Motorcycles: Uncle Aaron's Story
This is chapter 9 from my second novel, "When the Road Darkens." My good friend Peyton Quinn kindly allowed me to appropriate his character, Pete Savage, from his novels "The Dog Soldiers MC" and "The Dog Soldiers MC: The Beginning," and have him make a guest appearance in mine. I got close to Pete Savage when I edited "The Dog Soldiers MC: The Beginning" for Peyton.
Pete Savage helps my main character, Jody. Here, Jody's uncle tells the story of how he met Pete Savage:
Well, for you to understand how it was I have to go back a bit from when I met Pete. It was in 1971 and the draft lottery system was up and running even though the war in Vietnam was winding down. I’d just graduated from Colorado State University with honors and was preparing to go to the Vet School there at CSU. My draft board had other plans for me though and didn’t waste any time. My lottery number was low, so in early July of ‘71 I found myself in the army preparing to head off to foreign lands.
I did my basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then, because of my educational background, was sent to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Huston as a combat medic for 10 weeks. The army had wanted to send me to Officer’s Candidate School, because I’d had R. O. T. C. in college, but I declined. That idea appealed to me as much as sleeping in a pile of porcupine quills. I wanted to get through the army as quickly as possible and going to OCS would add at least another year and a lot more responsibility to my tour of duty. I just wanted to put in my time and get out. So, I became a combat medic and the army, in its infinite wisdom, sent me directly to Vietnam.
To say the war was rough would be an understatement. I was in the thick of things more often than not, and as a medic I saw and did some pretty gruesome stuff. I wasn’t a conscientious objector, like a buddy of mine who was also a medic, and I had no problem with picking up a rifle and shooting the Viet Cong when I needed to. One night, in fact, I had to use a knife to kill a VC when our basecamp was overrun. As I ran out of my hooch, I ran straight into a skinny Vietcong who was stronger than shit and about to throw a grenade into our hooch. I couldn’t use my rifle because we were jammed together rolling around on the ground, but I did manage to get my knife out and thrust it into his neck. He shuddered and died on top of me and I was covered in his blood.
After my 12 months tour of duty in Vietnam, I came back to the world in March ’73, with some medals and a case of PTSD, or whatever the hell they’re calling it these days. At the time we didn’t know that’s what it was. The WW II and Korean vets called it ‘shell shock.’ We called it battle fatigue, and I was definitely tired of the fighting.
Because I’d put in my time in Vietnam I got what they called an early out in April, having been in the army for only 21 months. They did that because there’d been a lot of problems with soldiers returning from Vietnam and the DMZ in South Korea with four or five months left on their tours. They tended to create discipline problems in their stateside units while they waited for their time in the service to be up. So the army actually got this one right by letting the guys muster out early. The army considered that it was a lot less hassle to let us guys drop the four or five months they had left, since we’d put in our combat tour and did our time. So the army let me out.
As tough as the fighting in Vietnam was, the return to the States was almost as bad. The public didn’t help much with any kind of welcome. There were demonstrations against the soldiers coming back. They should have been demonstrating against the fucking politicians who’d sent us off to Vietnam for a senseless, useless war. But some people took it out on the troups. A buddy of mine put a protestor in the hospital when the guy spit on him in an airport. He’d flown in on a military flight and was transferring to a civilian flight while still in his uniform. No wonder so many of us vets turned to alcohol and drugs. We’d been fighting for a country that didn’t seem grateful at all. We lost our innocence in the heat and mud of Nam, and we felt no gratitude from the public for our efforts on our return.
So, when I got back to the world I decided to take a year off to get my head screwed on straight before I went back to veterinary school. I didn’t try to run from the reality through alcohol or drugs. Yeah, I drank and smoked some grass but didn’t find much comfort in it. I thought a lot about what my therapy should entail. Finally, I made my decision and took my savings from the military and bought a new FX Shovelhead Harley from a dealer in Fort Collins. I’d ridden a lot of trail bikes when I was a kid, and had a Honda for a while in college, so I knew something about bikes. I figured that riding through the west would be a way to decompress and might even get me back in touch with the country I’d fought for and now seemed so alien to me.
