The Day That Kicked Bikers' Wild Image Into High Gear
"What's wrong with society today is there are no more fistfights."
--Sonny Barger, leader of the Hells Angels
Before there was Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels, before there was Marlon Brando and "The Wild One," there was Wino Willie and J.D. and a South-Central Los Angeles motorcycle club called the Boozefighters.
On the Fourth of July, 1947, the Boozefighters invaded the Central California hamlet of Hollister and, as Life magazine memorialized it, took over the town.
The incident set off a growing fascination with outlaw bikers, culminating in Brando's legendary "The Wild One" in 1954, with one exchange that still reverberates: "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Brando's character was asked. "Whatdaya got?" he snapped.
Today, 75-year-old Wino Willie Forkner and 80-year-old J.D. Cameron--the last surviving founders of the Boozefighters--look back on their legacy with amusement. To visit with them in Cameron's La Mirada home is to recall a distant time when postwar America was bursting with unfocused energy.
"It was a time when you could have a fistfight with someone and when it was over, you'd have a beer together," says Cameron, who made his living in the freight-unloading and trucking businesses, where he employed Willie. "This was way before all this guns and dope crap."
"Yeah, we just had a little fun," says Forkner, a barrel-chested World War II vet with pinkies as thick as thumbs who lives in Fort Bragg, Calif., and still rides his motorcycle. "We didn't do anything wrong."
What happened in Hollister, they remember, started with city-approved street racing on the main drag, San Benito Street.
Well, maybe a little more. J.D. allows that he may have had a few fistfights.
And then Wino Willie begins talking about a town drunk who came into one of the bars.
"Me, Kokomo and Gas House Wilson started buying him wine," Willie says. "After his third glass, he fell over. So we tied him to this wheelchair, tied the chair to some car and dragged him around town. I looked back and he had fallen out of the chair.
"So we put him on the hood and started driving again. Slowly. But he looked like he wasn't breathing, so we thought he was dead. We dropped him in an alley, covered him up with papers and took off.
*"Man, later that day, when I was in jail, I looked over, and there he was, making a ruckus. It's damn hard to kill a drunk."
Wino Willie, who got his nickname as a 7-year-old boy in Fresno when he would visit local wineries and indulge in the latest vintage, had landed in Hollister's jail on the charges of inciting a riot. Of course, he tells a different story.
"They had arrested Red [another of the Boozefighters] for drunk and disorderly, and a bunch of the guys had gone over to the jail to break him out. Man, I went over there and told the fellas, 'Let's forget this Wild West stuff. Red needs a rest.' But, of course, the cops figured I was the leader, and they grabbed me. Later that day, the judge says he'll let me out if I listen to my wife. I told him, 'Hell no. I haven't listened to her yet and I'm not gonna start,' " he said, laughing.
What caused a national stir was not the incident itself, or a San Francisco Chronicle article that described the events as "the worst 40 hours in the history of Hollister," but a single photograph in Life magazine. It showed a large, leather-jacketed man guzzling beer on a Harley with a pile of broken beer bottles lying near his front tire. J.D. and Wino to this day are infuriated by the photograph, saying it was staged.
Life's one-page layout led to a Harper's Weekly article by Frank Rooney, "The Cyclist's Raid," which led to the Brando movie, which sent the image of bikers downhill faster then a wheelie on a steep hill climb.
"I hated that movie," says Cameron.
The most glaring discrepancy between the actual event and the movie was that, unlike the film, in which a sleepy town is stunned by an unexpected invasion of a motorcycle gang, Hollister was waiting with open arms for thousands of bikers to converge there.
For more than a decade the American Motorcycle Assn. had sanctioned an event in Hollister. So on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, an estimated 4,000 motorcyclists descended on the city of 5,000.
What set that year's event apart from the others was that this time 15 members of the Boozefighters rode north from Los Angeles.
Although the Boozefighters were never mentioned in the Life spread or the Brando movie, word of mouth spread. Their name was a perfect fit, and soon all the biking world knew.
