Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The man who loved motorcycles died, and 5 more lives claimed, but Booger makes sure a dream roars on

When Booger answered the phone tears coated his voice.
And it reminded me of the day I rode on the back of the Harley, my then brown and curly hair being slashed by the wind. At the front of the herd of bikes, Booger Watson rode on the old motorcycle in memory of his Pop.
The bikers and I (as a participant observer… I suppose nowadays you’d say I was “embedded with the bikers … ) were celebrating the life of Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson … as were the five people who died Sunday, their RV filling with carbon monoxide during the campout following the toy run in Big Lester’s memory. Thirty years after that first ride.
I’d been working all day for my various employers while most people were celebrating or worshiping or both – some pray while roasting brats and other wieners before Rob Bironas tees it up for the Titans. I took a break and turned on the TV news.
“Five motorcyclists dead after charity event in Clarksville,” says one of the weekend news guys, Skip or Lefty or Butch or Buzz, I can’t remember. The blond guy with blue eyes. Like that narrows it down in TV land.
Anyway, I sat down and waited, right through the commercial for frozen Friday’s dinners and the lead story about the Titans “kickin’ the ever-lovin’ crap” – as the sports guy said -- out of the Baltimore Ravens. Maybe he didn’t put it that way. Can’t remember. It was a good game, though.
Then came the story that both seared and sored my heart, suddenly thrusting me into decades past, into the times I rode in the convoy of the bearded and leather clad boys who loved Big Lester.
Five people died Sunday. Camping at the after-party hosted by Bikers Who Care, an organization born and dedicated to fulfill the kid-loving legacy of Leslie W. Watson.
In recent days, after last weekend's tragedy, no one has called him “Big Lester,” for that was a nickname born in grease and toil, when he was teaching the rugged young men of Clarksville that they could be saved, they could find direction, by putting the gears and nuts and bolts together, by fixing up Harleys. And riding them. With due caution (but not necessarily helmets).
Actually, there was one writer who invoked the old nickname. In the story I wrote for Reuters News Service, who do try to keep me busy and help me feed my kids and 500 head of cattle out on the back 40, I referred to him as “Big Lester.” Kidding about the cattle by the way. All I’ve got is a possum and a lot of goldfinches. And moles. Hate the damn moles.
I don’t know what he thought about moles, but I know that Leslie W. Watson didn’t like his first name. Leslie was hardly, back then at least, the kind of name you’d associate with a guy – even a very old man – who rode and relished 61-cubic inch knucklehead painted chrome silver. “Big Lester.” More like it.
Course he’s been dead now and political correctness I suppose has made the name “Leslie” more macho, worthy of the spit and leathers and grease beneath nails and on thinning hair. Course Booger’s real name is Leslie, too. And he still goes by “Booger” even at 60 years old.
Then again, some people call me “Flapjacks.”
Anyway, back to the motorcycle run. Now it’s called The Leslie W. Watson Memorial Toy Run, an annual effort to collect toys for the Clarksville Fire Department’s Christmas toy drive for underprivileged children.
On that first time out, when maybe 250 or 300 bikes roaring from the Fairgrounds down Riverside Drive to the firehouse on Franklin, it was called the “Ride for Big Lester.” The admission was a new toy – and most brought several – to donate to the run.
That group of bikers expanded their goals, working with many charities, aiding kids, in sickness and in health. Now about 1,500 bikers ride in annual the Leslie W. Watson Memorial. Many are soldiers or veterans. Back then, it was mostly scruffy kids and me (not that I didn’t blend in).
Someone, it may have been Dickens, said of that portion of my life it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” There was some personal tumult, for sure. And I had nasty habits, took tea at 3 in the afternoon and sometimes was asleep by 3 in the morning.
I was first and foremost a newsman, the associate editor of an excellent daily newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle. I worked probably 70-80 hours a week, helping my staff in recounting the adventures of Court Agate, counselor at law, and all kinds of stories about giant catfish, train wrecks, helicopter crashes, murderous punks and drunken soldier wrecks and shootings. And, with a long drag at a cigarette, I’d grab the first paper off the press and check the headlines.
Hard-smoking and drinking, a nationally honored columnist who wore his feelings on his sleeve, I was warned.
