Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass
by Cliff Gallant
Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 8 will appear next month.
Before we get into this month’s chapter of Jake Sawyer’s Story, I must clarify two statements that appeared in last month’s chapter.
The first concerns the treatment Jake received at Massachusetts General Hospital after his right hand was slashed with a beer bottle during a melee with a gang of Devils Disciples in a Combat Zone bar. When Jake said the medical staff agreed to operate on him without administering “anesthetics of any kind,” he was reiterating the fact that he refused to allow them to render him unconscious, or “put him under,” during the procedure — not claiming that he received nothing to mitigate the pain. He had received a local anesthetic to numb the nerves in his hand, and told me that when he recounted the incident last September, but I neglected to include that detail in the retelling.
“I definitely allowed them to use a local anesthetic,” Jake said when we spoke by phone shortly after last month’s issue came out. “The more of that good stuff they wanted to shoot into my hand, the better! Bring it on! Perhaps I didn’t make it clear to you what the extent of my wounds were, but I will at this time. The two-hour procedure I underwent involved inserting multiple wires through the muscles and tendons on each side of the wound, then pulling the sides together by the wires so that the wound could be stitched tight. I tell you this not to gross you out, my friend, but to impress upon you the severity of my wound. No mortal could have withstood the procedure I went through without some kind of anesthetic. I am not a superhuman, nor do I pretend to be.”
“We need to be dedicated to the truth here, sir,” Jake added. “Not because there are people out there who know what the truth is, but because the truth is the truth, no matter whether anyone knows the difference or not.”
Jake’s dedication to the truth was illustrated, in graphic fashion, by an incident that happened a couple days after our phone conversation.
“I was walking on Congress Street the night before last, taking my after-dinner walk,” he told me at his apartment, “when all of a sudden this fairly big guy — dressed kind of shabbily but not quite like a street person, you know — gets in my face and starts razzing me about what he’d been reading about me in your publication. He was very loud and ignorant-sounding, and kept yelling things like he didn’t believe anything I said about myself, that I had made everything up, and that all I was doing was trying to make myself into a big man.
“The guy appeared to be in his mid-thirties, and here I am, a seventy-eight-year-old walking down the street, minding my own business. I realize I’m not your average old duffer, but it’s pretty obvious that my Junior Prom was more than a few years ago, if you know what I mean. And here he is, right in my face.
“My first reaction was to ignore him and just keep walking. I’ve had to deal with big mouths like him all my life, so I wasn’t at all surprised to be accosted in such a way, now that the story of my life is coming out. I’d been anticipating it, as a matter of fact. There’s a certain type of individual who resents the way I am, and the only way they can deal with it is to call me a liar and a faker. As much as I like to fight, though, I don’t get mad over petty ego shit like that. Mostly I like to fight men who also like to fight. I don’t hit women and I try to avoid getting into confrontations with assholes like him.
“So I just gave him a dirty look, like he wasn’t worth even bothering with, and attempted to walk around him. That’s when he gave me a little push, as if I was aggressing on him, which I definitely wasn’t. But after the push, I definitely was. Full-frontal assault is the way it might be described. Boom! I threw a very hard overhand right that ended up with my fist planted high on his nose, just below the space between his eyes. What a super-satisfying smacking sound it made!
“He didn’t go down, but he looked to be unconscious standing up, so I didn’t hit him again. As I walked away I looked back and saw him bent over, holding onto his face with both hands. He could have fallen over sometime subsequent to that — I don’t know, sometimes they do. I have not seen the fellow since, but I have no doubt that he has two black eyes. That’s what a punch delivered to that particular spot of the facial area is designed to result in, after all, and I think I employed the maneuver quite adroitly.”
I was immediately worried that my sloppy transcription of Jake’s description of the surgery at Mass. General had caused this incident. The same hand, with its 50-year-old scar, was now very swollen and bruised as a result of that punch. I asked Jake if he thought that was the case.
