Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass
by Cliff Gallant
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 2 will appear next month.
As I walked out of the Portland Public Library on a warm spring day in 2012, I saw him in Monument Square, craning his neck over the heads of passersby, looking for someone.
Jake Sawyer was on the hunt.
Most people my age who grew up around here would have the same reaction I did to the sight of Jake Sawyer on the prowl: a twinge of gut-tightening, animal panic. Of the many legends based on Jake’s life, the most commonly repeated ones concern his days with the Hell’s Angels in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Jake was a Nomad, rumored to be the most violent and lawless chapter of the most violent and lawless motorcycle gang in the land. And among the Nomads, Jake, a dedicated weightlifter since his teens, was the “enforcer.” His nickname in the club was Bonecrusher.
I was often at the library researching the people and places of Portland’s past for a column I had in one of the free papers around town. I’d once looked up Jake’s name while researching another topic, just to see if the legends were true, and there he was, Jonathan Sawyer, in the pages of California newspapers and True Detective magazine. The stories, now four decades old, described a “suicide charge” that Jake, then a candidate for admission to the club, led into the lair of a rival biker gang. Of the nine bullets fired in Jake’s direction, eight missed their target. The ninth grazed his scalp just deep enough to produce a dramatic trickle of blood, seen in one photograph running down the forehead of his movie-star-handsome face.
It could take over two years to earn full membership as a Hell’s Angel in those days. Jake was accepted in record time, just a few weeks. The Angels sent him a letter with the good news while he was in a county jail waiting to face assault charges for the raid on the rival clubhouse. Striding headlong into a hail of bullets will get your application to the top of the pile, apparently.
That county jail was probably one of the nicer places Jake spent time in back then. Subsequent convictions led to stints in Folsom, San Quentin, and the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. These were the details in my mind as I watched Jake cross the square, wondering who he was looking for. Then his eyes met mine and a sharp nod of his head communicated that the object of his search was none other than yours truly.
Jake jaywalked across Congress Street and planted his heavy black boots directly in front of my feet, which his nod had effectively frozen. He was wearing a green tricorne hat with a long feather sticking out of it. His hair was dyed blue on one side, canary yellow on the other. He looked like a punk-rock Paul Revere.
“Oh, hi, Jake,” I said, smiling pleasantly. “How ya doin’?”
The knot in my stomach was a problem. In addition to snitches and anyone foolhardy enough to attack a Hell’s Angel, members of the club are said to especially hate “tinkerbells” or “flip-outs” — males who are visibly fearful in their presence. I recalled an anecdote in Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, in which a Berkeley student at an Angels party got too nervous around them. After threatening to set the student on fire, and then looping a rope around the kid’s ankles in preparation to drag him through the streets behind a motorcycle, they settled on hanging him by his arm from a rafter for about half an hour.
I’d later learn that when several Angels famously gave Thompson a beat-down for an impolitic remark, Jake was there, tending the clubhouse bar. Now Bonecrusher was looming over me, scanning the lines of my face for telltale twitches.
“I want my life story written and you’re a writer,” he finally said. “I’ve read your column in the paper and I’ve seen your picture, so I know who you are.”
Oh no, I thought, here we go again. Since I’d started writing the column, numerous people had approached me to pitch their life story. “It’ll be a best-seller!” they’d all say. “And they’ll make it into a movie too! No question. We’ll split the profits all the way, 50-50!”
“I’ve got a friggin’ lifetime of stories piled up and I’ve got to unload them,” Jake said. “I’m tired of hearing bullshit stories about me and I want to set things straight. I’ve always been too busy ramming around to even think of where I’ve been and what I’ve done, or why the hell I did it, but if I don’t get it out now my whole life will go down as a garbled up mess, and I don’t want that.
“I’ve been a pirate and a madman, but I’ve also been a thinker, and maybe even done some good for people here and there,” he went on. “At least I hope so.” Jake spread his arms wide and swiveled around to face people walking by, as if he were addressing an arena full of admirers, daring them not to notice him.
“I’ve got no idea how it all balances out, though. Maybe seeing it all together in a book will answer that question. Maybe it doesn’t even have to balance out or make any sense. Who knows? That’s a helluva question itself. Some love me, some hate me, but nobody knows the whole story, and maybe they should if they care so friggin’ much.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said nonchalantly, the way an old buddy would agree with his pal.
