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SAM'S PICK OF THE WEEK--January 11, 2021

From Discipline to Wild Custom Choppers

By Bandit with photos from Sam

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It better be a good one, goddammit. About 1970 I completed another sweat-soaked tour off the coast of Vietnam, my last one. The winding down war took on a pot-smoking air of wonderful R&B tunes, loose broads, long hair and a constant party.

More and more of the guys on the ship experimented with drugs and the half dozen originals, including myself took a back seat, concerned that the man would come down on us.

You don't want to get busted in the service. They take a much harsher attitude toward crime, and the brig isn’t fun. Shortly after we returned to Long Beach, the Captain decided a vacation to Acapulco would be a blast. I took the week off to start to look for motorcycle parts and hang out with Laurie. We were cool, when we were together, but her religion was beginning to be a downer in a world gone wild and nuts.

When the ship returned, I rode my Sportster to Dago and slipped on board and a brother met me in the radio shack on the main deck. “You wouldn't believe the shit we scored. “Wanna try some.” I passed, while he lit up a massive doobie behind a tall rack of vacuum tube radio receivers. The dense pungent smoke and rich herbal smell filled the compartment. “It’s cool,” He muttered through the billows of smoke, but I didn’t like the overt vibe.

I slipped up to the OE office to check in and return to my duties repairing and maintain UHF line of sight communications equipment. Off the coast of Nam, the bastard, 5-inch double-barreled cannon outside my compartment hatch would make a coffee cup jump 6 inches each time it fired. It fired a great deal during my second tour, sometimes 4-hours a day. I shattered more than one coffee mug. During the third tour we mostly cruised the coast looking threatening bad.

That's Arlen in front of one of his early shops. Maybe the shot was taken by his son Cory.
That's Arlen in front of one of his early shops. Maybe the shot was taken by his son Cory.

Admiral Zumwalt took over the Navy and allowed enlisted men to grow beards.

There was a lot of talk around the ship about the score in Mexico. Seems a group of guys bought weed and stashed it in tall heavy paper burn bags and canvas life vests.

All day long guys were smoking weed and joking about the heist and the party in Mexico. About 4:30 I slipped into my small steel coffin jammed with communication equipment and considered rolling a joint for after I left the base. A couple of other guys were going to stop by and give me a taste of their score before heading out—they never showed.

I stashed my shit in a secure location about 5:30 and as soon as I left my area next to that solid steel 5-inch semi auto gun emplacement, I heard the bad news. The ship had been raided and about a dozen guys were hauled off the ship along with their 50 pounds of weed.

The ship was battleship gray. The work compartments were gray and I believe galley was painted white along with the mess hall and sick bay. I grew up believing battleships were gray for a reason and so was equipment. I can’t get over the recent paint fad in this country and the use of gray tones. Bullshit. Gray is for battleships, equipment and steel, not homes.

Gray set the tone for that cold winter day in Dago when our brothers were handcuffed and led off the ship to be sent to the base brig. Brigs are bat-shit bad, torture chambers for treasonous acts, attacking officers, deserters and murderers. They weren’t designed for kids who stashed bags of weed on a ship.

This was a new world to everyone from young guys who smoked some weed in high school, to guys who had never touched the stuff and were now experimenting. I would bet half the guys on that ship didn't know what marijuana was. But suddenly, for a handful of young sailors the consequences of their party actions hit home hard.

The military establishment didn’t know what the hell to do with these guys. Immediately, they were threatened with prison and dishonorable discharges, which would fuck with their lives forever. I remember discussing the options with some young sailors who broke down and cried in shame and fear for the notion that their folks would find out and they would no longer have rights to the G.I. bill for college after the service.

The brigs were ruled by hardcore Marines who didn’t like sailors and treated prisoners as if they were thrust back into a bootcamp on steroids. They weren’t allowed to do anything without a Marine guard’s permission, nothing, including taking a piss, standing, sitting or eating. They couldn’t speak, except to say, “Sir, yes sir, may I take a piss sir?” Any infraction could mean a nasty baton beating or standing at attention and forced to piss your pants.

Weeks passed with only rumors on board. Slowly, the word came down that most of them would be allowed to leave the service with general discharges. Even then, they found themselves in a dreaded gray area between dishonorable and Honorable. It allowed them to leave without punishment, but also without any benefits. A couple of these guys were married and it hit them particularly hard. First, they would have no income. And at the time rebellion wasn’t accepted within most American families. These guys went home to shame and disgrace.

Here’s an official description:

“Bad paper” – or less-than-honorable discharge status from the military – can cause veterans shame, stigma, and ineligibility for VA benefits. Many veterans, and some VA health care professionals, assume that a less-than-honorable discharge status on a veteran’s discharge documents automatically disqualifies them from healthcare, disability compensation, educational assistance, and other VA benefits.