“No, my friend,” he said, “the individual didn’t get specific as to what he found questionable about my story. You have to understand that there is a breed out there who are not capable of standing out in any way themselves, so their whole thing is to bring other people down to their level. Guys like him have been dogging me my whole life. They worship average and hate exceptional, and they’re everywhere.”
The second clarification involves Neal Cassady. As a sharp-eyed reader brought to our attention, Jake’s assertion that Cassady was present at the hippie wedding Jake attended on the summer solstice of 1968 cannot be true, because Cassady had died the previous February. When I brought this to Jake’s attention he paused for a moment, seemingly at a loss for words, but soon found some.
“I said Neal Cassady was there, I didn’t say he was alive!” he replied. “There was a lot of weird stuff happening with all that LSD flying around, you know what I mean? Neal could have been there as well as not!
“Seriously, though,” Jake continued, “that was obviously an error on my part, sir. I guess I got confused. You have to remember that this all happened fifty years ago, and also that I was very much under the influence of the various illicit drugs the hippies were laying on me.”
Acknowledging that we had both made mistakes, Jake suggested a resolution. “I propose that we each be found guilty in the first degree, my friend, and that we be sentenced to time served!”
“Agreed!” I said.
So our story picks up in the fall of 1968, with Jake’s return to Portland after about a year with the Hell’s Angels and two years in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. Jake was elated to be back on his own stomping grounds, but it should also be noted that he didn’t have a choice: one of the stipulations of his parole was that he reside in the Portland area.
“There were some pretty restrictive conditions I had to live under,” he recalled. “The warden at San Quentin had communicated to my parole officer in Portland that I was to be regarded as a very violent, unrepentant, career criminal, who had an almost uncanny ability to break the rules and avoid detection. The warden was even kind enough to share with him that at San Quentin I was known as ‘The Ghost.’ Suffice it to say that there were people in the national prison system, and in California state government, who were very eager for me to return to their care and receive my just desserts. My parole officer told me that he was being watched over as closely as I was. If he loosened the reins on me at all, it was his neck, and he knew it.
“There is something I need to stress to you at this time, sir. To my knowledge, I am the only parolee anywhere who has never been accepted at a halfway house. That’s huge in the criminal justice world, believe me. Being accepted at a halfway house is practically a prerequisite of being released from jail. Even the hardest, most violent criminals can find a halfway house somewhere that will accept them, but the criminal justice system couldn’t find one that would accept me. I was known as a rabble-rouser who could get a group of men to do whatever I wanted them to do, and that’s not someone they want in a halfway house. Damn, I organized and instigated riots at two jails before I even got to Folsom and San Quentin. How the hell was some house manager down on such and such a street in Portland going to keep me corralled?
“So I had to look for a place of my own, and once again fate smiled on me. I ended up living in a room up over Eddie Griffin’s tavern, in Knightville, South Portland. Eddie and I had been friends for years, and as soon as he found out I was looking for a place, I was in.
“Eddie was a peach of a man, one of the best people I’ve ever known. He did a lot for a lot of people — not just athletes, even though he was devoted to promoting athletics in the area. He lived in a room over the tavern himself. There were three of us, the other being a man named Bill Hoadley, who had been an outstanding athlete for Cape Elizabeth High, and had just returned from serving a stint in the Peace Corps, in South America.”
(Local barbeque aficionados will be interested to know that Hoadley, who passed away in 2002, was the inspiration for Uncle Billy’s South Side Bar-B-Que, the legendary joint that his nephew, Jonathan St. Laurent, opened in a building next door to the Griffin Club in 1989, and later operated in Portland and Yarmouth.)
“One of my other parole conditions was that I had to be steadily employed,” Jake continued, “which was a pain because me and steady employment were never to be found on the same page. Anything was better than spending my life in a cage, though, so I got a job at B&M Baked Beans. You never put me and B&M Baked Beans together, did you?”
“Ah, no,” I replied, “no I didn’t.”