“All I know is that the true story has to be told and it better get done pretty soon. I’ve never been concerned with getting old, because I never thought I’d get there, but fuck it, I’m friggin’ 74 years old now, so there you go. I don’t feel much different than I ever did, but everybody kicks off someday, and ol’ Jakey boy is no exception.”
Twirling around theatrically, he broke into a clownish grin and primped the canary yellow side of his hair, preening for a group of businessmen in suits and ties as they passed us on the bricks. “At least I don’t think I’m going to live forever,” he added. “Maybe I’m wrong, though. It wouldn’t be the first time I surprised the hell out of ’em!”
As if in answer to a question I hadn’t asked, but merely thought, he leaned in and whispered, “If I didn’t do anything to it, my damn hair would grow out gray, and who wants to see ol’ Jakey boy with gray hair?”
Two teenaged girls walked by, giggling at the sight of this flamboyant character. “You like it? You like it?” Jake called after them gaily, running his fingers through the hair on the light blue side.
“Yes,” the girls cooed back. “It’s soooo beautiful!” They laughed and blushed, charmed by a master. As they continued down the sidewalk, waving goodbye to him, Jake smiled broadly, savoring the moment. Then he snapped back to the subject at hand, even more animated than before.
“I’ve done some amazing things in my life, but they’re all just things I’ve done, they’re not who I am,” Jake said. “Who I am is a former member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, and I will carry that honor with me to my grave! Nothing I’ve ever done compares to being a member of the Hell’s Angels. Nothing!
“Sonny Barger” — the legendary co-founder of the Oakland chapter of the club — “is the messiah, and I was one of his disciples. He is the ultimate leader of men and I would follow him into a blast furnace! My Hell’s Angels brothers that I will always love will definitely, definitely be in the book. They will damn sure be in the book!”
He emphasized this as though I’d argued against the idea, which was about the last thing I would’ve done in that situation.
“I’ve seen more and experienced more than the average person can even dare imagine! They think I’m just some shit-for-brains punk from nowhere who started lifting weights and turned into a big fucking bully who’s always picking fights. No, man, that is not me! I come from a high-class family and I was an honor-roll student at a prestigious prep school. I’ve owned successful businesses. I’ve been a member of the Chamber of Commerce! I am also an honorably discharged veteran. I was a paratrooper in the United States Army. One of those crazy bastards who jump out of airplanes. I love America! And I am not a bully. I hate bullies! I look for bullies to beat up! All this other bullshit you hear about me is lies and we’ve got to get the truth out there!”
I knew Jake’s wild personality had a gentler, compassionate side. Many years ago I worked in a group home for mentally disabled adults, one of whom used to rave about his great friendship with Jake Sawyer. He looked up to Jake as one would admire a real-life superhero. Jake was often “away” for extended periods of time, and I never met him in those years, but whenever he returned to town he’d visit this client and watch wrestling matches on TV with the guy, or take him out for a day trip somewhere.
We both stood there for a few seconds in silence. I recalled one of Jake’s last infamous escapades, the time he stole a huge quantity of marijuana that had been seized by authorities and stored on the Coast Guard base in Portland Harbor. Word on the street was his accomplices blabbed to the cops, but Jake refused to rat anyone out. The feds nabbed him in short order, confiscated three apartment buildings he owned on Munjoy Hill, and sent Jake to prison for six more years.
Jake appeared to be collecting his thoughts for one final surge, but when he spoke again, he did so in a more measured tone, to make sure I understood.
“I know you probably think I’m a raving, self-obsessed lunatic, and I am, sort of, but I’m also deeply in love with my fellow human beings, and that’s my main reason for wanting this book to get written,” he told me. “I’ve never shrunk away from a thing in my whole life, and maybe my story will help someone or other do something they’re afraid of doing. I’m hoping they’ll learn something from the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve always lived my life with great passion and have loved every minute of it, even the bad times. No matter how painful it was, or hopeless things got, I’ve looked life straight in the eye and I’ve gone for the goody every fucking time — and it’s always worked out in the end. I came up smilin’ every time. Life is one grand feast! Let’s have at it!”
