Growing up around motorcycles can teach you a thing or two about life.
Our father was a motorcycle cop in the San Antonio Police Department when my mother checked me out of my third grade class on November 21, 1963.
The night before, Dad had taken us to see “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” at the Trail Drive in Theater on S.W. Military Drive. Today, we were going back to Military Drive towards Kelly and Lackland Air Force Bases.
“We’re going to see Daddy and the President,” she announced. “He’s escorting him today.”
While we drove to the corner of Military Drive and Zarzamora, President Kennedy was dedicating the new Aerospace Health Center at Brooks AFB. It would be his final official act.
For three years JFK spoke about a New Frontier. Addressing Governor John Connally, senators, congressional leaders and others, he emphasized “This is not a partisan term, and it is not the exclusive property of Republicans or Democrats. It refers, instead, to this Nation’s place in history, to the fact that we do stand on the edge of a great new era, filled with both crisis and opportunity, an era to be characterized by achievement and by challenge.”
“It is an era which calls for action and for the best efforts of all those who would test the unknown and the uncertain in every phase of human endeavor,” he said. “It is a time for pathfinders and pioneers.”
Although honored to see President Kennedy (his hair was more red than I imagined from photos) and First Lady Jacqueline (white dress, matching hat and red roses), I was more excited about Dad waving to me from his motorcycle next to them in the motorcade.
That afternoon, I reflected on seeing JFK while watching my favorite television show, “Supercar.”
This episode was entitled “Mitch For Space,” appropriately titled to support Kennedy’s space program. The shows protagonist was launched into the stratosphere in a space capsule like the Mercury rockets from NASA.
The next day, Gillette Elementary Principal Willis Raines announced on the public address speakers Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
My father had a shop during my teenage years at his car lot and later on our property on the Southside of San Antonio is the 1970s. But in the 60s it was common for our family to all ride on Dad’s ’59 Royal Enfield Indian cycle.
Sister Bobbi would set just behind the handlebars in front of him. Mom followed, with me bringing up the rear.
Dad looked forward to trailoring motorcycles to the Daytona 200 in Florida with other policemen, including Leroy Ferry and Doyle Soden. He enjoyed being on the pit crew for Ferry who raced several times in the late 1960s-early 70s. Founded in 1937, the 200 mile race was on the beach until 1961, when it moved to a paved closed circuit.
Being an Indian man, Dad was particularly proud when it was announced in 1967 that 68-year old Burt Munro made motorcycle history by setting a new official land speed record of 184.087 mph (with unofficial top speed of 205.67 mph) when he raced his heavily modified 1920 Indian Scout Streamliner across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
He loved motorcycles so much that he and Soden hired a mechanic and opened up for repairs at their used car lot in 1969. Later, Dad built a larger 30′ × 60′ shop at our property on Petaluma.
It was common to see policemen, some stopping by in their patrol cars or motorcycles, alongside bikers sharing technical or philosophical wisdom in the shop. Their shared passion was a uniting force.
“I like my women like my Harleys,” one old timer, Leon, who looked like who should be a ZZ Top member before the band discovered beards, once grinned “About 20 years old with lots of problems.”
Mechanic extraordinaire and electrician Archie Maybry, was full of one-liners:
“Sometimes it takes a winding, crooked road to get your head straight.”
“I can tell the difference between people who come in here just toying around as a hobby. The hobby cats buy a new motorcycle and pretend. Real passion are those that are dovoted to keeping their old rides running.”
Dad took us to the Trail Drive In Theater almost every Wednesday, because police officers were discounted. We were always there to see every Elvis Presley movie. One of our favorites was Roustabout in 1964. Elvis played a motorcyclist who joined a circus.
In 1972, Dad was part of the protection and motorcycle escort team for Elvis from the San Antonio International Airport to the Hilton Palacio Del Rio for his April concert at the Hemisfair Arena. He also did the same at Presley’s August 1976 concert.