“I worked on the top floor of the factory, screwing tops onto jars of beans. Oh, how I longed for San Quentin! B&M was prison without all the interesting people, and with the constant smell of beans, to boot. I had to wear one of those white mesh caps over my hair, too. I was thoroughly humiliated and felt miserable. I had a fantastic view of Casco Bay, of course, but that didn’t quite make up for everything else. Just like having a great view of San Francisco Bay didn’t make up for being in San Quentin, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I can understand that.”
“That job at B&M was really something. I worked furiously for eight hours a day, trying to keep up so the jars wouldn’t fall off the end of the conveyor belt onto the floor. I had a bloody red circle the exact size of the jar top worn into the palm of my left hand. I had to use my left hand because the right one was still out of commission from its rendezvous with a broken beer bottle. I’d cradle the jar against my side with my right forearm and screw the cap on with my left hand. It was very awkward and tedious. I was working twice as hard as anyone else and I thought my shift would never get over.
“My mother always said that my sense of humor would get me through a lot, and she was right. One afternoon, when the jars were arriving faster than I could handle ’em, all I could think of is that Lucille Ball comedy skit where she’s trying like mad to keep chocolates from falling off the end of a conveyor belt, stuffing them in her pockets and in her mouth, and I got to laughing so hard that the jars of beans began falling off the end of the belt. After that I had a hard time taking the place seriously, and me and B&M Baked Beans were history.
Martin’s Health Club
“After B&M, I didn’t know what I was going to do, because I needed a steady source of income, but out of nowhere things came together very nicely. As you know, no matter what my circumstance, no matter where I’ve lived or what I’ve done, I always fit working out into my daily routine. Eddie had set up an exercise room and boxing gym in the basement of the bar, and I had the use of that, but it wasn’t adequate for a dedicated weightlifter like me. So when I heard of a guy in Portland who had a locksmith shop with a small gym in back and was looking to expand the gym, I was all over it.
“The guy’s name is Al Martin, and making his acquaintance turned out to be one of the most fortunate events in my life.
“Al and I got to looking around town for a place where he might relocate, and came up with a fantastic spot in the Old Port, on Fore Street, right next to where Rosie’s is now. Al operated the locksmith shop on the ground floor, and I managed the health club in the basement and on the second and third floors. The place was a fantastic success all around. Al’s a highly skilled locksmith and an astute businessman, and I’m very good at attracting people to whatever enterprise I might be involved in. You will remember, my friend, that before I went to the Combat Zone, in Boston, and opened up the Mid-City Health Club there, I operated the Portland Health and Fitness Studio here in Portland, on Center Street. So I had a local following and they were very happy to see me back in town.
“I also acted upon my knowledge that over ninety percent of the health-conscious men and women were not dedicated weightlifters and didn’t want to spend their time in sweaty gyms alongside grunting musclemen. So I created a space in the basement that we called ‘The Animal Pit,’ where you had to be able to lift a minimum of four hundred pounds to be admitted, which is a lot. Some of the guys could do as much as six-fifty, though. A lot of very dedicated bodybuilders worked out in The Animal Pit, and the place still lives in the hearts and minds of many men around the Greater Portland area today.”
One of the regulars at The Animal Pit was Bob Penny, who drives cab these days for his family’s company, Abbey Road Taxi. “I first went to Martin’s Health Club in the spring of 1969, when I was nineteen years old,” Bob told me. “I had been lifting on my own, but had kind of hit a wall and didn’t know what to do with myself. When I started going to the club I was not only making great progress as a weightlifter, I was part of a group of great friends.
“Jake brought a kind of professionalism to the health-and-physical-fitness scene in Maine that had been completely lacking,” Bob continued. “He brought exercising out of the sweaty-gym era and made it fashionable. … Jake was a kind of fitness guru to a lot of people. He was very good at relating to businessmen and women, athletes, older people, just about anybody that stopped by. He managed to get along with everybody, but the dedicated weightlifters down in The Animal Pit were his favorites. I guess that’s because he was one of us.