I was wavering, thinking of all the plans I had, plans that involved relating to normal people, doing healthy, worthwhile things with my time. Writing the life story of an ex-con Hell’s Angel wasn’t what I had in mind. Jake sensed my hesitation and, being an expert salesman (yes, he’s done that, too), he jiggled the lure dangling over the hook.
“Mister man, I’m going to tell you some things that are gonna knock your fucking socks off! I’m gonna lay it all out, the complete truth, from the beginning to right now. You’re going to get it right from the horse’s ass that lived it and you’re going to get it out there!”
“Yeah, OK, Jake,” I said at last. “A book, huh?”
He nodded, I nodded back, and with that the deal was sealed. We made an appointment to meet at his apartment, a few blocks away in Congress Square Plaza, a few days hence. But, naturally, Jake had a couple more things to say before we parted.
“You have to remember that I was there, and that I’ve got my own way of telling things. That’s just who I am,” he said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to let me run wild and get it out there right from my guts and straight from the heart. I’ve waited a long time for this and I damned sure want to get it right. For better or worse, it’s got to be good and true and honest and me all the way.”
“Yup, OK, Jake.”
“Now I’ve got something else to tell you,” he continued. “I decided not to get into it until I knew whether you had the balls to take on this project or not, but now here you go.”
Me. Jake Sawyer was talking about me — a guy with balls.
“When we get together to talk, the first thing I’m going to do is tell you something I’ve never told anyone in my whole life. I’m going to confess to something I did. It’s something I’ve been carrying with me forever, and if I don’t get it out it’s going to rot inside me and I won’t rest in peace when that great and glorious day comes and I get stuffed into the old pine box. I just wanted to let you know something was coming, just so you’ll know and won’t get too flipped out by it when it comes down.”
Damn, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Having agreed to write Jake’s book, I couldn’t back out now, but I was sure he was going to confess to some heinous crime, which would put me in the position of being either an accessory or a snitch, neither of which was a healthy option.
I watched Jake sashay down the sidewalk in his jaunty Colonial hat, then turned the other way, toward my apartment on Munjoy Hill. Though the encounter had shaken me, as I began walking home I noticed a new spring in my step, a glide in my stride, a feeling of strength and confidence I hadn’t had before.
I’m Jake Sawyer’s biographer, I realized. Nobody better mess with me now.
When I arrived for our first interview, I saw that his door was ajar. This brought to mind a remark I’d once heard that Jake likes to set traps for people. I imagined how this one would be sprung: Jake finds me loitering in the entryway to his apartment and beats the crap out of me, as a resident would be within his rights to do to an intruder. Or maybe this septuagenarian, who’s undoubtedly ingested more than his share of mind-altering substances, has already forgotten who I am, so he attacks the stranger lurking in his doorway.
I stood in the building’s hallway and tapped lightly on the door. Jake’s voice boomed back from inside: “Come in! Enter, sir! That’s why it’s open! I’m in the weight room! I’ll be right out!”
When I stepped inside, what struck me was how well-kept and sparkly clean everything was. No rubbish piled up anywhere, no dirty clothes or beer bottles strewn around, no drinking buddies passed out on the couch. Jake probably has a live-in girlfriend, I figured (incorrectly), who keeps the place tidy and throws his cronies out in the morning.
The walls of Jake’s bedroom, which doubles as the living room, are covered with blown-up black-and-white photographs from his Hell’s Angels days and his years behind bars. There’s a grainy group portrait of the weightlifting club at San Quentin (which Jake, its leader, dubbed The Regulators), and arms-around-shoulders shots of him with biker brothers, business leaders, and largely forgotten local celebrities. A life-size cardboard cutout of James Dean stands next to a wanted poster of Jesse James. A faded old American flag hangs over his neatly made single bed.
But the picture that immediately catches your eye and sets the tone of the room as you enter is a photo of Jake in his prime, wearing his Hell’s Angels regalia, straddling his Harley-Davidson and flashing the most confident and contented smile I’ve ever seen.
“How ya doin’?” Jake said in his manly command voice. I was startled to realize he was standing right behind me, and my stomach tightened again involuntarily. But he smelled good. Jake was as clean and sparkly as his apartment, and he looked stylish. His yellow and blue hair complemented the silky, chestnut brown, ruffled shirt he was wearing. When he noticed I was admiring the garment, he was delighted.