Riding the bike helped. I had some clothes in my leather saddlebags, along with some cooking stuff, including a small frying pan and coffee pot. I’d tied a sleeping bag wrapped in a poncho onto my handlebars, and was on my own. My younger brother was busy finishing up his teaching degree. He probably wouldn’t have to go into the army at all. My parents were living in Fort Collins, working hard. I knew they cared about me and were worried; they didn’t understand what I was going through. They couldn’t help. So, I used my bike to help myself.
One early afternoon I was riding somewhere north of Boulder and I stopped to have a beer at a roadside bar. It may have been in Niwot, but I don’t remember for sure. A beautiful old Pan Head Harley, also packed out, was sitting outside the bar, its rear wheel against the curb. I pulled around, backed in next to the Pan Head, and turned my engine off. For a moment I just sat, listening to the ticking of my cooling engine and enjoying the warm day, as I took my gloves off. Finally, I swung my leg off my bike and walked inside. The bar was on the left and ran almost the full length of the room with some tables and chairs along the opposite wall. One guy in a weather-beaten leather jacket and jeans sat alone at the bar so I sat down a couple of bar stools away. I figured he was the owner of the Pan head and after I got my first beer complimented him on the bike.
Turned out he was a vet as well so we got deep into a conversation over our beers. You know, back then I had a hard time talking to anyone who wasn’t a veteran. Vets understood how weird the real world was to those of us who had recently came back from overseas; vets were easier to relate to. We talked about motorcycles, Vietnam, the army, and other things I don’t remember.
Pete Savage, that was his name. He’d done two tours in Vietnam and some secret stuff in Cambodia after his second tour. Pete had blond hair that hung almost to his shoulders. I was letting my hair and beard grow too.
Funny side story, when I was sent from my battalion base camp in Nam to the installation in Tan Son Nhutoutside of Saigon where I was to catch a flight back to the world, this dumb fuck lieutenant made all of us who were leaving the service buzz cut our hair. He’d told us that he wanted us to look “good” when we got back to the world. It was one last dig the army got in on us. None of us raised a fuss, though, as we didn’t want to take a chance on having to stay in any longer. We just wanted out. But since I’d been back in the world I hadn’t cut my hair at all. I just let it grow and figured it was my way of saying ‘fuck you’ to that lieutenant and the rest of the bullshit of the army.
Well, I’d taken a liking to Savage and we were about half way through our third beer, when three other men, wearing motorcycle leathers and with long hair, walked into the bar. On the back of their leather vests were patches that read: Satan’s Sinners. They made a point of sitting at a table toward the back of the bar. Savage didn’t let on that he was aware of them, but I could tell he was paying attention. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them looking at Savage and me. I said something about them to Savage under my breath, and he just made a slight nod, cool as hell, to let me know he was aware of their actions.
“If they make a move on me, “ Savage said, “you just stand aside. It’s not your fight.”
I was about to protest when the larger of the three men stood and walked toward us, with the other two following. I started to say something to Savage who nodded, so I didn’t finish. Just before the three men got to us Savage turned to face them, still holding his almost empty beer mug.
The largest of the three men growled, “I know you. You fuckers don’t drink here.” His grin was more of a leer, with no mirth. I could see he was missing one of his front teeth and his face was pockmarked from old acne scars. There’s salty scooter trash, and then there is this kind of biker sleeze. Now that they had moved closer I could smell them. If they’d come any closer their reek would have brought tears to my eyes.
Savage looked at the big one with eyes as flat as Nebraska. He said, “This isn’t Sinners’ territory either. Why don’t you three ‘gentlemen’ go on back to your table and finish your beers. There’s no need for trouble.”
“Fuck you!” yelled the large one as he started to swing on Savage.
