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How it all Started, or how I lost my love at the Vacaville exit

Photos and text by Bill May with one old shot courtesy of the Bob T. collection

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My name is Bill May and I have always been a gearhead. When I was about seven years old, we lived on a farm in eastern Oklahoma. One day someone came down the long dirt road to our house on a red Indian Chief with skirted fenders. He was lost and just asked directions, but that lit my fire. I knew someday I would ride something like that.

Oh, by the way I am now 64 years old, so it must have been around 1954. About that same time, my dad overhauled his 1950 Ford pickup. I was right in the middle of that. That is when I first learned the four-stroke principle. My dad was a natural mechanic. I guess that is where I got it.

We sold the farm in 1957 and we moved to Phoenix, then on to central California. I started noticing hot rods and custom bikes on the California highways.

In 1959, we moved to Oklahoma City and in 1961, I lost my dad to cancer. There was just mom and I, and mom didn't drive. It was legal for 14-year-olds to ride a scooter or motor bike under five-horsepower. We sold the car and I bought a 1960 Cushman Eagle scooter. It was sort of a miniature Harley with a foot clutch and a two-speed hand shift on the tank. A biker was born.

Of course, I was into cars too. I read every hot rod magazine on the stands. Back then they would always feature a custom bike in "Hot Rod," usually a rigid Triumph or a Sportster. After building four different engines for the Cushman and never quite getting it right, someone stole the front wheel one night right out of my driveway. I sold the Cushman and bought a '56 Ford Victoria for 500 dollars three months before my sixteenth birthday.

The Ford was a black two-door hardtop with power steering and an automatic trans. It was beautiful and I would kill to have it today. We had a small garage separate from the house with no windows and a padlock on the door. I would sneak it out during the day while my mother was working, and park it over at my friend's house. I would keep stash it there, and we would drive it around all weekend while mom thought it was safely locked in the garage. I got away with that for three months until I turned sixteen and got a license. My mother never caught me and she went to her grave never knowing what a conniving bastard I was.

I got a license as soon as I turned 16-years- of-age, and I got a ticket for speeding in a school zone within the first week of legally driving. I turned 16 just before I finished my freshman year in high school. In the following fall I was in love with a knock-out blond ninth grader. I was cruising along by the junior high after school just got out, and she and a friend were walking in the same direction, so I stopped to talk. They jumped up on my front fenders and said, "Take us for a ride."

I was smart enough to go real slow, but not smart enough not to do it at all. We were creeping along at a walking pace when the girl on the right front fender said, "Watch out for that car." I had seen the car but my brain made me hit the brake anyway and they both tumbled to the street. The friend was only scratched up but my girl hit her head and had to be taken to the hospital. She had a concussion and a scar on her forehead. I felt terrible. They gave me a reckless driving ticket with an accident involved and took my license for 3 months.

Bill's replica of David Mann's chopper.
Bill's replica of David Mann's chopper.

Fortunately, I had State Farm insurance and they paid the entire medical. Her parents forbade me to ever see her again. To this day, I feel bad about how close I came to killing her. I gladly locked up the car for those three months.

I majored in auto mechanics in high school. In those days they would let us take long unsupervised road tests in the cars we we worked on. I can remember us taking a teachers car on a road test to a bar out in the woods where we could buy beer. We would buy a six-pack and drive around drinking it. Can you imagine a school like that today?

I guess stuff like that is the biggest reason high schools no longer offer a good vo-tech program of any kind. In my freshman year, I took woodshop and drafting. In my junior year, I had three hours of auto mechanics and one hour of welding and general metals. I learned stuff that benefited me all my life. On the downside, my mechanical interest and my gypsy nature probably prevented me from being financially successful in some other field.

In this life we do what we do and live with it. Some people, me included, can be happy in any situation, and some are rich and miserable. I am glad I am one of those happy types.

One of my friends in auto mechanics was Sid Pogue. He was always into bikes. When I had my Cushman, he had a hot Harley 165 hummer. He got a new Sportster for Christmas 1965. It didn't hurt that his dad owned Pogue Machine, a large oil field oriented machine shop in Oklahoma City. He put me on the back of the new XLCH for a ride across the parking lot. He nailed it and I slid right off on my butt in the parking lot.

He stripped the shocks and mufflers off that old bike and turned in the 12s at the OKC dragway at the fairgrounds. He stayed involved in motorcycle drag racing for years and was pro stock champion in 1979. He developed a custom Kawasaki head for drag racing at that machine shop. Many big inch Kaws in the '80s had Pogue heads. He inherited the business and is still there today. He got into Harleys for a short-while in the '80s but gave it up shortly after. I guess he thinks he's old or something. I visited with him a couple of years ago and he said his wife didn't want him to ride anymore. I guess it is the sign of a good relationship to respect her wishes but it never worked for me.

