Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass
by Cliff Gallant
Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 7 will appear next month.
Since my previous meeting with Jake Sawyer I’d been thinking a lot about his unexpected emancipation from San Quentin. There he was, serving what seemed destined to be a life sentence, waiting to either die a violent death by the hand of a fellow prisoner or get locked in solitary for his own safety, and suddenly he was free! He’d been given a second chance that he knew damn well he didn’t deserve. It was 1968 and Jake was in his late twenties, the age when many men begin to settle down.
Sitting across from Jake in his apartment almost 50 years later, I asked him if this big break led him to forsake his life of violence and crime, to make a grand resolution to change his ways. He looked at me with his mouth hanging open for what began to feel like a very long time, seemingly baffled by my question. Then he exploded.
“You haven’t understood a damn thing about anything I’ve been telling you all this time!” he bellowed. “Second chances? Grand resolutions? What the hell kind of language are you speaking? That shit does not apply to me! I had no fucking intention of changing one fucking thing about myself, because I knew I couldn’t change who I am even if I wanted to!”
Mental note taken, I tried a different approach, inquiring about the details of the day he walked out of prison. What did that feel like? Jake calmed down, and it turned out he was willing to engage in some armchair self-analysis.
“Excuse me for that eruption, my friend,” he said. “Sometimes I get a little too rambunctious, if you haven’t noticed.
“I felt a deep gratitude to the people who helped get me out of San Quentin, but I was not obligated to change my life for them. There actually was a part of me that wanted to go straight, though. Sometimes when I reflected on how I had lived my life, I could see a little neglected child whimpering in the background, and I know that was my gentle, peaceful self. But that wasn’t, and isn’t, who I really am, not by a long shot.
“Who I am is an extremely dangerous character focused on dominating any situation I find myself in, by violent means if necessary. That is something I’ve known about myself ever since I stabbed that guy in the ass when I was fourteen years old. I experienced a supreme satisfaction and there were no consequences for it, only rewards. When I rose up like a conquering hero and saved my mother from a life of shame and degradation, I was introduced to who I really am, and who I am has everything to do with taking matters into my own hands in a very violent manner, and nothing whatsoever to do with second chances or making grand resolutions!”
End of analysis.
“Now, as to the events surrounding my release, which are indelibly etched in my memory, I would be happy to share them with you, though there’s no way I can describe exactly what it felt like to look out my cell window and watch the sun come up on the morning of my release date, which was June 17, 1968. Ah, the long-awaited day! There it was, glistening off in the distance: Oakland. Where my Hell’s Angels brothers were. And I’d be there the next day! I was giddy, man. I was actually giggling as I did my morning work-out routine.
“At about 8 a.m. a guard showed up and escorted me to Receiving and Release, where you are issued some civilian clothes, get a little bit of release money, and sign some papers. The best thing I could find in the clothing room was a grossly out-of-style blue suit that I looked like a clown in, a white shirt and an ugly necktie. The attending guards made a big joke of saying over and over how great I looked. We were all laughing about it. Most of the guards were OK guys, just doing their jobs. There were a few maggots among them, but we’ll get to how I dealt with those guys a little later.
“After I got my fifty dollars cash, which they said was to ‘start your new life as a law-abiding member of society,’ I was putting it in my wallet when a door opened behind me. The guard who’d handed me the money nodded toward the door, indicating that it was open for me to go out. What an amazing feeling came over me! I stepped through that doorway and I was outside.
“Needless to say, the parole board placed some very strict limitations and conditions on my release. To begin with, they said I had to be out of the State of California within twenty-four hours and headed back to Maine, where I needed to report to my parole officer within seven days. So my report date was June 24th. To say the authorities were something less than happy about the whole situation would be a gross understatement. They were absolutely furious. The warden of San Quentin said it was pure lunacy to release an unrepentant violent criminal from prison after having served only two years’ time, especially in light of the fact that I’d made no effort whatsoever to mend my ways. Governor Ronald Reagan was supposedly furious too. He was said to have been very disturbed when he heard that an official in Lyndon Johnson’s White House had meddled in a matter that Reagan considered strictly an affair of the State of California.
“In addition to having to immediately return to Maine, I also had to agree to undergo extensive psychiatric therapy when I got back to Portland, the purpose of which was to bring about an ‘extreme modification of my behavior patterns,’ as they put it. I readily agreed to all the conditions of my parole, of course, but the prison authorities were skeptical. The last thing the warden said to me was that he’d be seeing me again if I so much as spit on the sidewalk. I very politely told him that I’d never do such a thing, it wasn’t my style, so not to worry. He gave me one of those ‘bye-bye, see you soon’ little waves, and the look on his face told me that when I made my reappearance there was no way I was gonna get out again.