The Boozefighters had been formed in 1946 at the All American Cafe, a small beer joint on Firestone Boulevard near Hooper Avenue, just north of Watts. Many of the members, including Cameron and Forkner, were married. They were, by and large, a bunch of guys who loved to race motorcycles and drink beer.
John Cameron was born in 1915 in Oregon and began racing motorcycles when he was 15. He was rejected for the war because of injuries from a series of crashes. He came down to Los Angeles and bought a small freight train unloading business, where he met William Forkner in 1942.
Forkner, five years younger, had grown up in Fresno, where he expanded his early appreciation of fermented grape juice. Survival in the Pacific during World War II developed his zest for kicks. One day, the Army Air Corps took him off his B-24 bomber because it needed him on another. While on a mission over Iwo Jima, he watched in horror as his regular B-24 exploded and crashed.
"When I came back, we were hanging out at the club and we figured, 'Let's have fun. This is what we fought to protect,' " Forkner said.
The days after the vets came back were "a special time," added Cameron. "People were happy the war was over and we just wanted to enjoy life."
Goldie Miller, a Fremont High graduate, met Cameron and Forkner at the All American Club.
"They were some real characters," says Miller, 74, herself "a free spirit back then. They just loved to party. They wanted to be big-time professional racers, but that never happened. Sometimes they'd go out to the parking lot and duke it out, then come back in for another beer."
Miller was at the Hollister event, but her recollection is fuzzy at best.
"I don't remember a whole lot. I was into having fun too. If I was making book, I wouldn't have given any of them a chance to make it to 40. But, really, they were very nice people. And you knew nobody was gonna mess with you if you were with them."
The next year in Riverside, another ruckus promoted the Boozefighters' reputation for wildness. The club continued to be active through the 1950s, then simmered down. By 1970 the aging members had scattered throughout the country. Cameron bought a trucking business and kept in touch with Forkner, who was working as a trucker.
Forkner--and Cameron, if heart problems don't hold him back--may be heading back to Hollister.
Now a city of 24,000 that bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world, Hollister is already vibrating about the 50th anniversary of the "invasion" next year. Police and merchants believe that as many as 100,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world may converge there on the Fourth of July weekend in 1997. Several groups are vying to put on a trial run celebration this summer.
At Johnny's, one of the bars the Boozefighters patronized in 1947, owner Charise Tyson is looking forward to the day when the bikers return to Hollister.
"I can't wait. We're gonna do big business," Tyson said. "I'm not really concerned about violence. Heck, even the Garlic Festival (in nearby Gilroy) has its problems."
Across the street at Bob's Video, owner Bob Valenzuela is also in favor of the event. "People will be coming here from all over the world because they know about Hollister from the movie," he said. "This is truly holy ground for motorcyclists. It is Mecca."
Today, the Boozefighters motorcycle club still exists, but it is centered in Fort Worth. Comparisons to the original club are like comparing the cushy, soft-tailed, muffled rides of today's bikes with the rigid framed, roaring Harleys of old. The club, with chapters in Virginia, New York and California, has strict rules of conduct and members include doctors, lawyers and law enforcement officers.
Wino Willie and J.D. sneer at the new leadership. "When I met them they came dressed like business people," Wino Willie says. "Today, it's all about greed. We never made a dime off of this whole thing, and we don't care either."
Wino Willie visited J.D. again last week.
"He told me, 'Well, Wino, I'm dying,' " Willie said. "And unless he gets this pig valve operation, he will. But he's not a complainer."
Cameron, a tall, well-built man, says merely that he's going in for an operation Tuesday. Then he says, "We just wanted to have some fun. And we sure did."
One more question lingers. What were the real Wild Ones rebelling against?
J.D. pauses for a few seconds.
"Well, I guess I'm rebelling against discrimination. Ya know, all kinds, but for me, just because someone's a biker, they got rules against you."
And Wino Willie?
"I guess it's the establishment that I spent three years fighting for," he says. "You take off the khakis and the blue and put on some jeans and a leather jacket and immediately you become an asshole."