Thursday, October 18, 2018

Brotherhood and loyalty are strong in the Desert Knights MC

Frederick, MA (October 18, 2018) BSB — In 1969, a music festival at Altamont Speedway in Northern California devolved into considerable violence resulting in the stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter and three accidental deaths. At the center of the violence was the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — the group was hired as security for the bands.

Nearly 40 years later, the Desert Knights Motorcycle Club gathers in the hills of Appalachia, miles away from any roads with painted lines, holding a makeshift music festival of their own — one that’s in virtually no danger of devolving into violence.

Desert Knights M C National President and Founder “Boss” and member “Hops” lead the club on a memorial ride to a ceremony for club member. By Allen Etzler

More than three dozen members of the club gather in the mountains near Cumberland during Labor Day weekend on the property of Organarchy Farms — a hop farm that is run by one of the group's members. It’s an annual event the club holds in part as a blowout party near the end of riding season, and in part to honor a promise.

Three kegs, a cover band, a gaggle of Harley Davidsons, and a man from a local tavern who catered the gathering by bringing pizza, chicken tenders and nachos, shotguns, handguns, semi-automatic rifles anchor the party. On the surface, being surrounded by bearded, tattooed men wearing leather vests could make one feel intimidated at best and unsafe at worst.

But in truth, there may be few places safer.

The Desert Knights are a group largely composed of military veterans, though it does include some civilians. Most of the members were deployed in the desert era wars including Desert Storm and the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, thousands of miles away from any desert sand or hostile war zones, it’s no wonder that even the bikers view this pasture of green as a safe haven ... but that might not be for the reasons you’d expect.

The Desert Knights MC holds an annual Labor Day ride to honor a member who died in 2016.
By Allen Etzler 

"A lot of us don't drink much," founder and national president Trey Jones, who goes by "Boss," says. "It's hard for us to feel comfortable in an environment where we can drink because of what people think about bikers. So this is kind of a safe place where these guys can let loose and drink and be comfortable."

Pulling up to the farm on a sunny Saturday afternoon, several campers and tents are set up. They are surrounded by cars and motorcycles. A massive red sign hangs from one of the campers with the words “#DieselStrong” written on it — a nod to a fellow member. The members scribe words of encouragement on the sign throughout the day.

The Desert Knights are one of three branches of Red and Tan Nation — a veterans-based group founded in 2006 that focuses on offering brotherhood to help veterans who are struggling. The Desert Knights is a traditional veterans-based motorcycle club for American-styled motorcycle riders, while the Desert Riders — a second branch — is for sport bike riders. The third branch — the Desert Warriors, organized as a 501(c)19 — are the outreach arm of the Red & Tan Nation meant to provide brotherhood and camaraderie while actively working to improve the condition of service members. While the group has 14 total chapters, Frederick is the only place to have two chapters — one Desert Knights and the one and only Desert Warriors chapter to date, according to its website.

“I can honestly say this club probably saved my life,” says patch-holding member Shrek, who has been with the club for two years and serves as the club’s official photographer. “It was everything I needed. Before I joined, when I got back, I was kind of just floundering — doing a lot of dumb stuff.” Shrek is aptly named. He’s a towering man with a thick mustache and black-rimmed spectacles. He’s an Air Force vet who was deployed several times and now works as a prison guard. The club means the same to a lot of its members. The host of the event, a patch-holder called Hops, joined the group several years ago after a fellow member invited him. He’s one of the few civilians in the group.

Upon pulling up to Organarchy Farms, Hops stands with his elbows on the back of his truck drinking kegged light beer from a half-empty plastic red cup. He’s wearing a black hat that covers up long black hair tied into a bun, and a pair of black Vans sneakers to match. He has a thick black beard and his tattoos are the closest thing to a shirt he’ll wear pretty much all weekend. At the risk of mentioning the television series the club has come to despise, he’s reminiscent of a dark-haired Jax Teller.

The Desert Knights MC ride to a nearby cemetery as part of an annual trip for a member who died in 2016. By Allen Etzler

Early in the afternoon, Hops gets on the back of his flat-bed truck, which has a keg in a trashcan strapped into it, to fill up his beer. That's a mistake. The person who gets on top of the truck rarely gets off soon. He's bombarded by thirsty club members asking him for refills — several of whom claim to be too old to climb up onto the truck bed.