“They put me on a prison bus to Sacramento and warned that if I acted up on the ride there, it’d be considered a violation of my parole and I’d be on the bus for its return trip to San Quentin. That scared me, of course, so I sat very still and upright all the way. That is, until we stopped in a little town for gas and I snuck off the bus and bought a pint of whiskey at a variety store. Man, that stuff tasted good after two years sober! The bus driver said he could turn me in for it, but that he just didn’t have the heart to do it. He sat in the driver’s seat shaking his head the rest of the way to Sacramento. Said he just couldn’t believe I would risk being returned to prison for the sake of a little whiskey. Hey, I could see his point, but sometimes I just can’t help myself, you know what I mean?”
I just sat there, shaking my own head from side to side.
“The reason I wanted to go to Sacramento was to pick up the dark blue 1964 Chevy Super Sport that a non-biker friend of mine, named Pete Hill, was storing for me there. Pete and his wife had spent some time in Maine, so we’d bonded right away, and he did me a great favor — even had the car tuned up for my trip. He and his wife also had a fantastic steak dinner waiting for me, and some great weed and wine to go with it. My first night of freedom, man, and we did it up big! Some evenings stay with you forever, and that’s one of them for me.
“Bright and early the next morning, I drove to Sonny Barger’s beautiful home at 9508 Golf Links Roar, in Oakland, and when I pulled up he was in his garage, working on his new Harley. We met halfway up his driveway and he gave me a big hug. Man, I was levitated with joy.
“Sonny made a few calls to our Hell’s Angels brothers and they started showing up throughout the day and night. Man, did we party! Terry the Tramp arrived driving a late-model Jaguar XK-E convertible, with a Bob Dylan song turned up full blast. Janis Joplin was obsessed with Terry and had bought him the Jaguar, so he thought I’d like to see it. We were so happy to see each other! We danced around together, laughing our heads off, pounding each other on the back all afternoon.
“The party lasted two friggin’ glorious days, and on the morning of June 20th I said goodbye to my Hell’s Angels brothers and headed to Maine. I was obviously going to be late reporting to my parole officer, but leaving California without saying a proper goodbye to my brothers was just not going to happen.”
Peace and love
“There’s no question that the separation from my Hell’s Angels brothers was bearing down heavily on me, but I knew I was still a Hell’s Angels Nomad in the very best of standing in the club, and I knew in my heart that I’d be back someday. Underneath it all there was this bubbly feeling I got from knowing I was out of prison and had my whole life before me. Being out on the open highway, traveling across America at a very high rate of speed in a very cool car, just a few weeks after sitting in solitary confinement at San Quentin, it was almost too much to take in.
“I was tooling along a highway in New Mexico, free, free, free, when out of nowhere I saw a young couple that looked like Indians or something hitchhiking, and I picked them up. She had flowers in her hair, he had a red bandana around his head, neither of them were wearing shoes, and when they got in the car there was this cloud of what I later learned was patchouli perfume that accompanied them. Turns out they were hippies.
“The hippie thing happened when I was incarcerated, so I had no idea what they were all about. I was very intrigued, though. They told me they were going to a hippie wedding in the mountains. It was happening that day, June 21st, ’cause it was the first day of summer and the longest day of the year. They asked if I wanted to come along. Hey, why not? I thought. I’ve got the time.
“When their hippie friends saw me step out of the car wearing my full Hell’s Angels regalia, they started cheering! The Hell’s Angels were folk heroes to them and they were absolutely thrilled to have me in their presence. They treated me like I was counterculture royalty, and right away they started giving me great weed and multiple hits of LSD.
“The hippies formed a circle around a teepee they’d set up in the middle of a large clearing, and held hands as they danced around it while the happy couple consummated their marriage inside. It was a sight to behold, especially for someone who’d been in prison for the last two years. They all had colorful streamers they were waving around, there were loudspeakers in the trees blaring ’60s songs, and everyone was high as hell, on life and every drug there was.
“And guess what?” Jake added excitedly. “Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady were there! Of course they recognized me right away from when I met them at Sonny Barger’s house, soon after I had made the acquaintance of my Hell’s Angels brothers. What a trip it was reminiscing with them! Oh, and I almost forgot — I consummated my relationship with a couple of hippie girls, in honor of the occasion. All this happy hippie stuff went on for three days, and on the morning of the fourth day I lit out for Maine.”
