Episode 2: Prison yard tales
by Cliff Gallant
Interviewing Jake is like sitting on the suicide seat of his customized-for-speed Harley chopper, weaving through California freeway traffic at 90-plus. His stories come loudly, passionately, in rapid-fire succession. Fortunately for me, though, he always speaks slowly and distinctly, taking great pains to be clearly understood, like one would in a courtroom, or maybe in a prison yard. I remarked about that to Jake once and his answer led us to some unexpected places.
“Courtrooms and prison yards!” he exclaimed. “Nothing but lies in one, and nothing but the truth in the other! The opposite of what one might expect. Everybody assumes that prison yard stories are all ego-building, fantasy bullshit, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Everyone in a prison yard is a convicted liar and they can spot a bullshit artist at the first twitch of an eyebrow. Tell a story to a bunch of cons and you’d better be very truthful and clear about what you say, because something as slight as the emphasis on a particular word might get you shanked some evening on the way back from chow by a guy whose uncle knew a guy who was somehow involved in your little story.
“Everybody had stories they would tell, though, and they were all pretty amazing. Like the one everybody’s favorite mafia boss, Tony Pro, told us about: a little activity the boys took part in at Lake Tahoe. The evidence is still there on the bottom of the lake today, in petrified form!”
“OK, Jake,” I said, “we’re going to get to Tony Pro and some of the other prison stories you heard some other time. But, knowing you, I know you had a favorite prison yard story you told about yourself, and that’s the one I want to hear today.”
“Yeah, I did have a particular presentation down pretty pat, at that,” he chuckled. “So here you go: I’d start off by raising my right foot and placing it in the palm of my left hand. Then I’d stand there, balancing on one leg, showing them the orthopedic shoe on my right foot, which freaked them big time, because they had never even noticed it. They thought my awkward, lurching gait was due to my years of weightlifting and my general intention to intimidate everyone I come into contact with, when actually my ungainly lope is due to a motorcycle accident I had up in Lewiston when I was twenty-four years old.
“Some half-wit motorist took an illegal left-hand turn in front of me, and all I could do was stand up so the whole right side of my body wouldn’t be slammed into the side of his car. As it was, I got shot like a cannonball across his hood and got mangled up pretty bad all over, but the worst damage was to my right leg. They told me it definitely had to be taken off, and that my right femur was crushed so severely that there wouldn’t be enough stump left to attach an artificial leg to, so I’d never walk again. No way, Jose.
“What ended up happening was they inserted a foot-long stainless steel metal rod into the center of my femur bone, so that cartilage would form around it. I had it in place there for two years, during which time I had to learn to walk again. The healing process sometimes involved very severe pain, of course, but the worst part was lifting my leg to get onto my bike. The thought of it still gives me shudders to this day. I was very relieved when the steel rod was removed and it was discovered that the technique had been a success and very much worth all the pain and discomfort. I had the steel rod strapped onto the right fork of my Harley with black duct tape, as you can see illustrated in the picture I have provided you with, my friend.”
I looked over at his orthopedic right shoe and shook my head. In all this time, I hadn’t noticed it myself! Jake’s right shoe has a very high built-up sole, which he says is there because his right leg is two inches shorter than his left. I had made the same false assumptions about his gait that the men in the prison yard had. Not unreasonable assumptions, for sure, but, well, there you go.
It was also coursing through my mind that twelve of the thirteen action-packed chapters of Jake’s life that I wrote took place after the accident — a harrowing experience that, for most people, would have severely curtailed their physical activity, but that had barely slowed Jake down. By this point, however, I was accustomed to being introduced to new and startling things about Jake, so we just moved on.
“OK, Jake, but what was the rest of your story? Those guys in the prison yard weren’t going to be content with just hearing about your big motorcycle accident.”
“A-ha! You are correct, my friend! The exciting and heart-wrenching story about the accident and my painful recovery served merely as an introduction to an incident that took place about a year after that, while I was still on crutches. It involved my riding on my Harley from Portland to Laconia, New Hampshire to attend the infamous 1965 national outlaw-biker rally at Weirs Beach. The one where the Hell’s Angels were falsely and maliciously accused of inciting and taking part in what became known as the Laconia Beach Riots. I, unfortunately, did not meet up with any members of the Hell’s Angels in Laconia, but I did hear a lot about them, and what I heard was music to my ears. It wasn’t until a year later, when my girlfriend Barbara and I moved to Oakland, that I became united with my Hell’s Angel brothers for the first time and met my destiny.
“So the Laconia incident I recounted to my prison-mates had to do with a very unfriendly encounter I had with a big, beefy, sweaty outlaw biker in Laconia who had a very antagonistic attitude. His girlfriend and I locked eyes as I was cruising by on my bike, and when I pulled over to chat with her he came out of nowhere and was immediately in my face with his beer breath and fucking frothy mouth, yelling his head off. A big, fat, sloppy grunt hog like him wouldn’t even have dared to come within striking range of me in normal times, but when he saw my crutches on the rack I had made for them on the back of my bike, he thought he could bully me. And you know how much I hate bullies.”
Jake jumped up from his chair at this point and illustrated the incident in just the same way, I’m sure, that he did in the various prison yards where he’d held center stage over the years.
“I knew right from the git-go that this was a kill-or-be-killed situation and my warrior survival instincts kicked in big time. There was no time for thinking. I immediately catapulted into action.” Jake crouched back down to simulate sitting on his bike. “I couldn’t get off the bike because of my leg, and he was too close on me for me to kick him with my left leg or punch him in the head, so I did the only thing I could do to save my life. I fucking screamed like a wild banshee out of hell and lunged my head forward and clamped my teeth onto his fucking nose! I had a helluva chunk of it in my mouth and I twisted and yanked at it like a fucking wild animal until it came loose. Then I swallowed the fucking thing! I didn’t mean to, it just kind of slid down my throat in the rush of things, but there you go — I swallowed the fucking thing!
“It proved to be quite effective as a defensive maneuver, though,” Jake continued, swinging his leg off his imaginary bike and sitting back down in his chair. “The guy immediately began screaming in horror, and as blood was spurting in strong gushes out the end of his nose and onto my freshly cleaned leather jacket, I revved up my Harley and casually cruised away. I never did find out how it all turned out until I ran into an outlaw biker in a bar a few years later who told me that the guy lived and had his nose reconstructed. He also told me that the story about Jake Sawyer biting off a guy’s nose and swallowing it at the Laconia, New Hampshire rally had become legendary in outlaw biker circles all across the country.
“Here’s the kicker to the story: They took the meat to reconstruct the guy’s nose from his ass! The biker in the bar told me that the reconstructed part of the guy’s nose doesn’t tan like the original part does, so it stands right out! He said that whenever outlaw bikers get together, they talk about the guy from Laconia who scratches his ass whenever his nose itches! Those bikers couldn’t have laughed any harder at the story than the guys in the prison yard did, though. For a long time afterwards, all anyone in the prison had to do to get everybody in the place laughing again was scratch their ass and wiggle their nose at the same time!”
“See ya next time, Jake,” I said as I closed my notebook, still shaking my head.