"Come on, man. I though we were brothers," says a club patch holder named Static. Hops takes his beer and fills it. It's the ninth one he's filled. He makes last call before he and his blue heeler named Hawk jump back down. Hops became involved with the club through another member. He may not have served in the military, but he respects their service and wanted to help service members who were struggling when they got out of the military. At first, he didn’t realize what the club would do for him personally. “I’ve always had a lot of friends like when I was in school and whatever,” he says. “But I never had those close, close friends who would be there for you at a moment's notice no matter what you’re going through. That’s what this has brought to my life.”

Brothers Bond
The bond is real — it’s as close to brotherhood one can find without actually being brothers. But just because they’re close doesn’t mean they’re all angels. They're rowdy at times, and nearly every fourth word is four letters and starts with the letter “f.” Like all brothers, sometimes they fight. Boss points to one of his front teeth, which was chipped 18 years ago at one of these parties. He found himself in a fight with Tank — a patch holder who couldn’t make it to this year’s event.

“It’s probably a good thing,” Boss says. “Because every year he brings it up and I get pissed off and we start to fight again.”

But even without Tank, the mixture of alcohol and testosterone makes for some tense moments in the evening. As the sun and kegs begin to fade, the trash talk starts to come out. It’s unclear exactly what is said, but suddenly Hops and a man named Peanut, who is from another club but attends some Desert Knight events to show support, get on their bikes and ride to a flat spot on open ground.

“He called me out, so I’ve got to step up,” Peanut says as they line up and prepare to race on grass that is still soggy from an earlier rain. As club members express concern — but still crowd around to watch — they each rev the bikes signaling they’re ready to race. Before they take off, a Desert Knights club member called Shine eventually talks Peanut out of racing.

Hours later, shortly after darkness has fallen, a near-scrap breaks out after a young man who is not with the club climbs nearly 40 feet high into a pine tree. Fearful of what could happen, club members shout for the young man to come down, to which he responds by flipping them the bird. The gesture sets off Static, who begins to curse and wait for the young man to get down from the tree.

As club members start to hold Static back, the young man finishes his descent and walks off in another direction avoiding further incident. “No, he’s a man, I’m a man. Let’s settle it like men,” Static says as members hold him back. “If he’s man enough to flip me off, he’s man enough to settle it with me.” But for every tense moment, there are several reminders that this group doesn’t meet the portrayal of what the an outsider might expect from a motorcycle club.

One doesn’t need to look past the president and founder to see that. Boss, a man who looks every bit to be a biker, is tattooed with a long graying beard. His skin looks not wrinkled, but worn in the sense that his body has been through a lot and it's built a body-sized callous. The hairs on his arms are joining his beard — half brown on their way to gray. He wears his colors at all times, along with steel toe boots with boot-cut jeans. He’s a retired Marine. He served in the Army, too.

Though he’s not the largest man in the group by any stretch, he commands respect. He’s, inarguably, a badass. He’s also, as it turns out, a writer. Not just a writer, but a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels. He recently self-published his first novel — a book called "Nali’s Wager" — and he has more than a dozen others he’s worked on in recent years. "Everyone looks at us and makes their judgements about what we are. That's fine," Boss says. "I'm not going to spend my time trying prove them wrong. I write because I like doing it. I don't think I'm that good. But it's something I enjoy."

As Boss discusses his books around a bonfire, Taz, a member of the Desert Warriors, jumps on stage and sings a heavy metal song while the cover band backs him up. When he finishes the song, he gets off stage to a rousing applause and some brotherly shoves in jest.

Brotherhood, after all, is why they’re here.

Honoring a Memory
Two years ago, while working on the farm, Hops’ cell phone began to ring with calls from other club members. A ride was scheduled for that day, and while Hops wasn’t supposed to be on the ride, his friend Lenny Youngblood was.

Lenny and Hops had been friends since high school, though they weren’t particularly close until Lenny returned from deployment with the Marines and joined the club. He moved onto Hops’ family farm after going through a difficult time with his then-wife. The two spent the better part of a year together as best friends. But on Sept. 10, 2016, Lenny was late for a ride, and Hops couldn’t figure out why. Hops went to the farmhouse where Lenny lived and didn’t see him in the bed. So he walked down to the garage and noticed Lenny’s bike was still in the garage.