“I was wearing my tri-cornered Paul Revere Minuteman hat when last we met, and this article of clothing would be from that era as well,” he said. “They wore such things as this on special occasions, and that’s why I wore it today. You might be interested to know that my ancestors were very prominent in the Revolutionary War and were early settlers of this area. An ancestor of mine, by the name of Walter Norton, was the second settler of the town of York, Maine — the second, not the first — in the early 1630s. I don’t know the exact year, so I won’t name one.
“Another ancestor of mine ran the first ferry from Ferry Village, South Portland, across the Fore River to the Portland waterfront. I’m not sure of the year he was born — they didn’t keep good records — but I did find out he got his ferryman’s license in 1719, which was quite a few years before the present-day Casco Bay Bridge was built. Sawyer Street, in South Portland, was named for him. I have many ancestors who go back much further, to the days of the Viking heroes, in fact. I am a direct descendent of great warriors and conquering heroes, my friend, and I’ve documented every bit of it. But we will get to discussing that subject in depth on another day. Today is a day for something else. Take a seat!”
He directed me to one end of a small couch, where I sat as ordered, and he sat at the other end, nearest the exit. “Let’s get going with it!” he exclaimed. “How would you like to proceed, sir?”
“Well, Jake, usually these things start with people talking about their childhood, but I’m not sure you want to get into…”
“Yes! Of course!” he interjected. “That’s where it all starts, childhood! One of the very main, absolute center reasons for wanting to get this book written is that I want to make a confession about something I did. And if we don’t talk about my childhood, you’ll never understand why it happened and how it made me into the man I am today. I’ve never told anybody about it before. As much as I wanted to, I never did, but today I’m going to tell you!”
Here it comes, I thought, the confession of the gruesome crime, the location of the shallow grave…
“Let me tell you about my childhood by relating it to other parts of my life,” he began. “We’ll play a little forward-and-backwards kind of game. That picture up on the wall of me on my Harley 74 is a good place to start. It captures who I was then, who I am right now, and who I was as a kid. Not one fucking thing has changed about me.
“One of my earliest memories is straddling a vehicle and riding the hell out of it. I was six years old, it was 1944, and World War II was still going on. The vehicle in question didn’t run on petro, it ran on kid power. It was one of those extra special, very large, heavy-duty metal riding trucks that you make go by kicking your legs back. Man, I could make that thing go like hell and I absolutely loved the thrill of it. I couldn’t take it out on the street, of course, but I remember ramming around our yard like I was in a wild-ass demolition derby, bashing the hell out of imaginary cars and trucks all day long. I didn’t get off that thing until my legs were absolutely exhausted and I felt completely satisfied that I had destroyed everything I had come up against.
“I spent the next 20 years or so desperately looking for that feeling I got with that toy truck when I was six years old, but I didn’t find it until I rode with my Hell’s Angels brothers on a crowded California freeway, doing 90 miles an hour in traffic on that stripped-down, high-handled Harley-Davidson 74 motorcycle you see right up there on that wall. The incredible rushes I got from those dances with death bonded me with my brothers in the here and now, and for all eternity. When I found the Hell’s Angels, I found my true family, the one I had been intended to be with from the beginning, but for the moment we’ll talk about the family I was born into.
“Let me tell you about the old man and me first. I loved him, and I think he loved me, but we were exact opposites and had a piss-poor relationship. I was born a warrior and he was born a nice guy. He and his friends used to gather in our living room and I’d scare them by barreling that metal toy truck across the rug full speed, like I was going to ram it into their legs, but I’d stop just before I got to them and sit there on the truck laughing my little ass off. My father would kind of ask me to stop, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him. He was Mayor of South Portland for a while when I was a kid, and he was chairman of the Town Council for a lot of years too, but he didn’t have a lot to say about the running of his own house. He was a good man, though, in his own way. Kind and gentle, and very well meaning. Did a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s not his fault he ended up with an asshole for a son.
