As Jim McDonell lay asleep Sunday morning, fighting for his life against the insidious cancer eating at his bones, he was awakened by the belching roar of more than 100 Harley-Davidsons rumbling past his El Rio home.
"It was the sweetest sound," said McDonell, a 56-year-old asphalt contractor. "I couldn't have asked for much more."
It's not the way the Kiwanis Club would have done it. It's not what the Lions or the Rotary Club would have done, either. But for this area's biker community, Sunday's benefit ride along the back roads of Ventura County was the best way they knew to salute a brother who was down.
McDonell is a former officer for the local chapter of ABATE, the motorcycle club that sponsored the circuitous 30-mile "Poker Run" from a Montalvo motorcycle shop past McDonell's house and finally to an Oxnard tavern.
5 Stops Each
Along the way, each participant, who paid $10 for the honor to ride, made five stops at designated points, where a playing card was selected. The best poker hands won prizes ranging from a case of oil to a professional massage donated for the event.
In the process, nearly $1,900 was raised to help McDonell with his mounting medical bills, a videotape of the party was filmed by his physician, and enough devotion and beer flowed that day at the Buckhorn Saloon II to buoy just about anyone's spirits.
"He's like a father, brother and best friend to everybody," said a 27-year-old woman who calls herself "Miss Becky," a live-in friend to McDonell, whom she calls her "Sugar Daddy." "He's as good as they come."
McDonell, known to others as "The Hook," "Spunky," "The Old Man Down the Road" or simply "Old McDonald," arrived at the bar in a wheelchair, gray-bearded and hollow-eyed.
He wore a black T-shirt and a black cap, both bearing the logo of ABATE--American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education--the highly political motorcycle club best known for its opposition to mandatory helmet laws. A black leather jacket was folded over his lap, where he wore a belt buckle calling for "Faster Horses, Older Whiskey, Younger Women, More Money."
But his eyes twinkled and his pale face creased into a smile when a procession of burly, leather-chapped bikers threw their arms around him and gave him kisses.
"This makes it all worthwhile," said McDonell, a father of three, who since the fall has been too ill to start up his Harley-Davidson low-rider. "You don't realize the friends you have until you're down."
On the surface, at least, McDonell's friends didn't look the part of warm-hearted do-gooders. Bushy beards, beer bellies, bandannas and tattoos seemed to be the rule.
Show of Affection
But the outpouring of affection from these ABATE members, who also do regular benefits for Vietnam veterans and collect toys for underprivileged children, rivaled that of even the most devout Samaritans.
"After years of getting beaten down because people look at you as a long-haired son-of-a-bitch on a motorcycle, the only thing you really got left is your bike and these people," said Jeff Skoog, 42, a smog mechanic who rode his Harley on Sunday.
The party lasted nearly 12 hours, with a band playing country/rock tunes, chicken barbecued on an outdoor grill and more donated prizes raffled off, including a satellite TV dish, a water bed and a $350 stained-glass replica of the Harley-Davidson logo.
But McDonell grew tired and had to return home early, a shadow of the man who a year ago would have been the first to go until dawn.
"It would be hard to get along in the world without people like this," he said. "It makes you think you got a reason for being alive."