Flying with Hells Angels
“Terrorists are unpredictable.” The tag line under the talking head identified him as an expert in terrorism. I had turned on the early morning news program to entertain myself as I packed.
It was October 30, 2002, the last day of my four-day visit to New York City — and barely a year since nineteen fanatics — aka terrorists — from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries had piloted two passenger-laden planes into the World Trade Center.
I had concocted a story that convinced my lizard brain that we could get on the plane in Oakland to fly to New York. It went like this: Terrorists picked symbolic targets. The East Coast symbolized American power to them. Therefore they were only interested in taking over planes that were flying east to west. I was flying west to east. The terrorists wouldn’t get me. The end.
As I zipped my suitcase, my lizard brain grabbed hold of the phrase “Terrorists are unpredictable,” and noticed the gaping black hole in that plot line. My writer brain suddenly faced a deadline. I had four hours to concoct a story that would get me on the plane headed East to West.
“The dark, swarthy man, barely concealing his seething rage, handed the cash to the ticket agent. ‘I want four tickets to Oakland,’ he snarled.
“An alarm went off in Karen’s mind. ‘I must warn them,’ she thought as she strode confidently to the ticket counter.”
“You may never know who the terrorist is,” the expert’s droning voice interrupted. “The next time, it will be the last person you expect.” The expert folded his hands under his chin, placed his index finger over his lips, deep in thought, and then concluded, “Maybe even a woman.”
My inner word processor deleted “dark, swarthy man.” The cursor blinked at me, waiting for input all the way to the airport. My lizard brain, meanwhile, had ample time to rev itself up for takeoff and I was in full throttle fight-or-flight mode by the time I boarded the plane.
A dark haired man with dark brown eyes stopped next to my seat as he waited for the man in front of him to heft a carry-on bag into the overhead bin. He looked vaguely annoyed.
The cursor moved across my mind: “The dark, semi-swarthy man, walked past her, looking vaguely annoyed. An alarm went off in Karen’s mind.”
“The next time, it will be the last person you expect.”
Damn. My writer’s mind struggled for control.
A blue-eyed, dark-haired man walked by. “The blue-eyed, dark-haired man walked by.” The words followed the cursor across my mind. “His cheerful demeanor belied the rage seething below the surface. An alarm went off in Karen’s mind. ‘Good disguise,’ she thought, considering her options.“
A blond pregnant woman with peach-toned skin walked by.
“Maybe even a woman.”
My lizard brain seized control of the cursor.
“The peach-toned skin of the blond pregnant woman didn’t fool Karen. Think: Michael Jackson. A pillow under the blouse: instant pregnancy.
“The perfect disguise, Karen thought; the last person anyone would expect to be a terrorist.”
I grasped the edge of my seat belt buckle and began contemplating my best move. Should I get off the plane now, while I had the chance, or should I let the attendant know that I had identified the terrorist?
I played out the conversation in my head. “Pardon me, steward. You see that woman getting into aisle 20. Yes that’s the one — the one with the peaches and cream complexion. Uh-huh. That one. Yes, the blond one. That’s right. Yeah, the pregnant one. She’s a terrorist.”
It was at that precise moment that the air parted as three Hells Angels walked through the doorway of the cabin and sat down in the row in front of me.
I knew they were Hells Angels because they had that patch on the back of their leather jackets: a profile of a skull wearing a helmet and a war bonnet surrounded by the words “Hells Angels.” I noticed that there was no apostrophe between the l and the s in Hells.
The plane began pulling away from the gate.
What the hell were Hells Angels doing on Jet Blue?
I remembered that warm spring day, the radio on my VW bug cranked up full blast as I chugged down the near-empty highway 99.
I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a gang of motorcycles descending on me.
The roar of their Harleys drowned out “Purple Haze” as they parted to surround me. They wore those black leather jackets with the helmet and war-bonnet-covered-skull, surrounded by the words “Hells Angels,” patch on the back.
I was deeply respectful of the Hells Angels’ reputation. If you messed with them, or maybe even if you didn’t, they’d mess with you — or seduce you if you were an innocent maiden — for driving on their highway. They’d piss on you or wherever else they damned well pleased. Or so the legend that stuck in my mind went.
I was a believer: I was on their road.
A biker chick on the back of one of the choppers, stared at me as they drove past.