Though entitlement to benefits is unlikely if you received a less-than-honorable discharge status, there are some exceptions made by VA now. There are a variety of types of less-than-honorable discharges that carry different consequences in post-military life currently, but not in 1970. Additionally, VA can make a case-by-case determination of “character-of-discharge” that could potentially allow service members to access healthcare and other benefits, if (and only if) you request medical treatment or submit a disability compensation claim.

The ship sailed from San Diego to Long Beach for pre-tour repairs with the help of Todd’s shipyard adjacent to the Long Beach Naval Base. I remember bumping into one of my high school pals, Larry St. Marie, who had joined a union along with some other guys from high school. He was welding on our ship. I rode my modified Sportster over to Long Beach to see some to the guys from the High School fraternity I was involved it for a short time. We had gang wars with an opposing school. They were still hanging out and I didn’t get it. It was time to move on.

My XLCH had a 6-over front end, taller risers and was stripped and custom painted. I didn’t fit it, but it looked good for a guy's first custom bike.

I stayed in touch with Larry. He got into hot rods and I believe experienced a nasty divorce that altered his thinking in a negative direction. Divorce can do that except for us outlaws who cherish freedom almost as much as love.

I was determined to leave the St. Paul before it made another passage across the Pacific. I put in for a transfer but was denied then an opportunity surfaced and I escaped to the USS Maddox.

It was a reserve Tin Can or Destroyer. A training ship that was sorta famous. Nobody ever discussed it. 

Here’s the story from Wikipedia:

The Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnamese: S kin Vnh Bc B), also known as the USS Maddox incident, was a disputed international confrontation that led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam War. It involved both a real confrontation and a fabricated confrontation between ships of North Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The original American report blamed North Vietnam for both incidents, but the Pentagon Papers, the memoirs of Robert McNamara, and NSA publications from 2005, proved that only the first attack actually happened.

On Sunday, August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO operations, was claimed to have been approached by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats of the 135th Torpedo Squadron. Maddox fired three warning shots, and it was claimed the North Vietnamese boats attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire. Maddox expended over 280 3-inch (76 mm) and 5-inch (130 mm) shells in a sea battle.

According to the false report: One U.S. aircraft was damaged, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed, with six more wounded. There were no U.S. casualties. Maddox was "unscathed except for a single bullet hole from a Vietnamese machine gun round".

It was originally claimed by the National Security Agency that a Second Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 4, 1964, as another sea battle, but instead, evidence was found of "Tonkin ghosts" (false radar images) and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the August 2 USS Maddox attack happened with no Defense Department response, but the August 4 Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened. In 1995, McNamara met with former Vietnam People's Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp to ask what happened on August 4, 1964, in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. "Absolutely nothing", Giáp replied. Giáp claimed that the attack had been imaginary.

The outcome of these two incidents was the passage by US Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted US President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by "communist aggression". The resolution served as Johnson's legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.

In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese naval vessels present during the incident of August 4. The report stated, regarding the first incident on August 2: At 1500G, Captain Herrick ordered Ogier's gun crews to open fire if the boats approached within ten thousand yards (9,150 m). At about 1505G, Maddox fired three rounds to warn off the communist [North Vietnamese] boats. This initial action was never reported by the Johnson administration, which insisted that the Vietnamese boats fired first.

There you have it. The Maddox had a small crew and on weekends reservists came on board for training. Once or twice a year we made training sojourns to Mexico, like Mazatlán or San Francisco. Once we cruised beyond San Francisco through inland canals lined with mothballed ships. It was an eerie sight dark and forboding like a war vessel cementary.

A short biker came on board for training, Andy Hanson was building his first chopper and wanted to share it with me. He lived in Culver City and was learning how to rebuild engines from Bob George, a big round, smiling man who had an engine rebuilding shop in his back yard. We started to hang out and I started to learn about engines from Bob, who had built a wild dual-Shovelhead drag bike.

I went to the drags with these guys and when Bob popped the clutch all the primary chains snapped. Bob, the mellow, mad scientist lived until his death with a tiny angry girlfriend who screamed and yelled about anything. Bob went onto start to race at Bonneville and built a Streamliner around his dual-engine, stroked Shovelhead configuration.

I also started to hang out with Lose Bruce who worked the parts department at Long Beach Harley, where I bought my Sportster. His guys lived in North Long Beach and prepared all year for a run up north. They built cool shit and did a lot of drugs. One of the guys was hit by a truck around Gorman on the Golden State Freeway and they all returned to handle the business of the funeral.

Then they peeled out again and only got as far as San Jose where they crashed a Hispanic concert and Bruce was stabbed a bunch of times but survived. It was the era of the reds and they drove bikers wild. I was still in the service and I smoke weed, but hardly even drank.