“One day I heard my father and his friends talking about Hitler and what a bad man he was, and I got the idea of defeating fucking Hitler all by myself. I became obsessed with it, and I was only six years old. My father’s friends were as confused as hell by my intensity. They just didn’t get me. Pussies like them never do. I’ve been experiencing it my whole life. Anyway, somehow I had heard that a way to defeat Hitler was by donating metal to the Salvation Army, so when one of their trucks came around the neighborhood I ran out and gave my truck to them. It made me happy as hell to think of them melting it down into a big bullet to shoot up Hitler’s ass. My father and his friends knew how much I loved that truck, and that I’d be willing to part with it like that worried them a lot. If I got mad at them like I was mad at friggin’ Adolph Hitler, who’s way over in friggin’ Germany, what the hell would I do to them in my own goddamn living room? And, you know, they were right to ask themselves that question, come to think of it!”
Jake laughed hard and slapped his knee. I laughed along with him, of course, but inside I was worried about that six-year-old kid, too.
“My mother was an entirely different story,” he continued. “I loved her with all my heart and I had deep respect for her. I still do today, even though she’s gone. She gave me inner-strength and self-discipline and I’ll always be grateful to her. Respect is something you earn, you don’t get it just for who you are, and she earned mine.
“This thing I want to get off my chest has to do with how my mother and I became friends — not just mother and son, but friends. I’ve never told anyone about it. Not my Hell’s Angels brothers, not any blood relatives, cell mates, friends, or any woman. No one. And now I’m going to tell you.”
I briefly wondered whether it was too late to leave. It was.
“To begin with, you have to know that I grew up as a little rich kid. My father ran a very successful family business that he had taken over from his father, and we lived in a very nice neighborhood. I knew that not everyone had what I had, though, and when I saw some teenage puke up the street taking his golf clubs out of the trunk of his daddy’s car, my instinct was to go over and shove a nine-iron up his happy little ass.
“I was never at ease with my family’s lifestyle, I never fit in, and my mother was never happy in her marriage, so we had something in common. She wanted more out of life than my father was capable of giving her. Even when I was a little kid I saw the disappointment in her eyes when she looked at him. I felt sorry for her and I always ached to do something about it.”
Here we go…
“She started drinking heavily, and watching her deteriorate was torture for me. It started when I was about 10 years old. At first she started getting a little tipsy before company arrived, so she could be the fun hostess, but then as time went on I’d come home and find her passed out on the floor. It was killing me.”
Ten years old. That would have been 1948. I began calculating statutes of limitation.
“The drinking wasn’t all that was going on, though. It feels shitty even saying it, but after a while I’d come home and find strange men in the living room drinking with my mother. It made me sick. My life became pure torture. I was friggin’ angry all the time. My father had to know what was going on with my mother, too. He just didn’t know what to do about it, I guess, and was hoping it would just go away by itself.
“The whole thing came to a head one day when I came home from school and was making a sandwich in the kitchen and listening to some guys in the living room, with my mother, telling raunchy jokes. They were having a high jolly ol’ good time. I was 14 and can hear it like it was happening right now. The whole scene filled me with such revulsion I could hardly stand it anymore.
“I had one of those short paring knives in my hand, and I remember very clearly how I stood there in the kitchen, rolling it over and over in my palm, listening to one of them telling a fucking disgusting joke. Then it happened. It was one of those things that you sort of just watch yourself do. You know what I mean? All of a sudden I found myself running like a madman into the living room with that knife held out in front of me like a friggin’ sword, yelling my head off for the guy telling the joke to get the fuck out of there before I cut his fucking head off! My mother screamed and the guy jumped up from the couch and spilled his drink, but there was no slowing me down. I was across the room and on that bastard before he knew what hit him.”
OK, that’s 1952, over 60 years ago. Wait — there’s no statute of limitation on murder.
“There were two other guys in the room, one on each side in easy chairs, and neither one of them moved a friggin’ bit. At first I went for the guy’s gut. I was going to lance him straight on, right through the fucking belly button, like I’d seen Zorro do, but he fell back on the couch just in time and I didn’t quite reach him. That didn’t slow me down, though. I figured I’d just lean in and slash at whatever part of him I could make contact with. He saw what my intent was, so he kind of rolled to the side and propelled himself off the couch and made a break for the door.
