As a Family Support Worker, I had transported my new 11-year-old client to Anger Manage-ment at Child Guidance. My caseworker informed me before I picked young Jessie up that he came from dysfunction junction. His father and his older brothers were bikers who had been asked to leave their small country town when the “boys” had demolished head-stones in the town’s cemetery. My caseworker also informed me that she had received death threats on her and her unborn baby from this same clan due to the fact Jessie had been removed from their home. Her last words to me were, “Watch yourself. Jessie may prove to be a handful.”
I sat there in the waiting room calmly reading a magazine, when suddenly, a colorful barrage of words exploded from inside the session room. A chair slammed against the wall. The door burst open. Jessie went racing through the waiting room filled with startled parents. He then ran down the hallway and dove into the opening door of an arriving elevator.
By the time I reached ground floor, Jessie was already two blocks ahead of me. He led me on what turned out to be a six-block chase down to the Rampark Parking Garage.
When I reached the 6th floor of the open-air garage, Jessie had climbed onto the ledge and was seated facing forward, dangerously close to falling sixth stories to the sidewalk below. He held himself by only the tips of his fingers, his arms extended behind him, his head aimed in the direction of his proposed flight down as he said, “Come any closer and I will jump!”
I stayed where I was.
Jessie focused on the Social Services building two blocks away and said, “Do you know what those assholes did to me? My entire family are bikers, and they placed me in the foster home of a damned cop! Who am I supposed to be loyal to? I just wanna die!”
I determined at that point that young Jessie was determined to take the hard way down from there.
“Just–listen to me,” I said, badly winded from my run to catch him.
Jessie scooted himself to the edge of the ledge. “I don’t wanna listen! I just want to jump!”
Jessie gripped the ledge with his fingertips and leaned forward, tears glistening on his cheeks. He angrily spat, “Some kids shoot themselves. Some kids take sleeping pills. Some cut their wrists. Some hang themselves. I used think to those kids were stupid! But, now I know why they do it.”
Inching my way to his perch on the ledge, I froze when he snapped, “They say I can’t go back to my real home for a long, long time. I just can’t take this, so just let me jump!”
Tempted to lunge and latch onto him, I said, “So, you’re going to let tunnel-vision push you over the edge, huh? You’re only focusing on one thing, not looking beyond your immediate problem. You think you’re at the lowest point in your life–”
“I am at the lowest point!” Jessie blurted. “Tell me, what do I have to live for?”
“Returning to your family one day,” I said, then nearly added, “because what doesn’t kill you, just makes you stronger.” But it wasn’t the time to quote sappy movie lines that sounded like verses of Scripture ever since Arnold quoted them in Conan.
No. Instead I simply said. “You said they are all bikers, right? But since you just want do die, guess you ain’t a biker then, right?”
“What?” Jessie snapped. “What do you know about me? What do you know about any of this?”
‘Oh, kid,’ I wanted to say, ‘because I grew up wanting to be a biker all of my younger days! I
dreamed of becoming a biker up until the day I got a reality check and got locked up in the detention home! Oh hell, yes, I knew all about bikers, kid, long before you were ever born!’
But I didn’t. Instead I said, “Well, one thing Bikers are that you’re not, and that is: Bikers are tough. If you were really that tough, you wouldn’t even think that suicide was an option. No, if you were really that tough, you wouldn’t let them win this one over on you.”
Because toughness meant something to Bikers. I knew that. So did he.
He followed my gaze to the Social Services building, then refocused on the street far below.
I continued. “Show them how tough you are. Climb down off that ledge, Jessie.”
Twenty long minutes passed as I tried to convince him that suicide was not an option. After one last look to the sidewalk below, he leaned back, allowing me to haul him off the ledge.
Relief washed over me. Something different settled on Jessie’s shoulders. Resolution. Deter-mination. Perseverance. Maybe a combination of all three.
Moments later, walking past the spot on the sidewalk where he would have landed had he jumped, Jessie muttered, “I guess I’m tougher than I thought.”
And my response to that was, “Maybe we all are.”
As I drove Jessie back home that day, I shared with him a story of my own childhood days, when I thought I was tough:
I was a scrawny, shaggy-haired 13-year-old kid wearing an American Flag on the back of my cut-off jean jacket, and staying the weekend with a friend down in Sprague, Nebraska, population 18.
My friend, tall, red-haired Richard Kempston, said, “Sprague is home to a bunch of rowdy, beer-chugging rednecks. Take that jacket off before we go inside the tavern, or you’ll come outta there with a hair cut and that flag shoved into your mouth!”
I smugly said, “Hey, any redneck who has a problem with my flag can kiss my ass!”
“More like kick your ass,” Richard muttered as he followed me into the tavern.
We were immediately engulfed in clouds of thick cigarette smoke while a dozen rednecks seated around the room, glared at us. We casually walked across the crowded room and waltzed up to the bar, Richard, shooting nervous glances at the unfriendly faces focused on us.