“Believe it or not, there’s still a bunch of us Animal Pit alumni who meet at Marty Joyce’s house for a reunion once a year. Marty Joyce, our congenial host, is a retired bank president; then there’s Skip Robinson, a longtime local teacher; Vinnie Bruni, a well-known local musician; Ronnie Damon, a former policeman; John Fairweather, a former firefighter; and Bruce Chambers, who’s one of the biggest and most ferocious guys anybody’s ever met, but is also like a lovable puppy that makes everybody laugh, too. Bruce and Jake were special buddies during those early years, and the stories they tell about their after-hour activities when we get together leave us falling down with laughter.” (For an example, see Jake’s account of drinking cow’s blood with Bruce, in Chapter 2.)
“There were so many Mr. Maine and Mr. USA trophies [at Martin’s Health Club], and so many world records set for powerlifting, and world championships won for physique, that I don’t dare to try to list them all,” said Bob. “I know I wouldn’t get it all straight, and I don’t want to slight anyone. Let me just say that what we learned from Jake about bodybuilding, and health practices in general, has added immensely to our lives, and it’s what kind of bonds us together to this day. … It changed my life, and I’m still using what I learned from Jake almost fifty years ago when I work out today.
“Just being around Martin’s Health Club was a lot of fun,” Bob added. “You never knew what was going to happen, or who would show up. As the word spread about the place, the nationally known wrestlers who were appearing at the Expo building got in the habit of working out with us. Jake introduced us to Victor Rivera, Antonio Pugliese [a.k.a. Tony Parisi], Chief Jay Strongbow, Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi, Bugsy McGraw, Ivan Koloff, ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine, and the Valiant Brothers. Those names might not mean much to your readers today, but in that era they were very big. Here I was, a skinny nineteen-year-old kid, just looking to put on a little muscle, and I found myself hobnobbing with guys who were some of the most well-built and athletic men in the world. You gain a new appreciation for the athletic ability of these guys when you see close up how big they are and how hard they work to achieve the agility necessary to be a professional wrestler.”
“Did Bob tell you about Gigi?” Jake asked when I told him about our conversation. No, he had not, but Jake was happy to fill me in.
“One day this gorgeous, middle-aged redhead walked into the club and introduced herself as a masseuse and asked me if I thought we could use her services. Well, there aren’t too many gorgeous red-headed women I don’t do my best to accommodate, so I brought her up to the third floor, where we found a corner where she could locate her massage table. We hung a curtain for privacy, and we were in business.
“Gigi was a huge success right from the beginning, and it wasn’t long before I found out why. Let’s just say that Gigi gave full-body massages, with a focus on a particular part of the male anatomy, and her physical contact with her clients wasn’t restricted to just manual manipulation, if you get my drift. Al and I thought it would be a good business move to raise the price of Gigi’s services from ten dollars to fifteen dollars, because that would increase our take, and the move turned out not to hurt business at all.
“Gigi was a very intelligent and world-wise woman, and we became great friends. During World War II, when the Atlantic fleet was stationed in Portland, she was a ‘hostess’ at a bar on Temple Street, where One City Center is now, called The Bucket of Blood. The place got its name from all the rowdiness that occurred there, so Gigi was no naïve lass when she showed up at Martin’s Health Club. She spent about three years with us, then moved her show to Main Street, South Portland, where she operated Gigi’s Spa for a number of years.
“All in all, with all the people we had working out, and with Gigi as a very desirable side attraction, Martin’s Health Club was doing a fantastic amount of business, and I was on top of the world.”
Jake being Jake, having a job where a woman like Gigi was working above him and professional wrestlers were working out below was not strange or dangerous enough to hold his attention for long. “I desperately needed some diversion from all the good work I was doing at the health club,” he said, “something to remind myself of who I really was. So what better way than to travel down to the nearest chapter of the Hell’s Angels, which was in Lowell, Massachusetts, not very far from Boston.