Don’t make eye contact.
They were a half a mile down the road before I could hear “Purple Haze” — and breathe — again.
“Attendants prepare for takeoff.”
So who were these guys in front of me on Jet Blue? They seemed so tame.
Where were their bikes? Had they checked them through as luggage? Or would they be renting one at the Budget counter in Oakland?
These guys seemed more like a corporate team on its way to pitch a deal than the hog-riding, maiden-seducing, piss-wherever-they-damned-well-pleased terrorists who trolled the highways looking for VW bugs to squash.
“The Captain has turned off the ‘Fasten Seat Belt Sign.’ While you’re free to roam the cabin, we recommend that you leave your seat belt fastened while you’re seated.”
I realized that I was now thousands of feet in the air, at the mercy of the blond, peach-toned skin, faux pregnant terrorist.
Fortunately, my curiosity about the three Hells Angels had overwhelmed my lizard brain. I mean I had no idea the Hells Angels still existed. I hadn’t thought of them in more than thirty years.
The cursor blinked with a clean slate, and then followed the words “I went to high school with Sonny’s wife” across my mind. Well that could be a conversation starter.
Granada was a small high school back then — everyone pretty much knew each other. Sonny’s future wife was crowned Maid of Livermore soon after she graduated, and then went on to be Maid of Alameda County contest at the County Fair in Pleasanton. Sometime later, I heard that she had married Sonny Barger, the founder of the Oakland Hells Angels.
But, I didn’t know whether or not they were still married. And friends tend to take sides.
The cursor backed over the I-knew-Sonny’s-wife conversation-starter.
“So were you at Altamont?”
The cursor blinked at me.
Well, we might have that in common, but that would certainly be a sticky wicket.
1969: the year of Woodstock. The Manson Family. “Easy Rider.” And Altamont.
I had been visiting my relatives in Oklahoma when the Manson Family and Woodstock happened. They held the two events in their minds as one thing. The Manson Family was behind Woodstock. And was probably working with the Communists who were roaming freely through Oklahoma. A few years later they found their dupe in Karen Silkwood who stole the plutonium to give to the Communists.
My boyfriend John and I had moved in together in the Fall of 1969, into a room at 1324 Willard Street, a dilapidated Victorian House on the edge of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The landlady smoked so much hashish once that she spent three days staring at the red dot on the wall.
There was no red dot on the wall.
We slept on the mattress on the floor that we covered with a madras bedspread from Cost Plus. That freaked my mother out — the mattress on the floor and that I was living in sin.
“In three years you’ll be his common-law wife,” she would say just before hanging up. Common-law wife always got me. It sounded so tacky. Like what a biker chick would be.
Legends surrounded 1324 Willard Street. The Diggers had lived there when they prepared the free lunches they gave away in Golden Gate Park in the heyday of the Haight Ashbury — before the media discovered it. Charles Manson had lived there at some point during that time. In the basement, of course.
John and I were students at San Francisco State, where we had met in the fall the year before. 1968 had not been a good year.
On March 31st, Lyndon Johnson announced that he had initiated peace talks and that he wouldn’t run again for president.
We had stopped a war and brought down the president who lied us into it.
The euphoria was short-lived.
Four days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That evening, after his police escort refused to follow him into the inner-city black neighborhood in Indianapolis where he had been scheduled to speak, Bobby Kennedy faced the crowd of black faces and delivered the news — Martin Luther King had been murdered hours earlier by a white man.
He ignored the speech he had written and instead, simply spoke to them.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”
And then he quoted from Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Finally, he urged the crowd, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Riots erupted in cities across America as word of King’s death spread. But not in Indianapolis.
Two months and one day later, I watched him deliver his victory speech after winning the California primary. “And now, on to Chicago,” he told the euphoric crowd.
A new day was dawning; there was no stopping it.
Minutes later, people screamed. Bobby Kennedy had been shot in the head as he walked through the kitchen of the hotel. A bewildered busboy cradled Bobby Kennedy’s head; blood pooled underneath it and his eyes stared into stopped time.
Kennedy died the next day.
In Chicago, two months later, demonstrators and police rioted as the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, nobody’s choice, to run for president against Richard Nixon. And so Richard Nixon became president.