And that’s when this big, red-faced farmer, dressed in denim overalls and wearing a DeKalb hat, walked over and stuck his big, fat finger into the middle of my back, pinning me to the bar.
Redneck Farmer shouted, “Hey, everyone, do you see this kid’s flag? Huh, do you see this damned flag this kid is wearing? Well, do you know what I think of it?”
I glanced back over one shoulder and took in all the leering faces of the expectant crowd. They surely knew I had earned this big drunken man’s animosity. I glanced sideways to Richard, thinking, Maybe I should have listened to him, and not been so cocky about wearing my flag into the tavern.
Redneck Farmer poked me again, and this time he said, “Well, kid, do you wanna know what I think of this damned flag you’re wearing on this damned jacket?”
“Not really,” I meekly whispered. “But I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”
The big man laughed and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna tell you, all right.”
He then belched and patted me on the back and said, “I think it’s pretty goddamned patriotic! And bartender? I want to buy this kid a hamburger and fries!”
I about fainted in relief, but I managed to say, “And two large Cokes for me and my friend?”
A few minutes later, Richard sat drinking his free pop in wonder, while I ate my hamburger and fries, bought and paid for all because of Redneck farmer’s patriotic streak, and because of my gutsiness to wear that flag into that redneck bar.
Two months later, I had another encounter because of my flag on the back of my jean jacket. My friend, Craig Cline and I were riding a city bus. The bus driver, a lean, cocky, sandy-haired guy drove for a little ways, almost getting us to our destination, when he couldn’t take it anymore. He just had to stop his bus and come back down the aisle to confront me.
“You think you’re pretty damned smart,” Sandy said. “Pretty damned smart to be wearing that flag! Do you know how many of my buddies died in Nam defending your right to wear that damned flag? Huh, do you?”
“No,” I smugly said. “But I’m sure you’re gonna tell me, aren’t you?”
It was strangely reminiscent of my conversation with Redneck Farmer down in Sprague. But I could tell this was not going to have the same positive outcome. No, this was going to turn ugly as I stood there, glaring back at my own refection in his mirror shades.
Sandy latched onto my skinny shoulders, lifted me off my feet, and shoved me toward the exit door. “Get the hell off of my bus!” he demanded.
“Hey,” Craig said, “you can’t do that! We paid for our ride!”
Sandy glared at lanky, long-haired Craig and simply shoved him toward the door as well.
Craig and I took one last look at fuming Sandy and exited his bus.
The two of us proceeded to flip off the retreating bus as Sandy drove off down the street, leaving us choking on diesel fumes.
Unfortunately, we had attracted the attention of the five members of a biker gang known as the Screaming Eagles, who happened to be sitting there across the street on their front porch.
Mike Shade, a big, brawny bear of a biker with long, shaggy dark hair and a thick black beard, spotted my flag on my jean jacket. He ordered me to come up there to the porch.
I didn’t have much of a choice. Leaving Craig standing there in the street, I slowly walked up to those five bikers seated there on that porch. Funny, I often drive by the same place now days, and that porch sure seemed to be a lot farther away from the street back when I was a kid. Because it seemed like it took me forever to walk from the street to face those five bikers.
Shade came up off the porch and whipped out a large pocket knife. He latched onto me, spun me around, and displayed my flag for his four gang members. “I’d say these are colors, wouldn’t you? And I don’t think Moses would like it that this little punk was wearing colors like this, do you? I think I should be cutting this flag off your back, you little asshole. What do you think?”
He then put the tip of his knife on my back and was just starting to cut my flag off when I said, “If Moses has a problem with my flag why don’t he talk to Johnny Bradford about it?”
Shade froze, his knife poised to cut. “You know Johnny Bradford?” he asked, slightly shaken.
“Yes,” I replied. “And he finds out you so much as touched me, he’ll kick your ass!”
Shade was smarter than he looked. “Well, I was just giving you a warning. Mother Moses, is the President of the Screaming Eagles–”
I blurted, “I know who Moses is. But if Moses or you have a problem with me wearing my flag, then go talk to Johnny about it.”
Shade put his knife away. “Yeah,” he said, “Moses and I will talk to Johnny. This was just a warning, nothing else. Be sure to tell Johnny that when you tell him about this, okay?”
He released me then, and as I walked away from him, I said, “Oh, you can bet I will tell Johnny about this. So don’t be surprised if he comes and talks to you.”
“Look, kid,” Shade said, “you don’t have turn this into something ugly. I didn’t rough you up or nothing. All I was doing was giving you a warning, right?”
“Yeah,” I said as I returned to the street. “That’s all I was giving you, too. A warning, right?”
Craig fell in beside me as I smugly walked away, shooting defiant glances back at Shade and his gang. By the time we were a block down the street, I shared with Craig how I had gotten out of that particular situation.
Craig looked at me in disbelief. “Johnny Bradford? You don’t even know Johnny Bradford!”
I grinned at him and said, “I know, but Shade didn’t know that!”