That’s why I fell in love with Booger and the boys, or really with their memory of Big Lester. It’s why I was rolling along, helmet-less, the wind whipping my Levis denim jacket and mustard News Brothers T-shirt, a pair of shades protecting my eyes from bugs, glass, dog turds and other flying objects.
Not sure where this “get your motor running, head out on the highway” adventure started. I think on the obituary page. I read that a fellow named Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson had died and that his remains would be at some mortuary, whatever the name of that island of deceased souls, pickled bodies and broken toys in downtown Clarksville.
It was my town. I loved almost everybody there, other than a phony bald guy I sarcastically called “newspaperman” and other assorted authoritarian geeks or creeps who mostly were his friends or government officials.
So I walked to the funeral home. Only to be struck by the sight of the silver Harley outside, surrounded by about 30 or 40 other motorcycles.
Inside there were nice words for Big Lester. Outside were the two-wheeled machines to which he had devoted his life.
When the funeral was done, the boys rolled out to Greenwood Cemetery with the body.
The next day’s editions of the newspaper had the front-page centerpiece with the headline:
“The man who loved motorcycles died.”
It was the Feb. 17, 1982, version of my old Clarksville Calling Card column that ran for more than a decade three days a week. The Nashville Banner had me do a similar slice-of-life, human-dignity-focused effort called “Real Life” for almost 10 years.
Then at the morning newspaper in Nashville – after the Banner was done in when greed got in bed with Korporate Amerika – I was allowed to write the same basic column, as long as I did it “on my time” for a couple of years…. Until they required me to run photos with the columns and suddenly realized most of my columns were about black people or perhaps motorcycle riders. Not the Green Hills shopaholics and 20-30ish white tamponeers and their trophy husbands that were the chosen demographics.
“Write about white businessmen in the suburbs or don’t write a column at all,” said the then-boss, or words to that effect.
I smiled and pulled down my pants, shot him what was then a finely toned moon. Maybe I just flipped him off. Or hit him with a giant hocker on the schnozz. Nah, I gotta admit I was sad. But proud. I refused and began a long and steady stroll toward what ended up with me sitting on the night cops beat.
Regardless, that fellow is now some sort of white big shot in Brentwood while I wear worn out shorts and Chicago Cubs T-shirts, down to the seeds and stems of clothing, while toiling away in my basement. Yet, I am convinced I won.
Oh well, personal tails and tales aside, the story about Big Lester’s funeral painted a pretty good picture of these young bikers. And then a few months later they decided to start the annual Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson Memorial Toy Run.
I rode in thatl. I didn’t have a motorcycle. Always been a knucklehead but too poor to own one, so I rode on the tail-gunner’s seat, bugs in my teeth and good vibrations all around.
That was 1982. The 30th edition of the run, now called “Leslie W. Watson…” etc., with no “Big Lester” in its moniker -is the one that ran last Saturday, with the bikers filling up four truckloads of toys before going to their after-party – a fund-raiser for a camp for seriously ill children.
Two-hundred bikers and their families camped out at the Clarksville Speedway.
Five people did not wake up, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
That’s the news the Aryan news guy offered up and it was why I called Leslie Jr., well, Booger, to ask what happened.
He cried when he told me. But he said the ones who died loved kids, too. That the work would continue. That Bikers Who Care are on a mission from God. Or something similar.
And I thought that, in a real way, I helped get this run started by my loving depiction of the man who loved motorcycles and also various columns about kids in need or dying….. I identified with them all and they with me.
So when Booger and Bill Langford and the others began to dream about the memorial run three decades ago, I participated in their dream and in publicity for it. I rode in it and covered it more than one year.
When five people die at an event you kinda helped start, well a guy can’t help but feel the pain. Then again, look at all the kids these bikers have helped. And will help in the future.
Big Lester would be proud.
It also had me digging through my files. Most of my writing, from all the newspapers at which I served with dignity if not decorum, was lost in the Nashville Flood of 2010.
But there were a few old columns I was able to rescue.
One of them is the following, from Feb. 17, 1982. My writing perhaps has matured over the years. I know I have matured to the point of being over-ripe. But here is the column:

