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The Day That Kicked Bikers' Wild Image Into High Gear

Memories: Founders of Boozefighters recall weekend they descended on a small town and ascended into legend.

May 02, 1996|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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