“Of course, one of my major parole restrictions was that I not travel outside the area, so I had to be very creative as to how I went about getting down to Lowell. I’d get on my orange, souped-up and trimmed-down Harley chopper in the wee hours of Friday or Saturday morning, get out on 95 South and average about 120 miles per hour down to Lowell. I really think that the reason I never got stopped by the State Police, in the almost two years I traveled down to Lowell on a fairly regular basis back then, was that the police almost literally didn’t see me. Or if they did see me, they didn’t have any interest in stopping me to find out what I was all about.”
Jake promised to tell me about his wild times with the Hell’s Angels in Lowell the next time we met — including a rather “explosive” encounter with many of the Devils Disciples who’d jumped him in the Combat Zone. But before we wrapped up this session, there was the matter of that plume of black smoke Jake mentioned last month, the one that appeared over the Portland skyline shortly after he got back to town.
Up in smoke
“You do understand that everything I tell you about that incident allegedly happened, of course,” Jake began.
Yes, I assured him: allegedly.
“Well, through no fault of my own, and absolutely out of nowhere, I somehow made the acquaintance of a group of fellows who were allegedly stealing cars in Hartford, Connecticut, and selling them up here in Maine. Because I’m such an impressionable guy, and because I didn’t have anything else to do at the time, I ended up accompanying them on one of their shopping trips, and when all was said and done I was the proud owner of a new two-toned gold Porsche 911T.
“That was one of the finest cars I’ve ever owned. I drove it for over a year in Portland, and all over southern Maine, but one nice afternoon I was tooling down Route 302, having been up to Fryeburg to visit a comely lass of my acquaintance, when out of nowhere a blue light comes on behind me. Being stopped in my stolen car, with stolen plates, would certainly mean my immediate return to San Quentin, most likely for life. I didn’t stand a chance, actually. So all I could think to do was press my foot down on the gas pedal real hard and get the hell out of there.
“Speeding away worked for ten minutes or so, because there was no way one of those heavy Chevys they gave the police was going to keep up with a new Porsche 911T, especially with a Hell’s Angel at the wheel, but it wasn’t long before there were quite a number of other vehicles behind me flashing blue lights, too. In fact, there was a virtual squadron of them, and their numbers grew at every intersection. They even nosed two cars together ahead of me at one point, but I managed to squirm through them. I think they knew that if they didn’t leave me a little room I would’ve rammed my way through, and they didn’t want that.
“By the time our little parade reached Portland, I must have had a half-dozen state police cars behind me, and when we hit the city streets the Portland police jumped in, too. They were also honking their horns, as if I might stop for that, you know? I could just see the state police rolling their eyes.
“Things got really hairy downtown. City streets aren’t made for high-speed traffic, after all. I knew that, and the police knew that, but I was the only one of us not giving a shit, know what I mean? So all of a sudden I took a turn down a one-way street and ended up at the on-ramp of the bridge going over to South Portland. I’d managed to lose the state police and Portland cops, but when I got across the bridge the South Portland police were on me big time, so I decided to make a run for the Griffin Club.
“When I got to Eddie’s, I knew they’d soon be pulling in behind me, so all I could do was destroy the evidence and remove myself from the scene as quickly as possible. I took the can of gas I kept in the back seat, just for that purpose, and poured gas all over the interior, then closed all the windows tight except for leaving a little sliver of an opening in the driver’s window, which I slipped a lit match through. I looked back just as I was going through the door of the bar and saw that beautiful new Porsche 911T blow up like a bomb. What a sight!
“When I saw that black plume of smoke rising up into the air, I knew police from all the surrounding communities would soon be arriving, but what better place for me to be than Eddie Griffin’s? I was home, man. Bill Hoadley was at the bar, and there was the bartender, of course, and I just said, ‘I’ve been here for an hour or so, right?’
“‘Of course!’ they both said, just as two or three cops came through the door.
“‘Oh, great!’ I yelled, “the police are here! Where’s the fire department?’
“They knew for certain what was up, but they had nothing on me. No evidence, and two corroborating witness as to where I was at the time of the offenses they were investigating.”
That black plume was like a smoke signal conveying a simple but powerful message to cops and citizens for miles around: Jake Sawyer was back in town.