The rough-neck Boozefighters show their softer side.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Saturday night sock hop doesn’t seem like the place one would normally find a hard-nosed motocycle club. But Marina’s Boozefighters are not your normal motorcycle club. Many of these guys are war veterans who share a rebel streak and fierce loyalty. If pushed, says Marina’s Boozefighters Chapter 5 vice president Jeff Campbell, “We will put you in check.” They would just rather not. They’d prefer to keep that happy look beaming from the face of the girl they rode miles to support – the girl at the center of the sock-hop benefit, 12-year-old Sadie Tonacao, who is stricken with a particularly vicious and rare case of “valley fever,” a fungal infection that led to meningitis, brain stem damage and near paralysis.
When the Boozefighters first rallied locally, the circumstances were dramatically different – their legendary leader “Wino Willie” Forkner supposedly drank whiskey from a douche and so many rowdy bikers ran afoul of the law that the local jails passed capacity. It was 1947, one year after former WWII airplane gunner Forkner made the Boozefighters an official club with actual by-laws. He had gotten himself kicked out of the 13 Rebels for being too rowdy, and named his group for their penchant for drinking and fighting.
The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Gypsy Run Fourth of July bike rally drew more bikers – 4,000 by some estimates – than the rural town of Hollister could handle. Bike clubs like the Pissed Off Bastards joined the Boozefighters on the main drag, San Benito Street. They chucked the AMA rules, pulling donuts, drag racing, drinking copious beer, and riding into bars and restaurants.
“Old-timers who were there don’t think it was a big deal,” says Campbell. “I’ve ridden my bike through many bars. But it shocked people then. The local authorities – there were seven of them – called the highway patrol and state police for back-up.”
“Some people call us an outlaw club, but we’re not,” says Czec “Coach” Panek. He’s the president of the Marina Boozefighters Chapter 5. “The media used the word ‘terrorizing’ for what happened in 1947. There was some drinking and partying going on, but the town kind of enjoyed it.”
Accounts of that seminal event vary, taking on the dimensions of myth, but a legacy has grown from “Hollister ’47”: It has come to be considered the birthplace of the American biker; the town has hosted sanctioned anniversaries; and Johnny’s Bar and Grill on the main drag has become hallowed ground for the Boozefighters – a shrine to Wino Willie Forkner sits on the wall near the door, with his ashes in a small urn. (He died in 1997, on his bike, as he rode to the 50th anniversary of “Hollister ’47”). On an alley wall outside the bar, Forkner is memorialized in a new mural where he is pictured opposite Marlon Brando, who starred in 1953’s The Wild One, a movie based on the events in ‘47.
Time has changed the Boozefighters, but not completely. The organization is bigger now, with chapters across the nation and in countries like Japan and France. Most members are family men.
“But we want to keep that wild streak,” says Campbell. “We’re outlaws. Not in the lawbreaking sense, but we get in trouble, we do stupid things, and we piss people off, which is too bad. It’s good old American fun.”
At Sadie’s Sock Hop, the Boozefighters are the most prevalent group of bikers among many, including the Road Saints of Salinas Valley and the Ghost Mountain Riders of Sacramento.
Inside of the Legion Hall about 150 bikers, friends, family and well-wishers socialize with unreserved cheer. Women in ‘50s attire staff a buffet, doling out generous portions of chicken, pasta and salad that the jolly and burly Panek cooked the night before while members of the Boozefighters and their sister group, the Boozettes, hung crepe paper.
Later in the evening, Sadie and her mom, Hilari Tonacao, are presented with an oversized check for $5,000 that represents the money raised by the night’s party combined with donations from other Boozefighters chapters and bike clubs. It will go toward hospital bills for Sadie, who is confined to a wheelchair and hooked up to a respirator and feeding tube. Though brain stem damage hampers her movements, her face is bright with joy.
“This happened because you showed up,” Tonacao says to the audience. “God is involved because Sadie’s changed our lives. Thank you for celebrating her survival.”
The Boozefighters’ next charity event, a Toys for Tots bike run, takes place in December, when they’ll ride side by side with the Hell’s Angels.
DONATIONS TO SADIE CAN BE MADE AT SADIESAYSLOVEOUTLOUD.COM. JOHNNY’S BAR AND GRILL, AT 526 SAN BENITO ST. IN HOLLISTER, IS OPEN 9AM-CLOSE/MON-WED; UNTIL 1:30AM/THU-SAT. 637-3683.