After two years of auto mechanics in high school, I graduated and joined the Navy. This was 1965 and everyone was getting drafted to go to Vietnam. My friends were coming home in boxes. I thought the Navy would be better plus I knew the girls loved sailors.

Anyway, I ended up at NAS Fallon, Nevada. It was close to Reno. There were bikers everywhere. In the spring of '67, the Navy sent Randy Hammer and myself to a school on a piece of aircraft navigation equipment at NAS North Island. We were there two weeks so on the weekend we went on liberty in downtown San Diego.

We were too young to drink and had no money for the whores so we went to the movies and saw "The Wild Angels." We sat in the empty balcony and just before the movie started the whole San Diego chapter of the Hells Angels came in an asked us to move so they could all sit together. They made a party of it with booze and pot. I knew that was the life for me.

A few months later, I sold my '55 Chevy for $500 and bought a '51, 61-inch Panhead for $300. It had the original tank shift but the rocker clutch had been converted to a full suicide. I dumped it three times the first day.

That old bike was a full dresser with a windshield and original H-D saddlebags. It had the worse number job I ever saw but I didn't learn about that until later. Anyway, I never got in any trouble with it. I was living in Reno in a duplex with my friend Roark who had just got out of the Navy and was working at the VA hospital and going to URN on the GI bill. Roark was from San Francisco and I had been down there with him and knew his parents. I did most of the work on that old bike in the living room of that little duplex.

I met a guy in Reno who had a beautiful burgundy Panhead chopper. It had a hummer tank and a wide glide with a nice chrome 18-inch front wheel. I traded him out of that wheel when he went to a 21-inch wheel. I gave him most of my old dresser stuff to help me chop the '51. Soon it had a peanut tank, a chrome front fender turned around on the back and a jockey shift. During the summer of '68 and the winter of 1968-69, I rode everywhere. There were sometimes during the winter of '68 that Roark had to ride the bike to work while I took our only car to Fallon every day to make muster and do my job. I remember him riding that thing up the street in about four inches of snow.

This isn't Billy's dad, but a good example of the era, from the Bob T. Collection.
This isn't Billy's dad, but a good example of the era, from the Bob T. Collection.

I helped a friend named Billy Boot (that was his real name); build a chopper out of a '62 Oakland police bike. Billy's dad purchased that bike at a police auction; he was one of the original Boozefighters at Hollister in '47. Billy got stationed at Fallon right out of boot camp. He showed up on that old police bike stripped down into a bobber. I immediately took a liking to him. He had been a factory moto-cross rider for Kawasaki till he got drafted into the Navy. By that time, I had made second class (E5). My rating was an aviation electronics technician, navigation, or ATN2. Billy was a lowly seaman assigned to base security.

Even though my rating was in electronics, I seemed to spend most of my time in the support equipment shop. I became friends with the Master Chief Machinist Mate, who ran the place, and since I would soon be getting out they let him transfer me there for the duration. We worked on all the aircraft tow tractors and mobile starting units. The chief helped me make some special 8-inch fork extension slugs for Billy's wide glide. In those days, you couldn't just buy a set of long fork tubes. Besides, we were broke sailors and had to make do.

One beautiful Saturday in April 1969, Billy and I set out from Reno to San Francisco to visit his parents and have some fun. We had rolled out of Fallon on Friday night and rode the 60 miles to Reno with no problems. We spent the night with friends and got an early start on Saturday. The snow had melted over Donner Summit and it looked like a good day for a ride. The bikes were running good and the weather was perfect.

Life couldn't be much better. We sailed down the west side of the Sierras through Auburn and Sacramento with no problems. We were stopping every fifty miles or so for gas. I was checking the bikes every time we stopped. My bike had a three-brush generator that only worked every now and then. I had charged the battery all night in Reno, so I was good for about eight hours of daylight running with no generator. We had very little money, maybe twenty bucks or so and no credit cards, no cell phones either. If we broke down, we were on our own.

Billy's folks lived in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. His dad was one of the original Boozfighters and a great guy. He couldn't ride anymore because he fell off a roof and broke his back, he had a cherry '64 Rivera though. By then my friend, Roark had moved back to San Francisco and I was living in a trailer in Fallon.

We were rolling down Interstate 80 between Sacramento and the bay area, when I saw another bike way up ahead. I twisted the wick on the old pan and proceeded to catch up with it. I got closer and saw a black Jawa with Illinois plates. There were bags and stuff strapped all over this bike. As I came up beside it, I saw the rider was a beautiful girl with long blond hair streaming out from under her helmet.