"He must be at the house," he thought.

So he went back up to check again. This time, he walked in and noticed Lenny lying next to the bed unconscious. He wasn't breathing. Hops tried CPR, but his friend had been dead a while. There was nothing Hops could do. Lenny had overdosed. He was 30. “I just sat there and hung with him for a while,” Hops says now. Then he called Lenny’s wife. Then an ambulance. Then his brothers from the club. Before long, six club members showed up at Hops’ house to be there for him. But to also mourn their own loss.

Now, each year near Labor Day, Hops holds a massive party. The next day, the club rides down to Lenny’s burial site to pay respects to their fallen friend. Early in the morning, approximately 60 bikes gather at a gas station in Cumberland. They merge on the highway in two rows and take off, never breaking the tight formation.

Hops and Boss lead the club into a massive cemetery with rolling hills and trees covering the mountains. The sun shines and the clouds are pearly white as they park their bikes. Hops is the first one to Lenny’s tombstone, a small rectangular stone planted in the ground. He wipes the grass off the stone and he bends over, putting his elbows on his knees. He wipes his eyes under the dark sunglasses he wears.

“The allergies are bad out here,” Hops says.

As Hops and two other club members stand over Lenny's grave, the rest of the nearly 60 other bikers stand off to the side about 100 feet away in the shade provided by pine trees. The men at the grave share hugs and alternate kneeling down to touch the grave before walking back to join the group. Together, they pray. A club member stands in front of the group and leads in a prayer. He gets out a few words before the tears roll and his voice chokes up.

"Damn it," he says, holding back the tears and trying to force the words out.

He tries again. Then, a third time. But he can't bring himself to finish the prayer. He walks back into the group and they share a moment of silence. The group mourns as one, but the individuals all mourn in their own way. Some members put their arms around others. One kneels in the grass with his face in his hat. Another takes swigs out of a flask and asks nearby members if they want a swig, too. When talking about his friend, Hops is light on details of the death. It doesn’t matter where he is — if this is the topic of conversation, the allergies get bad.

“He was just the best,” he says. “You won’t find a better guy.”

Lenny had his struggles. But part of being in the club means that when you struggle, the club steps up to help you. And it tried to help Lenny in the same way it helped so many others from going over the edge. But, as members of the military will surely attest, you can’t always save everyone. That’s the hardest part of it.

“He’s the one guy that we felt like we let down as a club,” Hops says. “You always think could you have done something more. Could we have done something different? I don’t think there was anything more we could have done. But coming to grips with that is hard.” After Lenny’s death, Hops stepped in to provide for Lenny’s daughter Ayanna. He set up a trust for her to act as a savings account that she can’t access until she’s older. Through different rides, including the Labor Day event, the club raises money for her fund. Hops’ goal is to raise $1,000 a year to put into the trust, so she has money for school if she wants to go to college. But for the last two years, they’ve been able to raise more than $3,000 a year.

“I throw this giant party and blow a bunch of money on it every year, and he loved it,” Hops says. “He used to pimp the farm out in neon. It was awesome.” Now, club members pay to attend, with the money going to Ayanna’s trust. A man from the local tavern caters for free, and takes donations that go to the trust. Hops felt a sense of duty to Ayanna, and that's why he started the trust. Lenny was his friend, and he felt like he failed him. But this party isn’t just in his honor. In a way, it’s healing for Hops, too.

“I’ve never had 60 friends who would have my back at any time,” Hops says. “It means everything. Seeing all of these people show up, it’s hard to try and fight to hold everything back. It would mean everything if it was four bikes. It’s a big sign of respect. It might not be 10,000 bikes, but it’s our brothers.”

Staying true to the mission
The judgements often happen at bars, Hops says. It’s hard for members to go out and wear their cuts in public because often times, it leads to people stirring trouble with them. Much of that comes from a culture that encourages male machismo, but some of it also comes from envy. “Well, when you’re a young, good looking guy with a hot chick, a lot of guys are going to hate seeing that,” Hops says. “So, yeah a lot of times, they will come try you.”