The day after the election, my next-door neighbor, who had spent the summer on an Indian Reservation as a Vista volunteer, returned from the Laundromat where she had tried to buy a soft drink from a vending machine. She pushed her first choice and the light lit up: “MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE.”
She punched her second choice: MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE.
She continued pushing buttons: MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE. MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE. MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE. Until she reached the final selection and punched it: MAKE ANOTHER CHOICE.
“That’s 1968,” she said.
And so my college went on strike.
I met John the day that the Tac Squad, a platoon of baton-fondling well-padded police dressed in riot gear, surrounded the quad outside the Humanities Literature and Language building, trapping a group of students, including me, between them and the building. The visors on their helmets shielded their eyes. Some had removed their badges.
A student came by with a jar of Vaseline, encouraging everyone to dip into it. I grabbed a glob and smeared it over the top of my head. I thought it would make the baton slip if one happened to find me.
“This will keep your eyes safe if they use Mace,” I heard him say to someone else. I began to cry and somehow made my way towards the ring of cops, where I asked nicely if I could get on the other side. Since I didn’t look wild-eyed and radical, they let me slip through.
I watched from the sidelines as the Tac Squad marched with precision, and then heard the sound of batons, wielded like weed whackers, against the heads of the trapped students. People staggered back down the quad, blood dripping down their faces. Outside the Student Commons, a young black guy wrenched the metal leg off an overturned table.
“It looks like something you’d see in South America,” a voice said behind me. He had auburn hair, and wore a blue work shirt, jeans, and an olive-green Army jacket. His jacket was authentic; his nametag appeared over his pocket. He was in the Reserves, just months away from getting discharged, so long as he kept his nose clean. Too many demerits, like missing a meeting, and he would have been drafted and sent to Vietnam.
“It blows my mind,” I said.
The battle in the quad was dying down.
“Want to go get some coffee?”
A romantic meeting in the context of the times.
In October of 1969, John and I went to see “Easy Rider.” I fled the theater when the truck-riding Southern crackers blew away Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper with their shotguns because they didn’t like these longhaired, motorcycle-riding, maiden-seducing, hippy, Communist, anti-Americans sharing their roads.
John followed after me and pulled me into his arms to comfort me. “Wow,” someone waiting in line said. “It’s really heavy.” I couldn’t answer.
The movie reinforced what we suspected: THEY wanted to murder US because WE threatened THEM. And US was anyone, including outlaw bikers, who wanted freedom from what came before. Whatever that was.
Woodstock was the new paradigm. We could shape the world into our image; music was the uniting tool.
So in early December, when KSAN announced that the Rolling Stones would give a free concert in Golden Gate Park that Saturday, we knew that the momentum was building. Truck-riding, shotgun-toting, Southern crackers be dammed. The Woodstock nation was taking over.
But then the concert sponsors couldn’t get a permit for Golden Gate Park. Sears Point Raceway in Napa. Couldn’t get insurance at Sears Point Raceway.
Woodstock nation it seemed had been brought down by the threat of litigation. But when I returned from classes on Friday, John told me that the concert was on. They had found the setting.
Oh, yeah right.
The Rolling Stones are gonna be in Livermore.
I went to high school in Livermore. I was Most Dependable Senior Girl in Livermore. They had rodeos in Livermore.
“It’s definite.” the KSAN disc jockey announced, “The concert is on. Altamont Speedway in Livermore…”
We drove out to my parent’s house that night, where we slept in separate rooms. The next morning, my father, who knew the back roads, drove us to an empty field where he dropped us off and pointed the way to Altamont.
The sun was just starting to come up. I had no idea where we were. We walked for what seemed like hours before we started merging with small groups of people heading in the direction my father had sent us. In less than a week, the word had gone out into the air, like cyberspace without the cyber, and throngs of people were converging to build the new tomorrow. It was beginning to look like Woodstock.
We reached the crest of a hill and saw below us a bowl filled people. The winter haze mixed with the cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over the bowl. We had arrived.
We found a spot, nowhere near the stage, sat down, and waited for the Woodstock Nation to lead us into the future.
The music didn’t start on time. Technical difficulties came the message drifting back up through the crowd.
Two guys lead a third, stark naked, dazed, his unruly hair falling over his eyes, past us. “Over there,” someone pointed to the tent with the Red Cross emblazoned on it.
Someone passed us a jug of sweet red wine. A joint appeared from the other direction.