OK, I said to myself, counting: that would be June 24th, the day Jake was supposed to report to his parole officer in Portland. I tried to hold my head still.
“Not a lot happened on the trip after attending the hippie wedding,” Jake continued, “but I did stop in Colorado to visit Hoover Dam. What a wondrous sight that is! I was mesmerized by it!”
He took time for sightseeing? I gave up and let my head do its thing in disbelief.
“While I was on the tour of the dam, I thought I’d send some picture postcards to the guards at San Quentin who’d screwed me over in one way or another, and I did so. ‘This is where your mother and me are shacked up’ was one of the greetings I wrote in big bold letters, and I came up with other friendly messages that were equally charming. I knew my contempt for them didn’t matter to them in the slightest, of course, and I’m sure they got together and laughed like hell about it, but sending the guards those beautiful postcards gave me such a warm feeling. Hey, like I said, they were only doing their jobs, even if some of them were assholes. I guess the time I’d just spent with the hippies kinda mellowed me out a little, and I wanted to do something nice for someone.”
The Novelty Bar
“Traveling across the country, high as hell on life and some Thai stick marijuana the hippies had given me, I did a lot of thinking, and more than a little hallucinating, too! I was a little overwhelmed thinking of everything I’d been through since Barbara and I left the Combat Zone a couple years before, and I just had to share it with someone. So on the highway outside Boston I decided to take a little detour — about a forty-mile detour, actually — and make a visit to the Combat Zone, hoping I’d run into some old friends.
“It was nighttime when I arrived in the Combat Zone, and I parked my car on Washington Street, right across from the Novelty Bar, which had been one of my favorite hang-outs. Man, had things changed at the Novelty Bar! Unbeknownst to me, the place was now an outlaw biker bar. As I stepped through the door, wearing my full Hell’s Angels regalia, I saw about twenty guys sitting at tables and standing around wearing the insignia of an outlaw biker club named the Devils Disciples. They had formed during my time away and I had never heard of them, but I got to know them very quickly.
“When they saw a Hell’s Angels Nomad walk in, they glared at me like I was going to be a dead man very soon. I knew what was up, of course, and would’ve turned around and walked out had that been an option, but there was no doubt they would’ve chased me down anyway. So I just threw up my arms and yelled, ‘Hello, guys!’ That incited them to violence, big time. Before I could even reach inside my jacket and pull out the finely sharpened hunting knife I always carried, they were all over me.
“The fact there were so many of them turned out to be to my advantage, because they couldn’t get by one another to get a good swing at me. Some of them were on the edges of the pile kicking at me, but the ones on top couldn’t get in any good punches because of all the congestion.
“I thought I was dog meat, but, once again in my life, my guardian angel made her appearance and I spotted an opening and went for it. I managed to squirm out from underneath the pile and headed for a side door, but there was a big fat Devils Disciple in the way. I punched him very viciously in the face, and that got him out of the way, but the delay he caused enabled one of the others to catch up to me and slash the back of my right hand with a broken beer bottle.
“I didn’t realize the extent of the injury at first and just kept heading for the door, which opened up onto an alley. A number of Devils Disciples followed me up the alley, with the full intent of slicing me up like a Boston scrod and stuffing me in a garbage can, and there was no doubt they were going to catch me, until a squadron of Boston’s finest came to my rescue. The Boston police had what they called a ‘goon squad,’ made up of the biggest and toughest guys on the force, and evidently someone at the bar had called them as soon as I stepped through the door. When the Devils Disciples spotted the goon squad, they backed off, because you don’t win against an organized fighting force like that.
“So I was safe, but then I realized the extent of the damage to my hand. I jumped into my car and immediately headed to Mass. General Hospital. This was not at all the homecoming I had expected in the Combat Zone, and I was quite disappointed, actually.
“When I arrived at the emergency room of Mass. General, the first thing the doctors wanted to do was put me to sleep, but I wouldn’t have it. They were in utter disbelief, but I persisted in my madness. What they didn’t get was that I was certain they’d call the police once I was out cold, because it was obvious I’d been in a fight. Calling the police meant I’d be sent back to San Quentin and would most likely never get out alive.