The man who loved motorcycles died

The gloomy, drizzly day was suited more to a funeral than a motorcycle ride.
Leather-jacketed young men joined conservatively dressed old men at Tarpley’s Funeral Directors.
They all admired the low-slung, silver Harley-Davidson by the curb in front of the funeral home.
The bike belonged to Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson, who died Saturday at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville.
Big Lester’s youngest son, Booger, 30, was standing in front of the funeral home, talking about Big Lester and the beautiful old Harley.
To many, this bearded young man in black leather jacket, jeans and boots may have seemed out of place at a funeral, especially since he was to lead the procession … vrooming the silver machine through the streets of Clarksville to Greenwood Cemetery.
And what a procession! Many of the other young men in black leather and jeans, strutting proudly outside the funeral parlor were there to join Booger… to vroom their Harleys behind Big Lester’s and escort the hearse in revving final tribute to the cemetery.
Many of the older fellows in their suits and ties probably envied the collection of proud young, probably remembered back to the days they straddled Harleys and headed down the long, lonesome highway abreast Big Lester.
“Dad opened the first Harley dealership in this town,” said Booger.
That was in 1946. When Big Lester moved Watson’s Motorcycle Shop from 741 Greenwood to 1661 Hopkinsville Highway in 1952, he rode his bike to the new location.
That was the last time anyone rode the beautiful machine.
He put that 61-cubic-inch Harley away, covered it, lovingly storing his lifelong dream away.
“From the early 1920s, his life had been Harley-Davidson motorcycles,” said Booger. “The first one he had was a 1915 model. He said that when he got that old 1915 model, one day he’d own a new one.”
That day was in 1940, when Big Lester traveled to the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee, Wis.
He rode home on his dream machine.
Big Lester hadn’t ridden motorcycles much in the last of his 73 years of life.
“The last time I remember him riding a bike was when I was 11 years old and he built me a little hummer and showed me how to ride it.” Booger laughed, then his voice thickened and he rubbed his eyes.
Big Lester transferred his love of Harleys to his sons. Hadley owns Watson’s Motorcycle Repair in New Providence and Booger worked with his dad at the old shop on Hopkinsville Highway.
Booger pretty well ignored the business he shared with his dad for the past month. “I spent all of my time at the hospital,” he said.
And then, the man who loved motorcycles died. In his mourning, Booger had a thought: he was going to take his dad’s beloved bike out of mothballs, repair it, clean it and ride it in the funeral procession.
“It was a passing thought to begin with .. then, I thought ‘Well, I’ll go to the shop and see what happens…’”
The work began Sunday night. “I’d say definitely it was running in an hour’s period of time.”
Booger spent two hours Sunday and six hours Monday preparing his tribute. “Most of that time was spent cleaning it up and checking it out. Some of my friends came by last night to help … It as a party … kind of like it would have been if Pop had been there.”
Of course, “Pop” was there in spirit, which was represented by that motorcycle.
“Other than a human object, that motorcycle was the nearest thing to Daddy,” said Booger. “He just loved it.”
The funeral hour was drawing near. Booger and 30-to-40 bike-riding friends prepared their honor guard….
Big Lester’s Harley Deluxe was going to be at the point, leading the way to the cemetery.
“Daddy always liked his motorcycle in front,” said Booger.

Rest in Peace to the folks who died in Clarksville.
But their dream, Big Lester's spirit, lives on whenever Booger and his friends go back on the highway to help kids.

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