The group has dealt with these situations enough that they know not to make the first move and it rarely devolves into anything dangerous. But, some members have been known to “check respect” and see if the person approaching the club member wants “to go outside.” When incidents like that occur, it usually reflects more poorly on the person donning the motorcycle getup. Despite the scowls and whatever preconceived notions the general public has about motorcycle clubs, the Red and Tan Nation maintains it is dedicated to one mission: helping veterans.

Since its inception, the group has set out to help veterans by giving them a support group that they may not be able to find even within the local VA. They also hope to provide veterans with a new hobby. But recently the group has developed organizations like Platoon 22, which raises awareness of veteran suicide and aims to provide services to struggling vets. It's also part of the Veterans Enhancement Program, which is a program that builds motorcycles for disabled veterans.

“The benefits are three fold," Static says of VEP. "You teach skills to vets. Hopefully, it’s something they like and they can go on to pursue more skills. It gets a bike to someone who wants one and gives them the chance to ride. And it allows a guy to wrench on a bike and hopefully get some s--- off their mind. If they’re there wrenching on a bike untill 2 a.m. it might be the night they don’t pull the trigger.”

While the club works hard to rebuff the stereotypes and assumptions made about most motorcycle clubs, those same clubs have, frankly, long fed that portrayal themselves. They dress in a deliberate fashion — leather vests often accompanied by bandanas and tattoos and rings.

When members have joined the Desert Knights in the past, they've often worn typical civilian wear like jeans and t-shirts. But as soon as they earn their patch, "he is wearing a ring on every finger, wrapping his skull with a bandana, and wearing a fresh pair of Harley boots," Boss says. For some, the biker image is truly who they are. For others, it's a desperate attempt to fit into the culture. Many do it in an attempt to intimidate, Boss says. "I guess if we were really worried about our perception, we'd clean up a bit — cleaner jeans, collared shirts, nicer shoes," he explains. "I dress differently for work than I do anywhere else, so I think to some degree we all feed that perception."

The club culture
From the 1960s through the turn of the century, motorcycle club culture developed a negative connotation — largely pushed through the actions of a few of the largest motorcycle clubs. Clubs like the Pagans and Hells Angels earned a reputation for running drugs and guns and starting fights, casting a dark cloud over bikers.

“I’m so sick of this 'Sons of Anarchy' kind of s--- that people think about when they think of motorcycle clubs,” says Boss. “That’s not what most of these clubs are about.” The groups that engage in criminal activity, which are often referred to as “one-percenters” in the motorcycle club community, dominated the playing field for decades, usurping turf and claiming it as their own. And while those one-percent clubs still maintain a presence, others, including Red and Tan Nation, won't just let those clubs walk all over them.

The Desert Knights handbook addresses one-percent clubs in frank terms. In an older version of the handbook, members are instructed to remain neutral. If problems arise, get out of the environment. But the current version gives them the freedom to stand up to other clubs to a certain point. A big reason for that is numbers. Motorcycle clubs rarely discuss the number of members they have. If a rival club knows how many members another club has, it could lead to an attempt to try to take over their “turf.” The Desert Knights don’t talk numbers either, but Boss does say they have one of the largest clubs in the region, which has allowed them to, in some ways, be less adamant about maintaining their neutrality.

“We have no problem getting along with them,” Boss says. "There's no ill will. They can do their thing. There’s a lot of good dudes in those groups. What I don’t like is another group telling me what I can or can’t do." Ultimately, if a club wants to cause problems, the Desert Knights handbook instructs members to call the police and then call Boss. But in 13 years since the club was founded, no member has ever called the cops if trouble broke out.

“They won’t do that, because that’s pretty frowned upon in the biker community,” Boss says. “But those clubs are willing to do things we aren’t. They’re playing by a different set of rules. Our guys have careers — some of these guys are pulling in six-figure salaries working for the federal government. We’re not going to blow that on a bar fight.”

Besides, there’s little this group needs to prove.

“These guys are made up of the most elite killing force in the entire world — the United States military,” Boss continues. “We’ve got body counts. We want to avoiding adding to that. We have enough going on.” For some members, the motorcycle club culture isn’t something in which they even want to engage. For them, the sense of brotherhood and opportunity to help other veterans drove them to get involved. Ice, a fairly new patch holder, joined the Desert Warriors, and doesn’t even ride a motorcycle. He is enlisted in the military, though he has never deployed, even though he wants to.

