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Why We Chop: Chapter 4

Even in Oklahoma City

By Bill May with photos from Bill and Sam Burns

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Bill May
Bill May

As a kid growing up in Oklahoma in the ‘60s I was crazy about hot rods and motorcycles. My father passed away when I was 14. Mom didn’t drive. It was legal for a 14-year-old to ride a motor scooter of five horsepower or less. Mom bought me a Cushman Eagle to ride to school and run errands on. I got a job at the local root beer stand and rode every day. I read hot rod magazines. Sometimes they’d feature a stripped-down custom motorcycle.

The summer of 1964 I worked at Freeburgers lawnmower shop on the corner of 23rd and Prospect in Oklahoma City. I was 17. It was my first commission mechanic job. I learned a lot about small engines there. They charged 8 dollars an hour to work on lawnmowers. I got half.

It was right in the middle of the darkest part of town. I got along great with everyone there. Freeburger was an old white guy. He worked behind the counter. The service manager was a black guy with three fingers missing from his right hand. He wore a big rubber band around that hand to help him hold things.

There was another black guy who did everything. He had six fingers on his right hand and six toes on his left foot. They all worked normally. I never noticed till one day he held up his hand and said, “When five ain’t five.” I did a double take and said, “Wow!” Then he showed me his foot.

I would like to say that summer of 64 on the north east side of OKC I never experienced any sort of racism. Our customers were about half white. There were no drug dealers or gangsters around there then. It was the best place in the city to get your lawnmower fixed. We also worked on outboard motors. The main mechanic there was a white guy that was around sixty years old.

He worked all through the ‘50s at John Zink’s race car shop in Tulsa. He had lots of great stories to tell. He had a fifty Pontiac with a straight-8 in it. You could just take your foot off the clutch and it pulled away like it was an automatic, but the clutched slipped that bad. I wonder if he ever put a new clutch in that car.

I turned 16 and got a car but I was still interested in motorcycles. I finished my junior year in high school. I took auto mechanics the whole year and rebuilt the engine in my ‘58 Ford six-cylinder. I traded a nice ‘56 Ford Victoria 2-door hardtop for my friend’s ‘58 because it was red and had a three on the floor with overdrive. It was the cheapest ‘58 Ford they made, but it was cool.

Two black guys down the street would ride by on these outrageous choppers. They were stripped Panheads with high handlebars and sissybars. Chrome was everywhere on those old bikes. It lit a fire in me. I wanted one.

The black guys with Harleys lived down on prospect St. Now and then they would blast up the street on those things and turn on 23rd street and head east out of town. That was right by the Oklahoma capitol building. They were either Pans or Knuckleheads. At least one had a chrome Springer. They were not extended though.

They had chrome pipes and a high sissybars. The pipes on one followed the sissybar to the top. I learned many years later it was BOBo Pope. He had gone into drag bikes in the ‘70s. I met him in 1980 while working at Alan Merrell Chevrolet in Yukon, Oklahoma. We worked on his Corvette. He owned BoBo’s BarBQ back then.

Those bikes really excited me. I knew I had to have one someday. As soon as I graduated from high school, I joined the Navy. It was 1965. Biker movies were starting to come out. I didn’t care about the silly plots; I just liked the bikes. Those movies actually influenced the actual lifestyle of the so-called bike gangs that were forming around that time.

There were a few clubs that went back to the late forties but they weren’t criminals. I never saw the connection between a motorcycle club and organized crime or more likely disorganized... If you watched Sons of Anarchy, you could see most of those guys could have made a great living at an honest job and not dodged bullets and stuff. But that’s show business.

The actual antics of the HAs, Mongols, Banditos and Outlaws have made the lifestyle attractive to some and repulsive to others. I just liked the bikes. Still do.

In ‘68 I was able to buy a ‘51 61-inch Panhead in Reno for 300 dollars. I rode it home and took all the dresser stuff off it. I traded a guy out of a nice chrome 18-inch front wheel and a peanut tank. That was my first chopper. I loved riding it. I rode it everywhere. It wasn’t very fast but it always got me where I was going if I kept gas in it.

I’m kind of small and was never into any kind of sports but I learned that cool cars, choppers and music would help with the girls. I played trumpet in junior high, but when I started high school, I got a guitar. I have been playing ever since then. I should be a lot better than I am but I still get to jam with people here in Nashville and I am writing songs now. Maybe I can get a hit soon and buy a house lol.

When I got out of the Navy and came riding back to Oklahoma City I hooked up with a local club and had loads of fun. Girls were attracted to our parties. We would have a party out by a lake or in a member’s house and all kinds of people would show up.

I think those little high school girls just used us to lose their virginity, because by then we mostly knew our way around a girl and we didn’t talk about it to anyone outside the club. That shit is a two-way street. I never took advantage of any female. It was always their idea. I’m still that way. I never could understand rape. It’s no fun at all if the girl isn’t into it. Anyway, girls are definitely attracted to bad boys.

That ’51 Pan was just the first in a long line of choppers I have built. In the late ‘60s you could buy old dressers for around $500. I found if you stripped them down and extended the front end a little and put a pretty paint job on one you could sell it as much as $2000. When I got out of the Navy in ‘69 that is mainly what I did for extra money.

I usually had a job too, but always wanted something I couldn’t afford so I would turn a bike. I must have owned about 50 Panheads during that period. Over the years I learned a lot and became pretty skilled at welding, building engines and transmissions and painting and bodywork. It must be an addiction because at 75 I am still doing it. Why do I do it? Because I love it.


One more little thing to say, I don’t get these big motorcycle clubs riding huge heavy baggers with 500-watt sound systems on them. I guess we are all brothers of the wheel, but those guys are in a different world than me. But wait, I run a windshield because my shoulders are trash and they hurt when the wind is pushing my chest. I run some kind of bags to haul a few tools and rain gear and such. I did that on the last few choppers I rode, so I guess…

Keep the shiny side up.

--Bill May

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Reader Comments

Really enjoyed your article! I am 10 years younger than you, but I can relate totally. We exchanged e-mails when I lived in Pahrump, NV.

Moved back to WY. where I grew up. Wyomings political environment, laws and people are more in line with mine. Keep the articles/stories coming!

John Hoffman
Riverton, WY
Thursday, October 20, 2022
Editor Response Thanks brother. We will never give up or give in...

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