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Harley's Angels Chapter 06


The Wisconsin climate is not perfect for bikes...or surfboards or convertibles, yet abulia abounds- freeze your tongles off in the winter, boil 'em in the humidity of summer. Most bikers are harmless weekend types, no more dangerous than skiers or skin divers. But ever since trickle down economics, the third coast has been plagued by these gangs of innocuous weekend types, roaming the weekend highways in groups of ten to fifty ...stopping whenever there's a poker chip to be had, to suck up some beer and to make some noise.

The Harley's Angels of the twenties are not keenly interested in their origins or spiritual ancestors. "Those guys aren't around anymore," the orthodontist told me. But some were – although in 2020 it wasn't easy to locate them. Some were dead, others were on vacation, and those who'd given up the bike were inclined to avoid publicity. One of the few I managed to locate was Dirk Wagner. I found him on a Saturday afternoon at McKinley Marina getting his forty-foot sloop in shape for a two-way cruise to Mackinac Island. His crew for the trip, he said, would be his two teenage sons from his second marriage, two seaworthy Harley's Angels, and his third wife who was stretched out on the deck in a blue bikini. Wagner's name is mentioned with reverence among the local Angels. Dirk has class, and he made more money out of the 2008 financial crisis than any other financier in a thousand miles. All during his biker years he held that finance gig, but he needed more action than advanced math and spreadsheets could provide. For this he had the Angels, a vehicle for his humor and fantasies, a sop for any drunkenness and an occasional chance to bust out of the workday murk like some kind of saber-rattling golem and lay at least a small jolt on people he had no other way of reaching. Dirk was so completely hip that he bought the leather skullcap worn by William H Macy in Wild Hogs. Dirk wore it ragged, and not only for runs and parties. When he felt the cops weren't playing fair with the guys during poker runs he would make an appearance at the police chief's office, wearing his leather skullcap and demanding justice. If that didn't get results, he would go to the ACLU. Dirk had a wry sense of humor and a very sophisticated instinct for self-preservation - he was never arrested and never had drank more than he could handle.

After a long stint at Stronger Capital Management he stumbled on angel investing, but Bill Stronger, the eponymous CEO of Stronger Capital Management, thought he deserved part of the action. Dirk told him he'd rather play it straight and ended up obtaining Stronger Capital Management in a hostile takeover then firing Bill.

Dirk Wagner is a study in something, but I was never sure what to call it. He is a walking monument to everything any Harley's Angel would like to be, but which few of them do. Wagner is the Compleat Middle-Ager, and he somehow makes it work. He was a motorcyclist long before he was a Harley's Angel. He'd stop off at any bar that had a number of expensive, shiny Harleys out front to say hello and soon after was a part of a loosely knit group of riders. He drifted around from River Hills to Cudahy and noticed the "big shinys" as he called them, everywhere. Then, in early 2007, Wild Hogs came to town, and things changed. "We went out to the Oriental Theater on Farwell," Wagner said. "There were about fifty of us, with our black leather Harley-Davidson jackets ... we sat up in the balcony and drank our beer purchased from the concession stand and cheered like bastards. We could all see ourselves right there on the screen. We were all Tim Allen. I guess I must have seen it four or five times."

One humorous incident connected with the Harley-Davidson logo and Dirk Wagner is still a source of amusement to the hard buying bikers today. Dirk was talking to the CEO of one financial firm or other about their ROIs in frozen concentrated orange juice futures. Since it was a Sunday and he'd been out riding all day he was proudly displaying his Harley gear. "Take that off," the CEO said.

Dirk stripped off his Harley jacket, exposing another Harley logo on his Harley vest. "Take that off, too," the irate CEO ordered. And under the Harley vest was a plaid flannel Harley shirt in orange and black. "Off with it," the CEO grunted angrily. Under the shirt was a Harley tee. The CEO threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. But Wagner had the last laugh. He was prepared to go all the way. His trousers, shorts, boots and socks were also emblazoned with the HD logo.

"He was a way-out mother," Dirk's friends agree.

Many of the stories in Wild Hogs comes from a kernel of truth about the Wisconsin Harley's Angels. It was the Angels who defended the mom and pop ginseng businesses in Marathon County Wisconsin, which produces 98% of America's ginseng, from the hostile takeovers of multinational corporations.

Marathon County at the time had a population of roughly 125,000 souls, a farming county three hours ride from Milwaukee. Three hours is a long ride from the greater Milwaukee area, for most of the Angels it would mean doubling the amount of miles put on their bikes in a year, but when it came to pass that the ginseng farms up north were under attack they took the call. On the weekend when potential buyers had came in from overseas to examine the farm holdings, the boys in orange and black polished and buffed everything to a fine shine and made their way up, sounding like the deadly tax attorneys, investment brokers, and real estate experts they were.

