The movie came out in the Summer of 1969. A year after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered. Kennedy, was 42. King, was 39.
The Democratic convention had boiled over in Chicago, as the nation’s youthful mantra became “The Whole World’s Watching.” Richard Nixon, was in the White House, promising to end the war in Vietnam with “honor.” Instead, he escalated the fighting, until Congress finally shut it down by cutting off funding in 1973. At one point more than 500 Americans were being sent home in body bags each week while the government assured us we were winning the war because their body count was higher than ours. Seldom mentioned is the fact that a disproportionate number of the American dead were African-American. Or that our intention was not to win the war in any traditional sense, but to wear the Vietnamese down by attrition, even though the Chinese and the French had tried the same thing before us and failed. It’s important to know the history of your enemy before going to war. The Vietnamese, had been fighting off foreign invaders since at least 938 A.D. LBJ, had no idea.
Those who could, avoided the war by signing up for a six year hitch in the National Guard or obtaining a II-S college deferment. This was back when the Guard was still used only as a force to protect and serve on U.S. soil, an idea that went away with the Bush/Cheney Administration. They needed more soldiers you see, and they knew that America wouldn’t put up with another round of military conscription (100,000 men per year were drafted during the Vietnam War), so they very cleverly turned everyone into a hero and sent the Guard overseas. I’m still surprised that they got away with it. But then I remember that people forget. They had forgotten Vietnam, where nearly 17,000 Americans died in just one year with no exit strategy.
And so the path to war was once again open for an entire generation of Americans that answered their nation’s call not to defend U.S. soil, but to act as a mercenary force for the Kuwaitis and the Saudis and big oil, to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
Eventually, the lessons of Vietnam were lost.
At war’s end, more than 58,000 Americans and between 900,000 and 1.1 million Vietnamese had been killed, and nobody was sure exactly why. Some said it was to stop the spread of Communism. Others thought it was wrongheaded and without justification because the Vietnamese never had represented a threat to the United States and Ho Chi Minh had no intention of letting either the Soviet Union or the Communist Chinese march in a take over his country.
There was however, oil in the South China Sea, and untold mineral riches in the jungles of Vietnam. Some of us wondered about that, as the United States was locked down between two opposite poles, those who favored the war and thought it was winnable, and those who did not. “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” we all said. And most of us meant it. Later we worried, as the Bush dynasty took us into Afghanistan and then Iraq, once again without an exit strategy.
In August of 1969, Richie Havens opened the Woodstock Music Festival with his driving rendition of “Freedom.” How much of it we had was up for grabs, as we were old enough to die in combat, but too young to vote or buy a beer. There were the Hippies and the Yippies, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Republicans and a new feminist movement. We were millions of lost souls in search of personal and collective salvation.
As the nation reached absolute polarization, “Easy Rider” appeared. A movie about two young dope dealers on chopped Harleys, hitting the open road in search of America. It spoke to the frustrations of my generation in ways that were both real and symbolic.
A lot of us bought bikes. Steve Heitke, picked up a used Harley and turned it into a chopper with straight pipes rising high into the air off the rear wheel. It was loud. Like rapidly repeating artillery fire. I got my hands on an old Matchless, stripped off the front fender, and gave it a deep metallic purple with silver feathering paint job. Second gear had been ground out of the gearbox, but I kept riding it anyway by pretending second gear had never been there and shifting directly from first into third. It rattled a little as I shifted past second but you can get by without second gear if you really have to.
I had just turned 21 when the movie was released, and a bunch of us went to see “Rider” in Minneapolis. I remember my old friend and fraternity brother Warner “Shorty” Smithers was there. Shorty was only about 5 feet 6 inches tall, but he was a former wrestler for Edina High School, and one of the toughest guys I’ve ever known. We used to hang out at various watering holes in the Minneapolis area. I can recall the Triangle Bar over near the University of Minnesota, on the “West Bank.” It was a sometime hangout for local Hells Angels. According to the Angels website, their Minneapolis chapter wasn’t formed until 1982, but I’m here to tell you that bikers wearing the Angels colors were hanging out at the Triangle Bar in the late 60’s. I know. I was there. Maybe they were just passing through. Legend had it that Bob Dylan had played the Triangle once or twice. We kept hoping he’d show, but he never did. Dylan, was in the area for a time, I was told he’d lived in an apartment above the Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor near Territorial Hall, but by then he’d probably left Minnesota for New York. There was also “The Depot,” an old bus depot that had been converted into a bar with a enormous dance floor downtown. Shorty, eventually got a degree from the University of Minnesota and moved to Nevada, where he managed one of those restaurant/casino operations out on the highway before you get into Vegas. It was Shorty, who took me bar-hopping the night before I was to be inducted into the military.
I had been drafted. The government had done away with college deferments and set up a lottery system. They drew numbers based upon birth dates. The lower your number, the better your chance of being called up for the Army or the Marines and being sent off to the human meat grinder in “The Nam.” My number was 28, so basically, I was toast. They put us up in a cheap hotel the night before induction and made me the “group leader.” I had to sign a piece of paper saying I would be responsible to see to it that all the inductees in the group showed up for their physicals the next morning. I figured the group could take care of itself, as I left the hotel to hook up with Shorty to slam down a few beers at one of the Twin Cities finer strip clubs. I had never been in a strip club before, but I figured I was probably going to die within the next two years anyway, so why not.
The thought of buying a used VW Microbus and heading to Canada, had crossed my mind. But it just wasn’t something I was intellectually wired to do. Not at that time of my life. I was young and still clinging to the hope that it wasn’t all for naught. That it wasn’t all just happenstance. That somewhere, someone might actually know what he was doing. We were all young then. As young as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, on those big, beautiful choppers, symbols of freedom rolling across the open highways of America.
I hadn’t thought about “Easy Rider” in years, and then it came on tonight, on the country music channel, of all places. As I watched, I wondered what happened to the motorcycles Fonda and Hopper rode in the picture. According to a piece in the New York Times, four bikes were built for the movie, two “Captain America” choppers for Fonda, and two somewhat less conspicuous red and yellow bikes for Dennis Hopper.
One of the “Captain America” bikes crashed and burned at the end of the movie. It was totally trashed. You can see it happen if you watch the film. The other three, the paper says, were stolen. Gone, until the late, great and legendary newspaper publisher Otis Chandler, master journalist at the Los Angeles Times, and auto and motorcycle collector, hired Ojai bike builder Glenn Bator, to build two replicas of the Fonda and Hopper bikes from scratch, starting with Florida police motorcycles for a base, just as they did for the bikes built for the movie at a reputed cost of $500 each.
Bator, says he charged Chandler $15-thousand each for the replica cycles which Chandler then turned around and sold to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for $200 thousand. I don’t know if that’s true. It could be. The three stolen and still missing bikes are more interesting to me. You have to wonder who has them, and how he (or she) feels, being forced to hold secret the location of three of the most famous motorcycles in the world. Icons of 1960’s America. A time of intense dissent, anger, turmoil, repression, growth and joy. You pretty much needed to be there to understand it. Not to mention the ongoing struggle of trying to understand how we traveled from our certainty of changing the world so that we couldn’t “be fooled again” to arrive at our current locale, with the United States fueling military conflicts across the globe and our own government setting aside due process and spying on us daily while our trusted news anchors salute an ongoing parade of American heroes returning from the latest war.