Who’s tough enough to mess with Hell’s Angels?


HE CAME DOWN from the timberlands when the morning was young, and the sun was still trying to climb the far side of the mountains. He was wise beyond his years, and his age had left a rawhide face etched with wrinkles. His hair, visible around the edges of a gimme cap, was white, and he walked with a slight shuffle. He was there at the Country Café every morning. Coffee. Black. Thick. In a mug, never a cup. He sometimes brought his own. His eggs had more yellow than white, and his bacon had only been singed on one side. He sat at a back table, as he always did, and described once and for all, forever erasing all doubts, the differences between a café and a restaurant.

“Cafes ain’t got no tablecloths,” he said. “Cafes got pickup trucks out front.”

“How can you tell a good place to eat from a bad one?” I asked.

“By the number of pickup trucks out front,” he answered. The older gentleman scratched his whiskered chin, then said, “If a place has got only one pickup truck out front, you know the food’s not any good. And if it has twelve or fifteen pickup trucks out front, you know you’re not gonna find nothing’ inside but a lot of loud talking, loud jukebox music, and hard drinking.”

He grinned. He shrugged. He concluded, “Personally, I prefer a three pickup place.”

In a three pickup place, which is obviously too large for a one-horse town, you can always bet on finding a chief magistrate, who doubles as fry cook, distiller and dispenser of hot coffee, bottle washer, and semi-professional arbitrator, who holds court, either starting arguments or settling them, working from “can till can’t,” he says, and sometimes even later.

Sometimes the magistrates have white hair, and sometimes they have no hair at all. They may be male or female but hardly ever a transplant from someplace else. They can be young or old, pleasingly plump or as thin as a rail, stooped or gun barrel straight, and they have the propensity to sell the sizzle even when they’re out of steak.

The eggs are cracked and crackling by the time the sun finally pulls itself atop the mountains, and every day is a good day, except Sunday, which is the Sabbath and the best day of all. It is a day when the Good Lord takes a break and rests. The fry cook hasn’t been able to rest since the last time he was fired, which was the last time he forgot to come to work on Sunday.

Propped up on bar stools or huddled elbow-to-elbow around tables without any starched linen, cotton, or plastic tablecloths are genuine, card-carrying members of the hunkering and hankering society, the hard-core sweaters of the community.

They sweat about the weather.

“It’s been so doggone hot that I saw a dog chasing a rabbit,” one says, “and both of them was walking.”

“That’s nothing,” says another. “Back when I was a kid, it got so hot one summer than the catfish were wearing flea collars.”

“I can remember the year when we only got twelve inches of rain,” someone says.

“That’s not much.”

“No. But you should have been there the day it all fell.”

They sweat about the crops.

They sweat about the price of hogs.

They sweat about the price of coffee.

They sweat about religion.

Anytime you journey into the conscience of small town America, you will find some First Baptist Church standing guard over the heart, soul, and sins of those who walk the back alleys of a Saturday night. The sweaters are talking about the church with a big neon sign out front, flashing in green, blue, red, and yellow neon: If you’re tired of sin, come on in.

And some lonely lady in town had written underneath in passionate red lipstick, “And if you’re not, call 685-4396.”

They sweat about love. They sweat about love gone sour.

“Cobb’s wife left him,” one says.

“Hasn’t lost anything.”

“He thinks he has.”

The sweater shrugs and says,” If she were mine, I’d trade her for a flea-bitten old hound dog, then shoot the dog.”

They sweat about the hard times when, one tells me, the kids in town all thought that half-price and marked-down were brand names.

They sweat about the odd crosswinds of politics.

“I hear old Dawson is running for the state legislature,” says one.

“He’s trying awful hard to get himself elected.”

“He’s got what it takes to be a politician.”

“What’s that?”

“He’s like a blister. He never shows up till the work’s all done.”

They sweat the ravages of crime.

But not much.

I was eating breakfast in the Country Café with the law in Helen early one morning, and, between salty bites of smoked ham, the Sheriff told me about that fateful Sunday in July when a band of Hell’s Angels came roaring into  the little Alpine town.

“I could tell by looking at them that they didn’t belong here,” he said. “They had beards that hadn’t never seen a pair of scissors, and they had metal studs in their leather jackets. They had tattoos in places where I don’t have places, and they was wearing more grease in their hair than I got in my patrol car, and every one of them was looking like he’d been sucking on a loco weed.”

“What’d you do?”

“Me and my partner just wandered on down to where they were parking their motorcycles and run them out of town.” He paused and stared down for a moment at an egg that had been scrambled, chopped, chased around the skillet at least twice with hog lard, and fried. Then he continued, “But they didn’t like leaving one bit. That lead dog of theirs turned around and shook his big old fist at me and said, ‘Tonight, me and the boys are coming back here, and we’re gonna destroy your little old town.’”

“That’s a pretty mean biker group,” I stuttered. “What’d you do? Call the state troopers? The National Guard?”

“Didn’t have to,” the officer answered matter-of-factly. “We just passed the word around about what those old boys was aiming on doing, and by nightfall, we had about a hundred and fifty of these old mountain boys in town with their squirrel guns.”

He paused again, and a slow grin plowed its way between his wind-chapped lips. “Hell’s Angles never did come back to Helen, Georgia,” he said, “and that’s a shame. Because if those boys had rolled back into town, we’d have had us a helluva motorcycle sale come Monday morning.”

His laughter was gentle. His eyes weren’t.

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