Finally, an English-accented voice announced, “This could be the greatest party of 1969.” The crowd cheered. “The Flying Burrito Brothers!”
Frisbees filled the air and our court musicians began singing the story of our quest for a new familiarity: We all knew what it meant, at least metaphorically, to be six days on the road, but we’re gonna make it home tonight.
The music slowed. A voice wafted up over the crowd, pleading, “Please. People. Stop hurting each other.”
The English-accented voice announced, “We need a doctor underneath the left-hand scaffold.”
The music faded out.
“They’ll start the music when we find a doctor,” a woman yelled in front of us.
After what must have been a half an hour, The English accented voice pleaded for people to get off the stage. Then announced: “The Jefferson Airplane.”
Paul Kantner’s guitar riffs sailed out over the air and then Grace and Marty began singing the secret they wanted to share with each of us, they didn’t know where they were goin’ or who they were gonna be.
A few stanzas later Grace began chanting, “Easy! Easy! Easy!” Then it sounded like instruments fell off the stage. We were too far back to see anything; we thought there were more technical difficulties. Then Paul Kantner’s voice came through the air.
“I’d like to mention that the Hells Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face. I’d like to thank you for that”
We heard the sound of people grappling for a microphone and then a snarly voice responded, “You’re talkin’ about my people here.”
“You need to keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love,” Grace Slick pleaded. “People get weird and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line, but also, you don’t bust people in the head for nothin’. So both sides are fuckin’ up temporarily. So let’s not keep fuckin’ up!”
But we did.
Three Hells Angels rode through the crowd with their girlfriends straddling the back of their bikes.
A woman in the crowd yelled “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
They stopped their bikes.
“Are you gonna let her talk to the Angels that way?” one of the bikers said turning to his old lady. She dismounted, strode towards the woman, punched her out and mounted the bike again. They continued their way down through the crowd.
Chaos continued to overwhelm the music. Sometime around three, no further than 10 feet away from me, a phalanx of Hells Angels surrounding a scrawny, cape-draped figure, made its way through the crowd. They were escorting Mick Jagger to the stage.
A grey-haired woman flew by me shaking her finger at the group. “Just who do you think you are?”
A woman closer to my age ran after her, grabbed her by her knit poncho and pulled her back. “Mother. They are Hells Angels. They are not nice people. DO NOT TAKE THEM ON.”
It had been close to an hour since the last band had played. The Rolling Stones were up next. Rumors began drifting up through the crowd: the Stones were waiting until dark so they could make a dramatic entrance with lights shining on them. They were committing the cardinal sin: they were on an ego trip.
John and I looked at each other, and then around at the crowd. “Let’s get outta here,” I said.
“Fuck you Stones!” he yelled at the stage.
And we headed out of the bowl.
“Ladies and gentleman, the Rolling Stones!”
The dark rhythm of the Stones’ music followed us as Mick Jagger made his case for giving the devil his due.
Jagger’s voice drifted out, but we could hear Keith Richards guitar riffs. We continued trudging towards the freeway. The music stopped.
“People. People. Let’s try and keep it together.” Jagger sounded like a substitute teacher who knew that the class of snotty teenagers had seized control of his classroom. “Something funny happens whenever we start that number.”
Well, what do you expect, I thought, “Sympathy for the Devil.” And then we were out of hearing range.
We reached the freeway, which was lined with parked cars, and stuck out our thumbs. A VW bus stopped. The driver pushed open his window; the smell of patchouli oil wafted out towards us.
“Hey man, how was the concert?” the longhaired freak asked us. Someone in the back seat swung open the side door. I wondered why they hadn’t made it to the concert.
“It’s a bummer,” John said. “Stones are on a real ego trip. Can you give us a ride as far as highway 84?”
“That’s cool man, that’s right where we’re headed. What a bummer. The Stones fuckin’ up like that.”
I sat in the back, remembering why I didn’t like crowds. And that I didn’t like the smell of patchouli oil.
“Hey, did you hear?” the hippy chick in the passenger seat said. “Joan Baez had her baby. It was a boy. His name is Gabriel.”
A different kind of angel, I thought.
The next day we tuned into KSAN. They had planned on replaying the concert, but instead, devoted the day to letting people talk about what happened. The broadcast started with host Stefan Ponek echoing The Jefferson Airplane’s secret: “The truth of the matter is, we don’t know what’s goin’ on.”
