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For bikers: the good, the bad and the ugly

I wrote about some of this years ago, but a recent piece of information I came across makes it time for an update.

Back in the dark ages, when I was younger, hairier and scarier looking, I was frequently mistaken for a biker.

I did some writing about bikers, generally liked them and visited some of their haunts, my favorite being Scooter Haven near Inglis. There, among other points of interest, was a landbound boat containing the cremated remains of more than a dozen bikers.

I attended a great event at a New Port Richey tattoo parlor, where hundreds of bikers showed up to fill a school bus with baby food, disposable diapers and pet food to be taken to Miami after Hurricane Andrew (got a tattoo there, too).

When I worked in Illinois, I met a doppleganger, the head of a local motorcycle gang, who looked so much like me that I once convinced his girlfriend, for a few minutes, that I was him.

I still run into people who swear they were on a poker run with me back in the day or met me at an ABATE party. (ABATE is a loosely connected series of organizations that never could quite get together on what the acronym stood for. Some said American Bikers Aiming Toward Education. Some said American Bikers Against Totalitarian Enactments. Some substituted Tyrannical for Totalitarian.)

Basically, they were against helmet laws and in favor of educating the public about the type of alertness that can make it safer for motorcyclists to ride on streets and highways.

There are some aspects of biker culture that I don't care for, including an occasional tendency in some quarters toward racism and homophobia and, again, only in some quarters, adoption of Nazi regalia — sometimes for shock value and sometimes for meanings I suspect are a little darker.

But, basically, bikers come in all shapes and sizes, from gang members to dentists and accountants who spend thousands of dollars on their bikes and thousands of dollars on leather gear that they wear only on the odd weekend.

One biker friend of mine is a Democrat, a liberal and a politician. We see each other at gatherings of Dade City's liberal population — which is to say when the four or five of us get together for coffee.

My friend Dr. Mark "Tiger" Edmonds is a tough-looking bearded biker with a long (and ever-grayer) hair braid that flies in the breeze when he rides his bike around town and across the continent gathering material for a series of books of prose and poetry that I think has done for motorcycling what Robert Service did for cheechakos and Louis Lamour did for cowboys. Edmonds is a retired literature professor who taught for decades at St. Leo University.

The irony about all of this real and inferred connection between me and motorcycles and the people who ride them is that I don't ride.

I don't ride because I am terrified of them.

Not counting a few unwilling rides I took on the handlebars of my stepfather's bike when he was a motorcycle cop for the Dade County Sheriff's Department and I was too young and too slow to escape, I have only ridden a powered two-wheel vehicle once in my life. It was in 1960 and it was a Vespa motor scooter that belonged to Jonathan Demme, now a famous movie director (Silence of the Lambs), who lent it to me to ride to a party in South Miami. I rode it about a mile, came to a dead end, couldn't find the brake and piled it into a grove of pine trees. The scooter and I were both dented up pretty badly, as was my relationship with Demme, who, I think, finally forgave me. We don't exactly move in the same circles these days.

That moment of airborne terror hurtling through the trees convinced me that I was done with things that had motors and fewer than four wheels. I went on the become a U.S. Marine, a SCUBA diver, a parachutist, a student sailplane pilot and some other macho stuff, but no motorcycles.

That uneasy feeling they gave me intensified about 10 years later when I worked in a hospital emergency room near a large state park in Illinois, and spent quite a few Sundays scrubbing gravel out of the faces and backs of hapless riders.

When the helmet law debate raged in Florida for years before the law was finally repealed in 2008, I was of two minds. I found the safety aspects of helmets to be undeniable. But the arguments of people who knew a lot more about the situation than I did and who said that reduced visibility and hearing in helmets created as much danger as the helmets themselves alleviated, deserved attention.

And the greater question of individual freedom to do dangerous things, like jumping out of airplanes, wielding a metal golf club during thunderstorms or being dumb enough to answer the "does this dress make me look fat?" question goes right to issue of freedom in a democratic republic. I was glad to see people who wanted to doff their helmets get the right to do so. I remain glad to see people I care about still choose to wear them.

But the point to which I have labored with my usual wordiness is this:

Someone close to me was recently being considered as a candidate for an organ transplant and asked about the availability of a transplant in time to help.

He was assured that availability wouldn't be a problem.

Why?

"Because you live in Florida."

Organ donations are up over the last eight years in Florida, and death from motorcycle accidents is up 10 percent.

Why?

No helmet laws.

I checked. It's true.

To borrow a tag line from my Times colleague Tampa columnist Ernest Hooper:

That's all I'm saying.

For bikers: the good, the bad and the ugly 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 12:24pm]

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