BANGOR — Harley Davidson owners often get a bad rap. Their motorcycles are loud, they dress in black leather and many have long hair and beards.
So, with 600 Harley enthusiasts in Bangor for a rally over the weekend, I set out to find out just how normal these “Hog” owners are.
First stop: Paul Bunyan park where a slew of bikes were on display for the public. For a $1 donation to the Bangor D.A.R.E. program, people could cast a vote for their favorite machine.
The winning bike, a blue sportster dubbed “Miss Betty,” belonged to a petite woman with graying hair.
Arlene Lutz of Westbrook, a medical assistant, didn’t get her motorcycle license until she was 45. That was five years ago.
When she started dating her current husband, John, she was working a second job at a bakery so her friends dubbed the couple “Betty Crocker and the Biker.” Hence, her first Harley was named “Miss Betty.”
Lutz said she was shocked that she won the people’s choice award because her bike was pretty average. Although she has enjoyed riding the 1994 motorcyle, she said she might soon trade it in for one with a little more suspension.
So far, so good on the normalcy meter.
That would change as I headed up the hill to the parking lot behind the Civic Center where a series of wacky field events were held. Intrepid contestants tossed water balloons, raced on 12-foot long skis and ate hot dogs.
OK, it wasn’t quite that simple. The hot dog, for example, was stuck on a plastic fork dangling from a bar and had to be eaten by the passenger as the motorcycle passed underneath.
Contestant after contestant completely missed the hanging wiener until Julie Floyd and her husband, Jay, rode by and she took a healthy chunk out of it.
Asked the secret to the event, Julie, a florist, laughed and said: “I was hungry, I guess. I was gonna have a bite, no matter what.”
Jay, a logger, had a different theory. He also won the slow motorcycle race and said the strategy was to pass under the dog as slowly as possible so his wife could chomp on it.
The Floyds, who live in Lee, N.H., won the event called the “Black Bear Bite” by biting off a quarter-inch more hot dog than their closest competitor.
Harley riding is a family affair for the Mardens of Bangor, so 11-year-old Eric rode with his dad, David, in the “Allagash Splash.” The Mardens made it through several rounds of the event in which Eric tossed a water-filled balloon over an increasingly higher bar and caught it on the other side while his father drove slowly under the bar. Finally, the black balloon slipped out of Eric’s fingers and broke on the pavement.
Mom, Sigrid, and sister, Leila, cheered from the sidelines.
Sigrid Marden said she “never, never” thought she would own a Harley. But, after being bitten with the Hog bug, she secretly studied for and passed the state’s motorcycle license test last September. She promptly ordered a purple Harley to ride alongside her husband.
The family has traveled to several rallies.
“We think it is a family sport because of the travel and opportunities to learn,” Sigrid said.
Eric, who wore a black leather vest, dark glasses and sauntered behind his similarly clad father, is already saving up for his own bike — a black sportster.
So much for the contestants; how about the bystanders?
Tracy Littlefield looks pretty normal wearing seersucker shorts and pushing a stroller until you find out the passenger, 16-month-old Nathaniel, was registered with a Harley Club three days after he was born. He’s wearing a Harley T-shirt that his parents bought before he was even born. Needless to say, Nathaniel is the youngest registered participant in the Bangor rally, the second in his brief life.
Baby and mom drove up in a car from Saco but the Littlefields are already talking about buying a sidecar so Nathaniel can ride on the motorcycle with them. They’re currently working on getting him used to wearing a helmet.
“They come from all walks of life,” Littlefield said of Harley owners. She said there’s a minister and optometrist in their southern Maine club. She and her husband, Donald, own a True Value hardware store in Westbrook.
My last best hope was a Bangor dentist whom a co-worker described as a normal middle-aged man who happened to have a penchant for Harleys.
I found Gary Fessler, clad in black jeans, a white Harley Davidson shirt and boots, in the driveway of his Grove Street home/office washing his bike until the cherry red was radiant and the chrome glistened. I don’t know a lot about motorcycles, but it was immediately obvious that Fessler’s bike was special. Although it is new, the 1998 Road King is made to look like the Harley Davidsons of yore. Its emblem and styling are straight out of 1965. I didn’t dare ask the price, which would have seemed gauche in a crowd that talks of engine size — measured in cubic centimeters and the bigger the better — and torque, but not of dollars.
“It’s a sweet bike,” Fessler said with more than a hint of pride.
He showed me the bike’s “birth certificate,” a label that follows the bike through the production process, which is framed and hangs on the wall of his garage. Fessler has toured the Harley factory in Milwaukee and attended the fabled yearly rally in Sturgis, N.D., the largest Harley gathering in the world.
“That was cool,” he said.
As we talked about his days of running marathons and playing the bagpipes, I wondered about my co-worker’s definition of normal.
Fessler, who just returned from a cross-country motorcycle ride with his 18-year-old son Ian, got into Harleys six years ago. After hearing motorcycles pass by his house on nearby State Street, he said it just occurred to him that he, too, could get a license and ride. He studied for the test and was nervous about not passing.
Now it was my turn for a test as Fessler and I were to set out for a test ride before participating in the Harley parade through downtown Bangor.
Looking at the bike’s speedometer, which went up to 120 mph, I accepted his offer of a helmet, clambered aboard and we were off. We headed out State Street, through Veazie and back down Stillwater Avenue. Although we didn’t get over 50 mph, the wind in my face made it feel a lot faster. It was exhilarating.
I didn’t fall off and was dubbed a good passenger, so we headed to the Civic Center to join the other Hogs for the noisy procession.
I wasn’t homecoming queen or cheerleader material in high school, so it seemed appropriate that my parade debut be made on the back of a Hog, I thought as we headed down the hill toward Main Street. The parade was led by Bangor policemen who, sadly, were forced to ride in cars because their Harley was damaged last week in a collision with a dog.
We couldn’t believe all the people who lined the streets, waving and pointing. I waved back to little kids, co-workers and city councilors. Good thing I was on one of the best looking bikes in the bunch, I thought.
The long line of roaring bikes was impressive as we wound around downtown. Later, Fessler said the procession almost brought him to tears.
“What keeps me in it,” he said of riding Harleys, “is the motorcycles, and it’s the people.”
No doubt, he’d rather hang out with Harley riders than other dentists.
“We have to suffer with the image that we’re all Hell’s Angels,” said John Hanson, director of the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine and director of the Bangor chapter of the Harley Owners Group.
The 600 Hog riders who came to Bangor from as far away as Seattle, while perhaps not normal, were good people who did their part to dispel that image.
Bangor police reported no incidents involving rally participants and when the weekend gathering was over, they handed over $700 in cash to Dan Frazell, head of the city’s D.A.R.E. program.