I looked at her and waved, she looked back and waved, I was starting to see the possibility of a short-term relationship when I looked in the mirror for Billy. Needless to say he was nowhere in sight. I was faced with a decision of monumental proportions. Billy had the fastest bike and he used to race for Kawasaki. The only way for him not to be right behind me was trouble. I waved goodbye to Miss Illinois and took the Vacaville exit. I turned around and headed back down I-80 for about five miles.

There was Billy parked on another exit ramp and walking down the side of the road looking for his front exhaust pipe. I turned around again and parked next to him. We found the pipe, and I was giving him a hard time about lost love when the CHP pulled up and started giving us a hard time about parking on an exit ramp. We were clean-cut sailors with military I.D. or things might have gone worse. He let us go with a warning and I fixed the pipe with hose clamps. Later on, they started calling me the Hose Clamp Kid.

We rolled on toward San Francisco this time with Billy in the lead. We were rolling across the Bay Bridge with Billy about a hundred yards ahead of me when the Panhead sputtered and died. I coasted to a stop by one of those little call boxes and pushed the button. About 15 minutes later, a tow truck showed up and sold me a gallon of gas for a dollar plus five for the service call.

I was down to seven dollars in my pocket. That left me one. On the road again, I headed for Roark's house. My battery was low and it was getting dark. The bike would cut out when I hit the brake so I disconnected the brake light. I rode this thing right up Market Street after dark with no lights at all. I made it to Roark's house with no more problems.

He opened the garage and I goosed it and popped that suicide clutch. I went up his steep driveway in an unexpected wheelie and crashed into the back of the garage, nearly breaking my wrist and tweaking the forks a little bit. All in all, it was a great ride. I hooked up with Billy the next day and found out he had made it home okay, but his generator had gone out also. We left the bikes at Billy's and his dad drove us back to Fallon in that '64 Rivera.

Two weeks later when we got paid, we hitchhiked back to Frisco and I put a new armature in Billy's generator. I charged my battery and rode all the way back to Fallon alone. I took highway 50 out of Sacramento and rode over Echo summit and around Lake Tahoe and through Carson City. This time I had no problems at all. That was a great ride.

Billy had some leave so he came back a week or so later and did all right until he ran the transmission out of oil and broke the case just outside of Fallon. I sold my '51 for $600 and bought Billy's bike for $675 with a broken tranny. I bought a very used trans from some old outlaw in Sun Valley, just north of Reno, for $50, and I was on the road again with a much better bike and the generator even worked.

I got out of the Navy in June of '69, and I rode east on the loneliest road in America, highway 50. I slept on the ground the first night in what is now the Great Basin National Park. It is on the Nevada-Utah border. The second day I rode up through Utah. I went through beautiful little towns like Spanish Fork and Provo. I went around the eastern side of Salt Lake City on a scenic drive through the mountains.

Finally, I came out on Interstate 80 and putted into Evanston Wyoming. I was tired and dirty, so I got a motel room. The next morning it was 30 degrees on the 30th of June. I had on long johns and a flight jacket and I was freezing.

I had breakfast in the motel restaurant and there were four Hells Angels there. We got to talk and they asked where I was headed. I told them Oklahoma City. They looked over my bike and wished me luck. They were driving a '55 Ford station wagon. They said they were heading back to California from Buffalo, New York. The chapter president there had been killed and they had been to the funeral.

The further east I rode the warmer it got. I made it to North Platte, Nebraska that day and slept on a park bench until it started to rain. I got under the edge of a gas station the rest of the night. The next day I took back roads all the way across Kansas and rolled into OKC just about dark. The old Panhead made it halfway across the country with no real problems.

A lot of years have gone by since that ride. I've had three wives, two kids, and over one hundred Harleys. I have lost a few good friends, but I'm still in the game. I just traded a '49 Panhead chopper for a slightly wrecked '03 Dyna Wide Glide and two Sportsters and a '67 Fender guitar. I rode the Dyna to Sturgis in 2010 and a month later, I helped a lady move to Banger, Maine. I put the Dyna in a U-haul truck and rode it from Banger all the way back to Oklahoma City in the first part of October 2010.

More later, Bill

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Back to Just The Facts, Ma'am: The non-fiction department., Two Wheeled Tales

Reader Comments

I enjoyed the hell outta the article....waiting on some more. Q

Quinton Fennell
Noble OK, Oklahoma`
Thursday, February 2, 2012
this is a great story. Thanks for sharing. I definitely want to hear more from him. L&R

Lawrence Rodhouse
Pleasant Hill, IL
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Great article about a fellow biker. Need to run more stories like this.

M. L. Zimmerman
Phoenix, AZ
Monday, January 30, 2012

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