One of the most iconic motorcycles to ever appear on the silver screen, was the 650cc Triump R6R (disguised as a BMW 75) that Steve McQueen road in The Great Escape, one of Dad’s favorites.
By the Spring of 1972, Dad was a Detective-Investigator and had a special assignment he would always cherish: providing security for Steve McQueen during the making of The Getaway. Some of it was filmed at the old Sunset Train Station and the River Walk.
“By the time they finished filming in Huntsville (at the Penitentiary), he had already made his moves on Ali McGraw…and she fell for him big time–hook, line and sinker,” Dad said. “Well, she was married to a movie big shot, Robert Evans and it was important to him that we keep people away because they were at it hot and heavy.”
“Evans hired a private investigator and even flew to Texas himself because he knew something was wrong,” he continued. “But he (McQueen) didn’t give a flip about it.”
In San Antonio, McQueen and McGraw stayed at the Holiday Inn on Durango Street near IH-35. The actor had one of his many motorcycles brought in so he could “ride it around and around the basement” of the hotel.
“I guess he was trying to work off some steam,” Dad said. It was apparent they both had motorcycles in common. After his shift one night, he had a couple of beers with McQueen.
“There is no doubt he was smitten by Ali McGraw,” Dad revealed. “He told me they were originally going to sign on Cybil Sheppard, and then Stella Stevens. There was a lot of problems between studios, producers, directors until finally everything was in place. He was real happy they hired her (McGraw).”
“There was an actor who played in The Godfather (Al Lettieri), that you could tell he wasn’t getting along with either.”
“One night we took them to a small party nearby downtown,” he said. “He was drinking pretty heavily and I thought they (McQueen and McGraw) were going to get into a fight. Right in front of her he started coming on to these two women–they were good looking women.”
“She didn’t say a thing. I could tell she didn’t like it one bit, but he kept on. It was obvious he was making a play for them. We finally took them back to the hotel. They had rooms upstairs next to each other, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t see those two women come into that hotel and go right on up to his room.”
“I heard later after they were gone the next morning, he had Ali come over and cook him some breakfast.”
“He needed to ride that motorcycle,” Dad noticed. “She had her young son, a toddler with her and I guess this was his escape. He was riding and drinking down there to stay out of trouble and work off tension. Yes, he was in love big time and later they married.”
Director Sam Peckinpah later talked about an incident on the first day of rehearsal in San Marcos: “Steve and I had been discussing some point on which we disagreed, so he picked up this bottle of champagne and threw it at me. I saw it coming and ducked. And Steve just laughed.”
Dad said they also talked about guns and he shared a couple of true police stories with him.
“He asked about robberies, guns, and how we approached and handled robbers and shootouts,” Dad recalled.
Packinpah talked about McQueen’s knack with props, especially the weapons he used in the film.
“You can see Steve’s military training in his films,” the director remembered. “He was so brisk and confident in the way he handled the guns.”
It was McQueen’s idea to have his character, “Doc McCoy” shoot and blow up a squad car in the scene where he holds two police officers at gunpoint.
His love for motorcycles and racing spawned two notable quotes from McQueen:
“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.” And the one with McQueen’s picture with his motorcycle in The Great Escape. hanging up next to Dad’s tool room door: “I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”
Other words of wisdom seen or heard over the years included:
“Got a $5 head? Get a $5 helmet.”
“Life might begin at 30, but it doesn’t get real interesting until you reach over 100 on the highway.”
“I believe in treating others with respect, but first you have to get their attention.”
Dad sat on a motorcycle his last time on a trip my sons Jack, Brady and I took to Dallas-Fort Worth from San Antonio on an Amtrak train the summer of 2012. At a wax museum in Arlington, there was a Harley-Davidson set up in the lobby-retail area. He couldn’t resist! It’s a smile I’ll always remember.
Walter “Corky” Dennis died the following December.
Rest In Peace Daddy.