We learned that there had been 300,000 at Altamont; that the Angels had used pool cues as the police used batons, bashing people over the head to get them in line; and that someone had been murdered while the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb.”
“We won’t start playing again until you get it together,” Mick Jagger pled. The crowd, surging towards the stage, grew more uncontrollable.
But the crowd didn’t get it together. Near the stage, one of the Angels’ bikes shorted out and caught on fire. Then someone messed with Sonny Barger’s bike.
A wave of people backed away from the stage as a tall lanky black guy, dressed in an inner-city neon-bright green suit with matching hat pulled out a pistol and started waving it around. A Hells Angels came up behind him and plunged a knife into him.
He bled out inside, quickly and very tidily dying in front of his white girl friend, who was dressed in suburban-safe culottes and a blouse covered by a crocheted vest. They made an odd couple.
Sonny Barger called in to the KSAN talk show. The Angels had been asked by the Stones’ manager to keep people away from the stage, he claimed. But no one wanted to give up his spot. And then someone messed with his bike. And that made it personal.
“I’m a violent cat when I want to be,” he declared. He wouldn’t let the deejays get in a word edgewise.
We later learned that the leadership of the Hells Angels had been having a meeting that day, sort of like a corporate board meeting. The members they had sent to handle security were new recruits, sort of like Donald Trump apprentices. They wanted to prove their mettle. And so they did what they did.
And Altamont was Altamont, not Woodstock.
Meanwhile, back on Jet Blue, the three Hells Angels sitting in front of me seemed to be very well behaved. The one on the end announced, “I need to piss,” and stood up.
Uh-oh, I thought. The gig is up. I pulled the blanket up to cover myself. But he took his place in line behind the faux peach-toned-pregnant terrorist and politely waited his turn.
I thought back to that cold December night at Altamont and wondered what might have happened if the guy waving the gun hadn’t been stabbed. What if he had started randomly shooting the gun in the crowd of dancers surging towards the stage.
Well, if there were terrorists onboard the plane, it might be handy having three Hells Angels sitting in front of me, close to the cockpit. But then I remembered: Someone thought it was a good idea for the US to finance Bin Laden when he fought against the Soviets, our common enemy. And we all know how that one turned out.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are preparing for our final descent into Oakland. Please put your seat into an upright position and fasten your seat belts.”
The Hells Angels dutifully pulled up their seats. Briefly, my lizard brain wondered if we would fly into the Transamerica building.
The plane rolled to a stop at the gate and the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign went dark. The three Hells Angels jumped up, pulled their bags from the overhead bin, and waited patiently for the doors to open.
A SOHO-hip looking young woman in front of them knelt on her seat to face them and snarled at the one who was standing in the aisle, “Why did you mess with my shit?”
She looked to be in her late twenties; born after the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, Kennedy assassinations, King and Evers assassinations, the Watergate break-in, and Nixon’s resignation. And most certainly after Woodstock and Altamont. I didn’t imagine she had grown up believing you could change the world with music.
The Hells Angel she had aimed her snarl at looked from side to side to see who she was talking to, then, realizing she was talking to him said, “What?!” He looked genuinely perplexed.
“You know what I’m talking about,” she said menacingly. “You messed with my shit!”
He shook his head. “Hey. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m an artist.”
I wondered which he had become first, a Hells Angel or an artist? At any rate, I believed him, that he hadn’t messed with her shit. Probably because he said he was an artist.
My mind played out the morning of September eleventh: terrified New Yorkers, people who looked like me, running through the streets of Manhattan, plumes of dust and smoke rising above them as the first tower crumbled behind them. It was as if someone pulled the loose thread and as the 100 stories of steel and concrete unraveled, so did my own sense of safety from the madness of the human heart. I felt a primal vulnerability open up inside me — a vulnerability I had always associated with someone else — the young, naked Vietnamese girl, plumes of smoke rising behind her, running from her burning village, her agonized face reflecting napalm on flesh.
And it occurred to me how complex it is — far too complex for the lizard brain to comprehend — identifying the THEM that isn’t US.
I made my way to baggage claim. I waited for three Harleys to fall from the conveyor belt onto the carousel, but none did. The three Hells Angels had disappeared into the crowd.