Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Labor Day Among the Huns

When I was younger, every Labor Day weekend, the Kansas ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments) threw a giant motorcycle party at Lake Perry, Kansas in the three interconnected campgrounds called Military Trails. It was a mini-Sturgis event. It grew in attendance and fame (infamy) and peaked during the years all-you-can-drink free beer was provided with the price of admission.

It was in the early 80's the first time I attended with my husband. After that I went about every year with my brother and his wife. I attended a few years strictly on behalf of my brother because his wife would not let him go.

It was a lot of fun to camp out in the midst of thousands of Harley Davidson motorcycles. My mother was convinced it was three days of Hell and debauchery attended only by outlaws and murderers - and me. She thought it was nothing but hordes of Huns and I should never go there. For the people who consumed alcohol continuously I believe it was hell. How much fun could it possibly be to be continuously drunk for days, especially in 100 degree weather? It was hell for the few people who were so drunk they fell off their motorcycles, or ran their motorcycles off the road, or rode their motorcycles into other objects. All things considered, the quantity of alcohol consumed factored by the number of motorcycle riding fools, accidents were statistically insignificant.

There was live music, and the bands hired were successively better each year until semi-famous bands were playing there. There were many vendors catering to the motorcycle crowd selling shirts, bandannas, leathers, funky jewelry, and food. Many people brought their dogs and some people brought their children. One year a woman had her baby strapped against her chest, riding behind a guy on a motorcycle. I tried to not judge the people who brought children to what most considered an adult event. Motorcycles are a way of life for some people, so bringing their children must have seemed natural for them. Everyone always seemed to look out for the few children, but with so much drinking and motorcycles coming and going 24 hours a day, it was truly no place for children.

The best things about the ABATE Labor Day extravaganza were people-watching and motorcycle admiration. No two motorcycles were ever exactly alike. There are men in this world who are consummate artists when customizing Harley machinery, so each year was another chance to admire very beautiful and unusual motorcycles. Various bike judging contests were held. I entered my motorcycle in a judged event one time, but removed it at the last minute out of sheer embarrassment. The frame had been altered which put it in a class with some of those fantastically customized works of art. It looked pathetic lined up with those genuinely customized bikes, so before the judges got to Ol' Blue, I tried to quietly roll her away. She did not deserve to be so harshly judged.

My mother was somewhat correct regarding debauchery but I never witnessed any raping, pillaging, or plundering. I never heard of anything horrible. There is a certain element in every sub-culture that lives by an entirely different set of social and moral standards, and the motorcycle world certainly contains a share of that element. It seems to me those people simply want to be allowed to live their lives as best suits them - like every human being on the planet. I never had anything stolen from my campsite. I never got beat up or threatened and I was never afraid.

As the alcohol consumption increased, partial nudity increased. There were a lot of breasts displayed throughout the entire weekend every year. The wet t shirt contest was a t shirt contest in name only. I do not understand the need of some people to take off their clothes in large crowds. I have seen it at rock concerts, and hear the same thing happens at NASCAR events. Alcohol consumption surely contributes to such behavior. To me, it is one of the funniest things people do. Women look ridiculous displaying their breasts as if they are the crown jewels of Europe, and men all have the same vacuous look on their faces. They are breasts, people! Not weapons of mass destruction.

Given enough time and alcohol, a few men would eventually strip down and ride their motorcycles through all three campgrounds. Memorably, two old guys riding double on a Honda took the unofficial nudity prize. It took them two entire days to get stripped down all the way to their boots. They started out cruising through the camps without their shirts, then without their jeans. By the second day they were riding past wearing only their brown laced up work boots. We cheered them on each time they rode by. We practically fell out of our lawn chairs laughing at those two old geezers. Perhaps in their minds, they were beautiful and graceful- centaurs - Greek gods. They were just two old drunk fools in boots. Of all the fundamental mismatches under the stars - oil and water - drinking and driving - human nakedness and the red hot metal of motorcycles is probably the least happy choice.

Alcohol and too much partying can ruin the best laid plans of anyone. At the start of one Labor Day ABATE party, hand written signs posted everywhere invited one and all to Bear and The Ol' Lady's wedding at the grandstand Sunday at noon. The Ol' Lady apparently drank far too much and Bear was tempted by too many wet t shirts or something. The wedding was tragically called off when The Ol' Lady took a knife to Bear sometime in the crazy early morning hours of their official wedding day. We heard Bear survived the attack and both ended up in jail. I do not know that any of it is true. Imagine rumors going through several thousand drunk people who can hardly hear over hundreds of Harley engines. But, there was no wedding at the grand stand on Sunday. Only a few people actually know why. The rest is rumor.

One year we camped by a group of guys from southeastern Kansas. The youngest man in their group was fair skinned and red haired. He was wearing a pair of black suspenders with the words "Harley Davidson" in orange letters down each strap, front and back. As he partied over the weekend, and came and went from the camp, he continually cinched those suspenders tighter and tighter for some reason. By Sunday morning those suspenders read: "Hrly Dvsn" and his pants were about four inches above his ankles. He was sunburned to a blistering bright red. He had also passed out in the night somewhere and his arm had been run over. The tire marks were still visible. Whenever that guy finally sobered up, he probably wished he had gone to Hell where he surely would have felt better.

After several years, it was not fun to go any more. Fewer people came each year. I had seen the same drunken behavior enough times that it was not entertaining but rather depressing and sad. The ABATE reservation of the camp grounds expired and the whole event was moved to another place. Sometime in the early 90's was the last time I went. I had to go alone that year and though I knew a ton of people, it felt lonely to me and not worth packing so much stuff on my bike, or the money, or the time. It was fun while it lasted. You could say it was a hell of a party.

PS - By far, the majority of people who attended each year were well behaved, sober and well adjusted members of society. The entertainment was provided by the 5% who were not well-behaved, the 10% not sober, and the .01% who were not well-adjusted.

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