit a 1958 Ford Thunderbird head on. The closing speed was 110 mph. Scott had on our uniform of the day, Levis and a t-shirt—and no helmet. His bike smashed into the T-Bird’s grill, sending him ricocheting off the car’s hood and through the windshield. His massive body continued on its trajectory, miraculously flying between the driver and his wife seated in the front bucket seats and the couple’s daughters in the back. Scott burst through the back window and flew 50 feet down the highway before hitting the pavement. Several crushing bounces later, he came to a rest.

Traffic halted. The couple in the T-Bird raced back to Scott. The woman covered him with a Chinchilla coat. No ambulance blanket. Scott would die in style. He was rushed to UCLA hospital and drifted in and out of consciousness for the next three weeks. He had broken more than a dozen bones, including fracturing his skull, and was covered with lacerations. The fingers on his left hand barely remained attached, and the blunt force had moved his heart an inch. He would be sown, pinned, and plated together. He already looked like a cross between Jack Dempsey and one of the McKeever brothers—both All Americans at SC at the time. Now he looked like a cross that had survived a grizzly attack.

Scott later would put us in stitches describing the accident, although he only remembered bits and pieces of it. He recalled bouncing off the hood and hitting the windshield then flying through the air about five feet above the ground—and not losing altitude. “This is bitchin’!” he remembered thinking. Scott was not trying to be funny. He told it with such guilessness that we laughed until the tears rolled down our cheeks. If anybody had watched him go by, it would have been reported as a flying Bigfoot sighting.

Scott spent the next year recovering and rebuilding his bike. By then I had my Matchless, and he wanted to be certain his BSA was faster. He put a more radical cam, high compression pistons, and oversized valves into the engine. He had the head ported and polished and the crank balanced. He rebuilt the carburetors. He did everything possible to make that BSA fly. But he was working with a handicap. My bike was 30 pounds lighter, and I was 60 pounds lighter. It takes quite a few ponies to compensate for 90 pounds, but Scott was determined to more than compensate.

On his first real ride since his accident, we went up the coast highway and over Topanga Canyon to Calabasas. Scott was a bit gun shy, slowing on blind turns to speeds only a little above the limit. The fingers on his left hand still weren’t entirely working, and he had to pull in the clutch lever with his hand instead of only squeezing with his fingers. He should have rehabilitated for several more months, but at the time, it seemed to make sense. The bike was ready.

Within weeks, Scott was back to his old self. I liked riding with him because I knew that he might do something insane but never something squirrelly. If we found ourselves traveling at too high a speed in a turn with a decreasing radius, Scott would just keep leaning and screwing the power on—and so would I—until either our tires broke loose and we rode the bikes down or we made the turn. We could ride wheel-to-wheel with confidence. If it weren’t for those 3,000-pound cars whose drivers thought they had a right to a portion of the pavement…

We both bought second bikes for use purely on dirt tracks and fire roads. I got a Triumph from a racer who was quitting the track. Scott got a BSA that was also race-ready, beautifully prepared by another Palisades rider several years older, Laddie McClurg, who could have ridden professionally were it not for personal problems. Another friend did. Sonny Nutter became a good flat tracker and an even better TT rider, and years later a nationally prominent Speedway racer.

On the fire roads or a dirt track, Scott just couldn’t slide like the rest of us. Now weighing more than 230 pounds but still without any fat to lose, centrifugal force in turns caused him to slide far wider than the rest of us. Bob Wirth, thin as a reed and a perfect jockey on his own Triumph, called Scott “Wideslide.” He didn’t mind the nickname so much as the rest of us sliding underneath him in turns. Infuriated, he would screw it on down the straightaways like an enraged bull, but he was just too big for sliding in the dirt in any kind of competition. Undeterred, he would contemplate new ways to make his bike faster.

I got good at doing wheel stands and could pull my Matchless or Triumph up at a fairly steep angle and ride for a good distance. I especially enjoyed standing it up when cops were coming in the opposite direction. The stunt particularly provoked them. Scott would ride beside me laughing like crazy. The sight of him howling with his fierce visage and big Celtic chin—this was before helmets were required—tweaked the cops still more. If they were on bikes themselves, all the better. Cops in cars knew they couldn’t catch us. Cops on bikes actually thought they could. It was a mismatch but loads of fun. If they radioed ahead or were lying in wait, we always had the fire roads.

The cop we enjoyed tweaking the most was A.C. Miller, who regularly gave motorists tickets for exceeding the speed limit by no more than three or four miles per hour. He gave Dave Tolley’s dad a ticket for rolling through a stop sign at 2 mph—on a bicycle.

The best stunt against Miller came from an unexpected source. Mike Manaugh was a quiet sort, who rarely found himself in trouble. That was left to his younger brother, Pat, who was my age and a good buddy. The three of us and another neighbor and bike rider, Lee Zordich, were sitting in the Manaugh’s garage one day when Mike began a strange project, spraying his 650 Triumph entirely flat black with a water-based paint. We watched with fascination, reckoning that Mike had lost his mind. A couple of days later, all was ready. He donned an entirely black outfit, complete with black neckerchief. His blond head was hidden under a black helmet with a smoked face shield. He was the Black Knight. Everyone gathered at the local hangout, the Hot Dog Show, at the designated hour. When Officer A.C. Miller, LAPD, came cruising up Sunset Boulevard into the Palisades, scanning the traffic for the slightest infraction, the Black Knight roared by. Miller gave chase. Mike made several passes by the Hot Dog Show with Miller vainly in pursuit. We roared our approval.

We were always on the lookout for a new thrill on a bike—and were not always appreciated by that race of people called “adults.” To slow us down, something new appeared on a few private streets—speed bumps. They simply invited experimentation. The first in our area were put in on Oakmont Drive, a private road off the north end of Rockingham Drive, a street in Brentwood on the east side of Mandeville Canyon since made infamous as the home of O.J. Simpson at the time he murdered his ex-wife. One day, just as I had gotten the front end of my Matchless up in the air while racing over one of Oakmont’s newly installed speed bumps, a car roared right up to my rear wheel.

“Some pissed-off resident,” I thought. The guy had a right to be. This was his private road, and I was on it, doing wheel stands and making noise. But then I was 17 and Irish. As he pulled alongside me, I couldn’t help but hear the whine of 12 cylinders. Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta, about the hottest sports car of the era. I looked over, figuring the guy would be flipping me off and the routine scenario would unfold: I would return the compliment, and we would both pull over and fight. That’s the way it was done in those days. No lawyers, just punches.

But instead of giving me the finger, he motioned for me to follow him. It was Steve McQueen. Up into his garage we went. “Give me five minutes,” he said as I sat on my bike looking at his two Triumphs. He had just made “The Great Escape” the year before and had done most of his own riding. We knew that Bud Ekins, the owner of a motorcycle shop and one of southern California’s top riders, had made the famous jump, but we also knew that Steve would have tried it if the studio had allowed it.

He came back wearing Levis and a sawed-off sweatshirt and within minutes we were sliding our bikes on the fire roads of the Santa Monica Mountains. Steve was 34 and a movie star, but on a bike, he was just one of us—another product of the Fabulous Fifties with a rebel streak a mile wide.

Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.

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