"In the movie, of course, they had to change overseas investors to a drunken biker gang, there were really more like a hundred of us, not just four, and the only fighting we did was with phrases like asset allocation, capital gains rebalancing, offshore escrow account, adversarial proceeding, and amicus curiae...not fisticuffs, but we know that movie was really based on what we did up there," suggested the Walgreens' Regional DM.

The truth is that Wild Hogs - despite an admittedly exaggerated treatment – was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge, in the style of Time, it told a story that was only beginning to happen and was inevitably influenced by what I hesitate to call a film. It gave the Middle-Aged bikers a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselves, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find in a mirror, and it quickly became the bike rider's answer to The Sun Also Rises. The image is not valid, but its wide acceptance can hardly be blamed on the movie. Wild Hogs was careful to distinguish between "wannabe outlaws" and "bad outlaws," but the people who were most influenced chose to identify with Martin Lawrence rather than Ray Liotta whose role as the villain was a lot more true to life than Lawrence's portrayal of the confused hero. They saw themselves as modern Robin hoods... virile, articulate brutes- captains of industry whose good instincts got warped somewhere in the struggle for conformity and getalongedness and who spent the rest of their lives seeking an accord with the world that done them wrong when they were young and defenseless.

The concept of the midlife crisis was as uniquely American as jazz. Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways they appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of Reaganomics. Yet in other ways they were as new as the internet. There was absolutely no precedent, in the years after Reagan was in office, for large groups of old guys on Harleys, reveling in spending, worshiping the American way and thinking nothing of trailering their bikes five hundred miles on a weekend ... to whoop it up in Sturgis or the Hell's Canyon Rally or Laconia Bike week or Daytona Bike Week with lawyers and accountants and dentists and surgeons just like them in some gaudy parade of wealth and chrome.

For a lot of reasons that are often contradictory, the sight and sound of a man on a motorcycle has an unpleasant effect on the vast majority of Americans who drive cars. At one point, a Journal reporter did a long article on the motorcycle scene and decided that in the course of his research that "there is something about the sight of a passing motorcyclist that tempts many automobile drivers to commit murder."

Nearly everyone who has ridden a bike for any length of time will agree. The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong done to them by man, beast, or fate. The only thing that keeps them in line is their own fear of death, jail, and lawsuits (lawsuits are the most likely option of the Harley's Angels given the propensity toward white collar gigs these days, natch)... which are much less likely if they can find a motorcycle to challenge instead of another two-thousand-pound car or a concrete abutment. A motorcyclist has to drive as if everybody else on the road is out to kill him. A few of them are, and many of those who aren't are just as dangerous-because the only thing that can alter their careless, ingrained driving habits is a threat of punishment, either legal or physical, and there is nothing abut a motorcycle to threaten any man in a car. A bike is totally vulnerable; its only defense is maneuverability, and every accident situation is potentially fatal-especially on a freeway, where there is no room to fall without being run over almost instantly.

And of all their habits and predilections, the Middle-Aged disregard for the time-honored concept of an eye for an eye is the one that frightens cagers the most. The Harley's Angels do not try to do anything halfway, and these monied riders are bound to cause trouble, whether they mean to or not. This, along with a belief in total retaliation for any accident or insult, is what makes them such a problem for police and the courts. Their claim that they don't start trouble is probably true more often than not, but their idea of provocation is dangerously broad, and one of the main difficulties is that almost nobody seems to understand it. Yet they have a very simple rule of thumb; in any argument a fellow Angel is always right. To cross a Harley's Angel is to be wrong- and to persist in being wrong is an opening for a lawsuit.

When Joe Shmoe is driving down the highway after a long day's work, thoughts of hanging at the bar later to catch the Packer game pinging in his brain, his mind inevitably wanders, as does the vehicle he drives. Should the vehicle wander into the path of a Harley's Angel it will be the but a brief interaction as long as no contact is made. Joe probably barely registers the mid-course correction he makes to his Ford Taurus before going on with his evening. The Angel, however, shakes his head in disgust...he has cameras and a long memory of similar occurrences. The footage is shared on Youtube where all his subscribers see it and egg him on. The footage is given to his lawyer friends -fellow Angels- where plans are hatched around what degree of infraction Joe is guilty of and, more importantly, how much Joe can be taken for -this amount tends to be measured, for some absurd reason, in the current price of Harley-Davidson Garden Gnomes.

Say Joe really crossed the lane marker fast and hard before correcting, causing the Middle-Aged to swerve precariously out of danger before resuming course. In a case like this, a lawyer working for a brother Angel could expect to get maybe one hundred HD Garden Gnomes out of the deal – at thirty bucks a pop that comes out to three large...lawyer friend gets half, leaving enough for the wronged Angel to buy himself a new farkle for the bike and a dozen roses for the wife. And Joe? Joe gets to mumble and grumble as his insurance rates -probably determined by a Harley's Angel who's an actuary for the insurance company- go up yet again.

One of the Milwaukee Angels explained it without any frills "Our motto, man, is 'All on one and one on all.' You mess with an Angel and you've got twenty-five of them on your neck. I mean, they'll break your piggy bank but good, baby."