On the artistic side these guys built bikes that had a certain flair. They were mechanically tight, not radical in any respect. And they understood the rigid frame code. Nothing messed with the lines of the frame. They only painted the tank and frame. Usually, no front fenders were used and the rear fenders were generally flat trailer fenders and chromed. At the time, we could only get trailer fenders and the old ribbed Triumph fenders.

I’ll never forget riding to Andy’s pad for the first time. He had his frame on a milk crate in the living room. It had been painted a wild metallic purple with silver flames on the Sportster tank. There weren’t any custom tanks at the time, except cheap little Peanut tanks. An extended glide was mounted to the frame with chromed neck cups, shaved trees, extended chromed legs and the lower legs were bare chromed tubes with no tabs for any fender or brake anchor. There were no disc brakes at the time.

Andy was learning Harleys fast from Bob and other builders. I believe he worked days as a machinist at an aerospace plant and at night in his garage on bikes. I helped him start H.E.S. (Harley Engine Specialties). His first product was an aluminum pressure plate for 4-speed clutches. It was a hit. I think Ben Kudon is still making them at American Prime.

While still on the Destroyer I did permenant shore patrol duty, which was actually only 30 days. Throughout the Holidays of 1970 I roamed the back streets and pike in Long Beach.

My concept of the years here is fleeting. I’m trying to stick with my first custom bike experiences before I became involved with Easyriders Magazine. But occasionally, like with Bob George I’m skipping around. I introduced Bob to Joe Teresi, the Jammer boss, and that’s how we ultimately held the world land speed record for motorcycle for 16 years.

Meanwhile back in 1970 shit was happing fast. Like today our society faced upheaval and didn’t know what the hell to do with it. We went from crew cuts and straight-laced behavior to long-haired radicals, war protests and choppers. Everything felt cool and free, and the girls went wild. Their clothes changed, their habits changed and sex changed.

We all experienced it and had to make conscious and unconscious decisions. I went from being a clean-cut serviceman with a beard to a longhaired biker going to Long Beach City College welding class to escape the service a few months early. That’s where I met Seymour, a member of the Outlaws MC who introduced me to Hangmen in San Pedro. He wanted me to become a member, but that wasn’t in the cards. I was beginning to sort through the outlaw code.

Maybe it was all about age? Just after the service I started school in Long Beach on the G.I. Bill and begged for a job at U.S. Choppers in the city of Industry. We rode with LA Sheriffs who were crazier than the Outlaws because they could be. Most cops were like the brig marines. They just wanted to kick ass and take names. We were the rebels on two wheels.

I still find it fascinating. The chopper clan represented sex, fun and artistic style as if you can build a motorcycle and ride it into an alternate universe. But some guys just see metalflake as money. More and more I begin to understand the nature of man. You can line-up five guys in a room and have a bad ass walk in and give each one the finger and say, “Fuck you, punk. You ain’t shit.”

One brother might pull a gun and blow the sonuvabitch away. Another might punch him out and another might run or make some lame excuse. Yet, another might negotiate with the guy. This equation can be applied to five guys looking at the ultimate chopper and giving his opinion. They could range from the money aspect to honor and respect to, “I wouldn’t ride that piece of shit if you paid me.”

I’m also trying to understand the lure of motorcycles and women. Laurie stood in the way of the adventure to come as did many women. For a long time, I was around bikers and outlaws who didn’t treat women well and were racists. I didn’t follow that code. I treated women with tenderness and respect, but when they stood in the way of freedom, I was forced to move on.

That also applied to various aspects of my life. If I didn’t like the way folks were treated or the direction the business was going, I had the balls to say adios, and usually it was at just the right time.

I’ve got to say that I love women and have studied them all my life. The same applies to motorcycles. There’s a sexy aspect to a chopper, it’s long and lean, tight and alluring. Here’s the perfect example: fat rear tire bikes. I’ve never built a bike with a tire bigger than 180, although I think my Indian has a 200. I didn’t like the fat tire mechanical obstacles. Then the brothers, or maybe Bert Baker came up with the right-side drive transmissions. But to me they made a bitchin custom motorcycle look like it had a fat ass.

Now I’m really fucking with the time frame. See you next time.


Don't miss out. Join the Cantina. Touch her...
Don't miss out. Join the Cantina. Touch her...


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Reader Comments

Gray is cool you old curmudgeon!

Even the new construction homes are being blasted with gray everything...Harley had a battleship gray CVO a few years ago that sold so fast they made a similar color for their regular bikes...but if you've taught us anything, it's that these things come in waves and cycles. Who knows, you may live long enough to see shag carpet and wallpaper come back in style. Another quote I stole from you, "Quit your sniveling..." HA, GREAT STORY!

Johnny White
Humble, TX
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Editor Response Yep, hang on. It's all coming back...
Man I love these stories They always take me back and bring back so many good memories and I really dig all the bikes Can't wait for the next one! They sure break the boredom here at work!

charlotte, Nc
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Editor Response Get back to work, goddammit!

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