Back in those days, I hung out with a group of bikers who lived there on Saint Paul Avenue, and they always talked about how they would never want to mess with Johnny Bradford because he was bad to the bone. I just happened to remember his name while I was standing there before Shade. Luckily, Johnny’s name carried enough weight to cause Shade to back off.
One month later, I ran away from home. My mom had the police looking for me and even had my name announced on all the radio stations. Little did I know, she had also enlisted the help of one of my older friends from the Saint Paul neighborhood to hunt me down. 18-year-old Dennis Grant was a legend and a biker in his own right, though he belonged to no gang. Grant had a bad reputation. Bikers from both sides of town respected him. And what’s more? Grant was my friend, and yet he’d taken my mom’s side that night when he showed up at Midwest Speedway on 27th Street, prepared to cart my sorry butt home.
Craig and I were just leaving the raceway, when we had a run-in with the Belmont boys. There were five of them, all hulking beasts who were at least five years older than us. They surrounded us and their leader started shoving me around, having taken offence at the flag I was wearing.
Into the middle of the swarm of the five Belmont boys, a brawny figures appeared. It was Dennis Grant. Grant and his friend, Bobby Barnett, had little trouble sending the Belmont goon squad packing. Once they did, Grant turned to me, casually lit a cigarette, and said, “You are coming with me. I’m taking you home to your mom. And don’t give me any lip!”
Instead, I gave Grant the slip.
I pointed past him and Bobby and said, “Hey, ain’t that Geno over there?”
I couldn’t believe it. They both fell for it, and so, I wheeled around and took off running.
Craig started laughing, which earned him a punch in the stomach from Grant, and then Grant and Bobby started chasing me through the race track crowd.
I slipped through the mob of people like a greased cat, spinning and dodging and putting distance between myself and Grant and Bobby, who were now pissed off at me for running from them.
Finally, I darted under the track bleachers and climbed in between two seats to make my way up into the crowd watching the races.
Grant tried to grab my legs as I scuttled away, which made him even madder. Between the bleacher seats, he looked up at me and snarled, “Your ass is grass, when I catch you, Tommy!”
I peered back down at him and said, “First you gotta catch me!”
Which was a stupid thing to say. It just made him more determined to catch me and thump me good for running from him in the first place.
I scrambled through the crowd and made my way down to the front of the west side bleachers, and was just running over to the east side when Grant and Bobby appeared between the middle of both crowded bleachers.
I thought I was dead, but luckily a mob of kids stepped right into their path, and I hightailed it up into the crowded east side bleachers.
Someone called my name, and I looked up to see a large group of guys in cut-off jean jackets seated at the center of the otherwise normal looking spectators. It was Big Tim and his gang known as the Devil’s Fly High. They weren’t as bad as the Screaming Eagles, but in a fight they could hold their own. And the best thing about it is, Big Tim was calling my name!
I immediately scrambled up and seated myself right down in the middle of the rowdy group of guys. And then Big Tim saw me staring wide-eyed at Grant and Bobby coming up the steps of the bleachers. “They after you?” he asked. “What did you do to piss them off?”
“Nothing,” I shot back, defensively. “Just ran away from home, and they’re trying to take me back. Don’t let them, Tim, okay?”
Big Tim could have leveled both Grant and Bobby without working up a sweat, but there was one factor he was thinking over very carefully: If he interfered with these guys, he would have Geno to deal with later. Geno was Grant and Bobby’s best friend, another biker with a fierce reputation. And in a fight between Geno and Tim, God only knew who would win.
“I think,” Big Tim said, frowning, “you had just better go with them, Tommy. I don’t got no dog in this fight, and I think I’ll keep it that way, understand?”
“No!” I nearly cried. “I don’t want to go with them! They’ll just make me go back home!”
Grant and Bobby were almost on me, having climbed the bleachers about fifteen feet away. I was surely going to not only get an escort back to my house, I was probably going to get thumped by Grant for ditching them like I did.
That’s when this medium-sized guy with broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms stood up beside Big Tim. The brown-haired guy in his late 20’s looked down at me and grinned. “These guys are after you, huh? Well, you just stay put. I’ll take care of them.”
The guy brushed past me and stood in the path of Grant and Bobby. He then reached out, latched onto the back of their necks, and slammed their heads together! I swear I actually heard a Crack!
Grant and Bobby swooned then, but the guy simply held them real close and whispered something in both of their ears. Both Grant and Bobby reacted simultaneously, raising their hands, palms to the sky and backing away from the guy.
He stood there, glaring at them until they retreated back down the stairs and disappeared around the corner of the bleachers.
The guy brushed past me once more to take his seat beside Big Tim. He then winked at me and said, “You stay here with us and they won’t give you no more trouble tonight, kid.”
Whew! I was saved by . . . And that’s when I leaned over to Louie Ross, the youngest member of the Devils, a kid about my age. I said, “Who the hell is that guy?”
Louie glanced over at the guy and said, “Oh, him? Hell, that’s Johnny Bradford!”