“That’s when I stabbed the bastard. Got him once in the thigh as he was getting up, and once right in the fucking ass when he had his back to me running for the door. That one went in real good. Oh, what a feeling! He yelped like hell and jumped about two feet in the air, holding onto his ass where the blood was spurting out. When he hit the floor he was yowling like a bastard, and he made it to the door some fucking quick. After he got out the door and was running across the lawn, holding onto his ass with blood running down his pant leg, I stood at the doorway and yelled: ‘If I ever see you here again I will definitely cut your fucking throat!’
“The other two guys had no interest in engaging with me or interfering in the proceedings in any way whatsoever. One of them scooted by me when I was standing at the front door, and the other one scampered out the back door. Needless to say, none of those guys, or anyone else, ever came back as word about the Sawyer boy spread. There was no official knowledge of the incident, though. My father was getting ready to run for mayor at the time, and nobody wanted a big scandal. The same situation arose years later when I was incarcerated in Sacramento State Prison. My father was running for something or other then, too, and he had it announced in the society section of the Maine Sunday Telegram that his son Jonathan was ‘vacationing in California.’
“We didn’t have any more trouble with unwanted afternoon male visitors after that little episode. My mother turned her life around big time, anyway. I guess it was the enormity of what happened. The big thing was that she knew she finally had a man in her life. Someone who loved her and knew how to take care of her. Someone she could respect. From then on, she just kind of ignored my father and got on with her own life. She got straight, became a very successful real estate agent, and was in the society pages all the time. Not as my father’s wife, but on her own.”
Jake looked over at me as I scribbled away, and smiled.
“You don’t know how good it feels to finally tell someone that story I just told you. The reason I’ve never told anybody about it before is because of my mother. She’s gone now, though, so it can’t hurt her. Stabbing that bastard and scaring those guys out of my house when I was 14 years old set me up fine and dandy for one helluva life. Sometimes when I got thrown in the hole for 30 days in some fuckin’ prison, I’d pace back and forth, going over and over every detail of that day, and it was like I was there again! I’d get that same fantastic feeling I got that day when I stabbed that bastard and drove those other fuckers out of my house. They had my body in those damn jails, but they didn’t have my mind!
“The significance of that stabbing in my life is that I learned that when something needs doing, I am the one responsible for doing it, and violence is my most effective means. I am a violent person, sir. But I am also a very responsible and conscientious person. No one ever got anything from me they didn’t deserve.”
I asked Jake how the rest of his teen years went.
“Oh, I managed to have a fairly normal adolescence,” he replied, “except for the fact that I always knew I was capable of stabbing someone if it came down to it. That kind of gave me some underlying confidence, so I did do a few things my friends might not have done, I guess.”
“When I was about 15, I went downtown to Grant’s department store to pick up a package for my mother, and when I went by the pet department, after I picked the package up, I saw all these cages filled with birds. I just couldn’t stand it. Imagine living your life in a little cage, I thought. You were meant to fly free wherever you wanted to go, you have wings, but you’re locked in a friggin’ cage.
“I had to do something about it, I just had to, so I went around and opened the doors of all the cages. I was amazed that every bird didn’t fly right out. Only a couple did. I guess birds are like people, there’s only a few here and there that have the spirit. I found that out in spades over the years to come, but I didn’t quite know it at the time.
“There was no way I was going to let any of those birds stay in their cages after I opened the doors, though, so I broke open a big bag of birdseed and scattered it all over the floor. Then they all flew out.
“Nobody from the store noticed what was going on for a while, so the birds had the time to eat all the seeds they wanted. Then one woman spotted what was going on and got on the store intercom and started yelling in a real high, shrill voice: ‘The birds are out of their cages! The birds are out of their cages!’ Employees came running from every direction, but what were they supposed to do? Birds don’t just sit there and let you grab them. Whenever somebody got close to one, it would fly up to the ceiling and perch on top of the long florescent lights up there. It was the longest flight they had had in their lifetime, after all, so they needed to rest. Can you imagine being born to fly, and now you’re really doing it for the first time? Pretty soon there were birds sitting up on the lights all over the store.
“Think about it now. Birds are just like you and me. After they eat, what do they do? Yeah. And they did. All over the damn store. That went over real big in the lingerie department. Oh yeah, Grant’s had a lunch counter at the time too. Of course I hightailed it when I saw that they were making such a big deal out of it. I might be a few ounces short of a gallon, but I’m not completely stupid.