“I also knew the Devils Disciples might well have followed me to the hospital, and that the first thing they’d do while I was unconscious would be to steal my colors. It would have been a grand coup for them to have a Hell’s Angels jacket in their possession, particularly the jacket of a Nomad, and I’d be a disgrace for having lost my colors to a rival club.
“The doctors examined my hand and told me the tendons across the back, just above the knuckles, had been severed all the way through, and that I’d need extensive surgery to save it. I told the doctors I wouldn’t allow them to even start if they insisted on putting me out, because I was an orphan who’d been raised by the Shaker community in New Gloucester, Maine, and Shakers don’t take medication for pain. So they agreed to operate on me without giving me anesthetics of any kind.
“One of the nurses was from Maine, and when no one else was around for a moment she came over to me and said, ‘So, you’re a Hell’s Angel from Maine and you were brought up by the Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, huh?’
“‘Sure!’ I said, and we both cracked up. I was in the operating room, wearing a johnny over my Hell’s Angels jacket. I knew she felt bad for me, but she couldn’t help tee-heeing every time she walked by.
“I like to think of myself as being a big tough guy, but the operation was extremely excruciating and tears flowed from my eyes very freely. It was a purely physical reaction to the torture I was experiencing. I didn’t cry out, though. I knew that if I did, my objection to getting anesthetics would be overridden and they’d end up calling the cops.
“The ordeal lasted for over two hours, and those were the most memorable two hours of my life. The pain wasn’t restricted to just my hand, by any means. My whole arm ached like hell and excruciating pain spread to my neck and down my entire back. I was in a world of hurt, believe me. I sat there staring at the ceiling, thinking about my mother and how gently she’d put a bandage on my finger when I got a little cut as a kid. Can a man own up to that kind of thing and still be a man? I don’t know, but there it is.
“When the ordeal was over, they put me in a room by myself to rest a little, but I knew I had to get out of there before the Devils Disciples showed up. I also had to get to Portland, because I was already five days late reporting to my parole officer.”
Home, sweet home
“The drive up the Maine Turnpike that night felt like the longest trip I’d ever made. My hand was throbbing so bad with pain that I thought I was gonna pass out. I actually did stop and puke a few times. I’d been so looking forward to my return home. To have it marred by something beyond my control was very disconcerting.
“I finally reported to my parole officer on July 1, a full week late. My right hand was wrapped in a half cast, with wires sticking out from every knuckle in a very grotesque way. He was not very happy with me. I told him I’d come across an elderly lady in Pennsylvania with a flat tire, and while I was fixing it for her the jack slipped and my hand was cut by the ragged edge of the fender. He gave me that ‘yeah, yeah’ look parole officers are good at, and then looked at me very sternly and said a second parole violation would result in my immediate return to San Quentin.
“It had been decided by the authorities that I was to spend the next three months residing with Dr. Paul Taylor, a retired psychiatrist who lived on a farm in Kittery. The place is quite a well-known landmark, actually. You can see it coming up from Boston on the Turnpike shortly after you get to Kittery, just on the right. It’s the farm with the tall silo next to it. I had two hours to get there and put Dr. Taylor on the phone to confirm my presence. I knew the parole officer wasn’t fooling around, so I complied forthwith.
“The three months I spent with Dr. Taylor on his farm turned out to be a great salve to my spirit. I spent the majority of my time painting his barn dark red, and I truly enjoyed my time doing it. For some reason, it kind of centered me to have a job before me to get done.
“Dr. Taylor was an intelligent, good-hearted guy, and he engaged me in conversation about myself on a regular basis. I enjoyed that, of course, and was more than willing to cooperate. We ate at a different high-end restaurant in the area every night of the week. I don’t know if the good doctor came to any definite conclusions about me, but he evidently was impressed enough with me to give glowing reports to my parole officer, so I was sitting pretty.
“When I got back to Portland after my three months in Kittery with Dr. Taylor, I right away started studying to get my state insurance license so I could sell life insurance, marry the girl of my dreams and get active in the Jaycees again.”
“Ha!” I said. Very funny.
“Aw, c’mon,” Jake said, “you’re just like my parole officer was, doubting everything I say! I really did become a model citizen upon my return, you know. Everyone with any knowledge of my activities at the time will certainly tell you that.”
Jake looked at me with a blank, innocent expression on his face, but I refused to play the patsy. So he began again. “I will just say that I categorically deny I had anything whatsoever to do with the large plume of black smoke that appeared over the Portland skyline very soon after my arrival,” he said, “just in case anyone might try to tell you any differently.”
I gave him an amused smile, my suspicions having been confirmed.