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When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Biker!

If you were a hot rodder in the early Fifties, it was because you wanted to go fast. And if you wanted to go really fast you bought a bike.

That desire for speed was all that bikers and hot rodders had in common. They were two separate groups, and only a few guys crossed over. That’s funny because it would seem that the two groups had a lot in common.

Hot rodders were outlaws who desired respectability, which resulted in mild schizophrenia. A hot rodder really wanted to drag it out at every stop light, but he had that NHRA decal on the windshield right under his nose, and he could read the motto, “Dedicated to Safety”. He also had his club plaque on the back of his car, and he knew that if he got caught street racing he could be bounced from the club. So he built a full-race engine and drove around town at 35 mph.

Bikers, on the other hand, seemed to know who they were. Society had deemed them outlaws and most seemed to embrace that title. They didn’t try to be respectable. You couldn’t ride a bike through an Oregon rainstorm wearing a suit, so bikers wore Levi’s, leather jackets, boots and greasy caps. They hung out at taverns, drank beer, rode noisy cycles and had a chick on the pillion. They weren’t Hell’s Angels yet, but they were moving in that direction.

My father always had one or two old Harleys around, but he didn’t fit the biker image. The guys I was in awe of hung out at Merhar’s Drive-In. That was the only place where you could get exotic food, like Coney Islands and root beer milkshakes, so anything that happened there seemed mysterious to me. From the safety of the back seat of my parents’ car I saw the row of chromed bikes parked near Merhar’s side door. They were big Harleys and Indians, suicide machines, with an occasional Velocette, Triumph or BSA. The bikers stood by their bikes, drinking beer, saying things I couldn’t hear to the passing car hops. Long after the bikers had ripped out of the parking lot I could hear the angry staccato of their exhausts as the roared up 82nd, and I was certain that they were riding to their fiery deaths.

So, naturally, when I later put my roadster on blocks after three years of using it as a daily driver, I bought a bike. The first one was a 1947 BSA twin, a real dog, a suicide machine, but at least I knew who I was.


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The Dark Side of the Fifties

These days a mention of the dark side of the 1950s conjures up images of the threat of communism, the cold war, the blacklist, the suppression of minorities and, in general, a grayness that permeated daily life. Those ideas come from movies and from pundits, most of whom were born well after that decade. From my observations, as a young guy growing up during the 1950s, communists were few and posed little or no threat. The blacklist, which is the subject of a couple recent movies, was a terrible idea but it affected a really small number of people, eg. The Hollywood Ten, etc. I can’t speak about the discrimination of minorities, because in Portland during that time I didn’t know any of any.

There was, however, a grayness, at least at times, in spite of Hawaiian shirts and chartreuse automobiles. The threat to civilization was, if not grayness, then ennui. I felt it. I worked all day at a blue-collar job. In the winter it was dark when I left work for home, and the darkness and the cold was depressing. My mother fixed dinner, hamburger and fried potatoes, or Polish sausage and sauerkraut, maybe Jell-O for dessert, and while I was always hungry and the food tasted good, the menu had a gray sameness.

In 1954 we got a television set, a boxy floor model, which at first seemed like a modern miracle; to watch a show at home was terribly exciting. But after a while I grew tired of sitting in silence in a darkened front room, watching programs featuring fuzzy images of Adolph Menjou or Ronald Coleman; everything was in black and white, of course, or a permeating grayness.

When I got bored I got in my car and drove toward hubs of people; I saw my car reflected in large store windows, a rolling brightness, blue paint and whitewall tires. But by early evening traffic had diminished, and there were few people out walking. Most good citizens were home watching the gray images on their televisions, or were already in bed, tired from a day at work and escaping into sweet sleep before they had to rise and do it all again, and again, and again, for the rest of their lives.

Seeking color, I’d park at the curb in Lents and enter Mt. Scott Drug Store; I’d walk to the rear, where the magazines were kept, and spend time reading the car magazines; when I’d read the new Road & Track, Motorsport, Cycle, I’d move on to the comic books. If there was time, if the druggist didn’t come over and remind me that this was not a library, maybe I’d glance at a copy of Sunshine and Health, where a healthy American family would be playing tennis in the nude. When the druggist repeated his reminder I’d walk across Foster and enter the Rexall Drug Store, where I’d read more publications until I was tired or was asked to leave. The big clock on the wall might read 8:30 pm.

I’d get in my car and cruise. At this hour there was almost no traffic. I cruised to the Hancock gas station at SE 82nd and Woodstock, where I could always find John McGraw, Paul Stukey, Ratchit Ass Nash, maybe Larry Grant and a couple other guys who hung out there. Every station had a bunch of guys who hung out. Looking back, I can see that they were hopelessly trapped in a web that defined the lower class, guys who had perhaps dropped out of school to take a lousy job that would prepare them for another lousy job. They were the working class, but they were certainly not communists, nor were they repressed minorities.

Then, with movement inspired by desperation, I drove south on 82nd until I got to the Harmony Inn, the street’s terminus; all beyond that was dark except for an occasional headlight. Then I cruised Foster Road until I got to 112th; ahead was the forest primeval. Anxious, I quickly made a U-turn and headed toward civilization, land of lights and color.

It was perhaps 9:30; the evening had cost me nothing, except four bits for gas. I headed for home, where the acetylene light of the television flickered against the window.

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