“The whole city was tittering about it for weeks. Business was a little off until they got the situation under control. People were going into Grant’s just to see the birds up on top of the lights, and not buying anything. Oh, people had a ball! And, of course, there definitely weren’t as many diners at the lunch counter as usual.
“The newspapers ran quite a story about it. They referred to it as a ‘prank.’ I wasn’t too happy about that. I was a liberator, not a damn prankster. I’ve always hated it when the press got it wrong about some of the things I’ve done.
“My mother was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper the day after the incident, and I laugh to myself whenever I think of her lowering the paper and peering at me over the top of her glasses with a little smile, saying, ‘Thank you for picking up my package at Grant’s yesterday, Jonathan.’”
We shared a laugh about that, then I asked Jake about his experience with bullies as a kid.
“Something churns in my stomach when I see somebody being picked on or mistreated because they can’t protect themselves or because they have something different about them,” he said. “Even as a real little kid, I hated it when I saw one of the other kids being bullied because they were small or had something different about them. I came from a very respectable, high-society family, so I was always well-dressed, visited the dentist regularly, that sort of thing, but I knew that wasn’t the way it was for some of the other kids. I don’t know where my empathy for the downtrodden came from — maybe it came from knowing that there was something different about me too, but it just wasn’t so obvious. I’ve always been a queer duck myself, so that’s probably why I hate to see anybody bullied or being made fun of.
“When I was in high school, I went out of my way to ask the unpopular girls to dance. A lot of the other guys didn’t want to be seen on the dance floor with them. Not me. To tell the truth, I actually liked the unpopular girls more than I did the popular ones. They were more real. They cared about you in a way that the pretty, confident girls didn’t. Even today I see some of them on the street and they blush and say hello. I’m a big bad guy to a lot of people, but the ones who really know me know that underneath my tough exterior I’m a real softie.
“When I went to South Portland High it was located in the building that is now Mahoney Middle School. The middle school is named for Daniel F. Mahoney, who was principal of the high school when I went there. Mr. Mahoney and I got along pretty well. I think he liked that I wasn’t a bully like a lot of the other tough guys were. I’d always go up to the unpopular kids who were standing by themselves, off to the side, and joke around with them, and Mr. Mahoney noticed that. He didn’t miss much. He’d show up in some very unlikely places. I respected him because he had a wooden leg but he didn’t let it slow him down a bit.
“I wasn’t much of a student at South Portland High. I spent a lot of time fooling around and had terrible grades, and that really grabbed the teachers because I had scored 134 on the IQ test they give you in freshman year. Teachers hate it when your IQ is about double what theirs is and you don’t get with the program.
“They put up with a lot from me. Even though I was a terrible student and a serious behavior problem, everybody liked me. I pulled a lot of pranks and things, but I never did anything mean.
“I ended up getting kicked out at the end of my sophomore year. There was this fat bully that I really didn’t like, and one day I picked him up and threw him down a flight of stairs. Got a big cheer from everyone who witnessed it, but unfortunately Mr. Mahoney was standing at the bottom of the stairs and the kid went into him and knocked him on his ass and dislocated his wooden leg. I really felt shitty about that because, like I said, I liked Mr. Mahoney. I apologized up and down while he was sitting on the floor fixing his leg, but he just couldn’t overlook what I had done. A lot of kids had seen it happen, and if he didn’t come down hard on me, they would’ve lost respect for him. So I was history.
“When I run into someone today I went to South Portland High with, they always bring up the time I threw that bully down the stairs and he collided with Mr. Mahoney. They laugh like hell about Mr. Mahoney sitting on the floor all flustered, working like mad to readjust his wooden leg, but I didn’t think it was funny then and I don’t now.
“You know, most of the people I grew up with had no idea who I really was. They didn’t get me then, and they don’t get me today either.
“Ah,” Jake added, grinning, “that’s the way it always is with the great ones.”
Next month: Jake’s experiences in prep school and college, his service as an Army paratrooper, and his exploits as a Kentucky rum-runner, General Motors executive, fitness trainer to the elite, arm-wrestling champion, nightclub bouncer, and Miami Beach party boy.