“You don’t practice all week for a football game to not play on Sunday,” he says. But he’s also seen what his brothers deal with sometimes when they get back. So, if he never gets deployed, but he can help them to recover and assimilate back to civilian life, that’s good, too.

“If you would have asked me in a million years would I be involved with something like this, I would have said ‘hell no,’” he says. “The motorcycle thing really isn’t for me. But, what this group stands for, the message this group has in terms of helping vets, I’m all about that.”

The club used to be a club for only Harley Davidson riders. But, when Boss wanted to shift his club to one with a heavier family-first focus, he realized some of the younger vets may not have $20,000 to spend on a motorcycle. So he changed the rules.

The club accepts almost anyone no matter the background or the mistakes they've made in the past. Boss has only one rule — no one convicted of rape or pedophilia. People who commit those crimes can't be fixed, Boss says. But upon returning to civilian life, vets often have more struggles than most. Sometimes, they have suicidal thoughts. Sometimes, they have anger issues. Sometimes, they wrestle with substance abuse.

"There's something wrong with all of us," he says. "But the goal of this club is to help make each other whole again. We literally are our brother’s keeper. And when our brother makes a mistake, we don't need to push him away; we need to bring him in and hug him. We don't always support the behavior, but we always support the brother."

"You kind of get used to it"

After leaving the cemetery, the club gathers someplace called Hillbilly Heaven Bar and Grill. It’s pitch black inside with a few patrons sitting at the bar. The club gathers to drink a few beers and share stories. Sometimes, too much time can pass since they’ve seen one another. Events like the one on this weekend are a chance to catch up. But it’s also the first time all weekend they’ve been around civilians with no knowledge of the club. And the faces surrounding them stare.

They stare at the vests the members don. They stare at the prospective member standing at the pool table with his arms crossed. They stare while an older woman scowls as Hops yells above the noise to request the club take a shot in honor of Lenny. She casts judgement with her looks as the group yells “to Lenny” and then downs the alcohol. It's about 1 p.m. “You kind of get used to it,” Hops says. “That’s the way they’re going to feel. They don’t realize we’re the first people to pull over if you’re stuck on the side of the road, or to hold the door or help a grandmother carry her groceries. And that’s fine.”

The group recently began what will be a yearlong process of building a bike for a club member named Diesel, who lost his leg in an accident during a club ride in August.

Several members of the Desert Knights MC say a prayer at the grave of Lenny Youngblood, a member who died in 2016. By Allen Etzler

He hasn’t been alone since the accident happened. And nearly all of the club members have visited him. During the Labor Day weekend ride, a club member named Ironside drove up from Alabama to Ohio to stay with Diesel and then stopped by the party on the way home. When returning home from a trip to Africa recently, Static had to skip meeting for dinner with his mother to drive out to stay with Diesel in the hospital, he says.

“When you’re a part of this, you help your brother out,” he says. “There’s no time or distance that is too great.” It’s a brotherhood that few outside of the military will understand. And it’s a brotherhood that sometimes results in club members feeding into that popular portrayal of bikers. A drunk driver caused Diesel’s accident and the driver nearly hit several other riders.

A patch holder named Easy rode next to Diesel as the crash occurred. Easy pulled off the road and his girlfriend, who is a trauma nurse, wrapped a belt around Diesel’s leg to stop the bleeding.

“She probably saved his life. Or else he would have bled out,” Easy says.

But, Easy didn’t stick around long enough to watch her tend to his friend. He and another club member took off down the road chasing the driver, who had fled the scene. The driver later turned himself into police out of fear, several club members say. Despite their occasional rowdiness and unwavering loyalty to their brothers that can sometimes result in aggressive behavior, they’re far from what society’s depiction of bikers has made them to be.

After one member downs his shot at Hillbilly Heaven, he realizes it’s time to leave. Time to head back to reality, where work and a wife and children take up so much time. Leaving, too, is the woman who scowled and scoffed as the rowdy bikers took a shot in memory of their friend.

He holds the door for her.

Story and Photos: Allen Etzler

SOURCE: The Frederick News-Post
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