I had barely moved and was in the act of standing, when Savage smashed his beer mug into the temple of the larger man who went down like sack of cement. The other two froze for a second as Pete turned to face them. The second man, shorter but broader and with a huge gut, began to close and Pete kicked him in the groin with a front snap kick. The air whooshed out of his lungs and he grabbed his crotch, dropping to his knees and making high-pitched whining noises in his throat, his eyes rolling back in his head. By now I was standing, and as the third man pulled a knife and stepped toward us, my training kicked in. I chopped the man’s wrist with my fist, knocking the knife to the floor. Before he could hit me, I punched him in the throat, taking him out of the fight.
It was over in four or five seconds and Savage and I stood over the three men, writhing on the barroom floor. Behind the bar the bartender stood frozen with his mouth agape.
“Good work, man,” Savage said, clapping me on the shoulder and smiling.
“It was nothing,” I mumbled. “I haven’t been in a bar fight since when I was on R and R in Bangkok.”
“Bangtown, eh?” said Savage smiling. “I was in a fight or two there myself.”
The altercation had brought back some of the feelings to me that I later realized was mild PTSD. I didn’t know it then. I just knew that I wanted to get on my motorcycle and ride.
“Come on,” Savage said. He must have recognized what was happening to me. He probably felt it himself. “Let’s get out of here. The smell is pretty thick.”
“Right,” I said.
We threw some money on the bar for our beers and Savage said to the bartender, “Nice place you got here.” He turned and walked out ahead of me. Then I noticed the patch on the back of his leather jacket. He was wearing the colors of the Dog Soldiers MC, a little known motorcycle club that he was forming at that time.
We both had kick-starters on our bikes. It took Savage one kick, and his bike started, rumbling loudly. My bike was newer and tighter so it took me three kicks before the engine caught and growled to life. We sat for a moment letting the engines warm up before we rode off.
I followed Savage as we headed north toward Loveland on Highway 287 and then up Big Thompson Canyon on Highway 34. We rode along the Big Thompson River as the curving road led us through the foothills and into the mountains. This was before the big flood in 1976 that killed over a hundred and forty people so the road was much different then. Before we got to Estes Park we turned off and wound down a narrow dirt road through the pine and aspens.
Savage turned off the dirt road into a grove of aspen trees. He stopped and while sitting on his bike reached behind him to pull two small plywood squares out of the top of his left saddlebag. He threw one of the squares to me. I caught it and looked at him with my eyebrows raised. He laughed and dropped his square on the ground just behind his kickstand. He positioned his bike so the kickstand rested on the square. Then I got it. The plywood square kept the kickstand from sinking into the ground and the bike from falling over. I did the same with my plywood square and soon we were making coffee over the small campfire we’d built. We’d taken the water from a stream that ran through the aspen grove.
It was early evening now with the sun going down. Where we were camped we couldn’t really see the actual sunset because of the mountains around us, but it grew darker and cooler.
I pulled a can of beans from my pack and opened it with an attachment on my pocketknife. We heated up the beans and when they were hot we ate them right from the can. Now, we were enjoying the warmth from the fire and sipping the strong, hot coffee. It was good to be alive, good to be enjoying the mountains without people around. Also, it was good to not have the constant threat of the Viet Cong all around. I relaxed, although at that time a part of me was always on alert for danger in those days. It was second nature.
Neither of us said anything as we sat watching the fire, seduced by the hypnotic effect of the flames. The shadows from the fire danced around us in the aspen grove. The temperature dropped, but we were comfortable.
Finally Savage spoke. “You did good back there at the bar. Thanks. You took out that third guy with style, so I didn’t have to. Nice.”
It took me a moment to respond. “Well, I hadn’t expected any trouble. It sort of took me by surprise.”
“Took you back there, to the Nam a little too, didn’t it?” Savage said.
I dropped my head to look at my knees. “Yeah, it wasn’t what I expected. I’ve been riding to try to put all of the shit behind me. The fight brought some of it back.”
“You gotta look at altercations like that as therapy,” said Savage.
“Yeah. I feel all of the shit you do too, but then having to deal with it in a fight sort of helps me put it into perspective.”
“I’m not sure I can do that,” I said. “At least not right now.”
“Yeah, I know. It took me a while, too. But I was forced into some weird shit down in New Mexico, not long after I got back to the world. My buddy down there and I had some trouble about six months ago. But in a strange way it helped. Not at first, but later.”
“How long did it take?” I asked.
“I can’t say for sure. It ‘s still changing, little by little. You know, a day at a time.”
We stared into the fire and watched it die down to embers, each thinking about our demons. Finally I stood to find some more wood. I came back with an armful and put some small sticks on the embers. As the fire caught I put on some of the larger branches.
We took our sleeping bags from the bikes and lay them down on our ponchos near the fire. Finally, we lay down on our bags and looked up at the clear, night sky, through the moving aspen leaves.
Savage had pulled a small leather bag from his saddlebags. He worked the drawstrings open and took out a small pack of cigarette papers. He pulled out one of the papers and from the bag sprinkled a bit of marijuana onto the paper. He rolled the joint and licked the narrow glue edge of the paper so it would stick. A small lighter was also in that leather bag and he used it to light the joint. He took a deep pull, held it in his lungs, and as he exhaled he passed the joint over to me.
“For medicinal purposes,” he said.
I took a hit, and almost immediately I felt the strange, initially unsettling, feeling of being high. After a moment, after I’d stopped coughing, I relaxed and realized how tight I’d been. We lay there without saying anything, passing the joint back and forth, until Savage cleared his throat.
“You know,” he said, “I hate malls.”
“Malls? Why?” I said, accepting the joint from Savage. His words seemed so incongruous considering where we were.
“Ah, man, malls have no individuality or character. They’re all the same. You know, bland and soulless. And that fucking Muzak, you know the background music they play in malls and elevators? I think that malls and Muzak might even cause chromosome damage. At the very least they suck the soul out of you,” he chuckled.
“I never thought of that,” I laughed. I was very stoned. “I’m still trying to get used to them now that I’m back. I don’t have much reason to go into malls. I guess I’ll look at them on a whole new level now. They sure aren’t like the stores I’d go into when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, things are changing pretty fast, and I’m not so sure I want to be part of what they’re changing into.”
I thought about that as we finished the joint. Finally, we took off our boots and climbed into our sleeping bags. The rustling of the aspen leaves soothed me to sleep.
Early in the morning I climbed out of my sleeping bag and put my boots on so I could get the fire started. I’d slept better that night than I had in a long time. We broke camp and rode up to Estes Park for breakfast. After the beans for dinner the night before, we were pretty hungry.
I rode with Savage for close to 9 months. When the weather turned cold we rode south down to New Mexico to spend time with his friend Billy Laughing Dog on the Reservation. Savage also introduced me to the guys who were the beginnings of his club, The Dog Soldiers. It was a small loosely organized group back then in the mid ‘70’s.
Finally, I had to go back to CSU and vet school. My self-therapy had worked and although I wasn’t a hundred percent, I was far better than I’d been when I first got back from Nam. I don’t think one ever gets over the horror of combat, and the things humans do to each other. But, you learn to handle it and the changes combat has made in you. Vet school helped me also—it was good to immerse myself in the study of veterinary medicine. It was challenging, and I love animals. I guess it was a way to do something positive. It was another kind of healing for me.
I’ve stayed in contact with Savage all these years, even after I moved up to Steamboat to practice veterinary medicine. Every year we’d meet up and ride for a week, camping out along the way. When I’d get a new bike I’d ride down to the Front Range with it and I’d help Savage work his magic on it to make it my own. He’s an excellent mechanic. He understands motorcycles on a whole different level from most mechanics. They’re like a living thing to him. Where I’d work on animals, he’d work on motorcycles in a similar way to bring them to their full potential.