Monty and I have this weird way of finding each other. Long ago and a few states away, before cell phones reached unsettling ubiquity, we set a 24-hour window to meet at the library parking lot in Sheridan, Wyoming. We were coming from thousands of miles apart, opposite directions on motorcycles through summer fires and raucous swarms of bikers from Sturgis; and yet, our arrivals were only a quarter hour apart. Since then, he and I have little trouble sorting each other out in about any mess. So, finding him instantly amid 3,000 other people gathered on OSU campus in front of LaSells Stewart Center wasn’t even remotely amazing--at least to us. Breezy, Monty’s girlfriend, was also unimpressed; but she has ridden more than a few miles with us and witnessed, first-hand, our strange simpatico. Although the crowd’s mood was light, I was surprised to see Monty looking so serious. Yet, there he stood: Army beret, cigar, motorcycle attire.
It’s not very often I get calls to action from both the bikers and the gays for the same event. Nothing quite as unifying and counter to their cause than the Westboro Baptist Church sending a bus-load of people carrying signs supposing that “God hates fags” and that soldiers are dying because homosexuality is tolerated in the US. Thus, it would stand to reason that both groups would be circling the wagons—or the Harleys and rainbow flags, respectively. Most chartered motorcycle groups are strongly represented by veterans. (The infamous Hell’s Angels was started by vets, returning from WWII.) Anyone who has stepped foot inside of the city limits of Corvallis knows the LBGT community here would not let the WBC pop in without a fabulous welcoming party. It was almost disorienting to see these two camps camping out together in front of LeSells Stewart Center. Very cool, but disorienting.
He was a Philomath boy, the fallen soldier Cody Patterson, whose funeral was being held on the OSU campus. I want to call him a kid, since he was just edging into his mid-twenties. Joey, my counter-mate at the Darkside, knew him from school. I still think of Joey as a kid (he did come to me as a teenager), and he’s a couple years older than Cody when Cody was killed by a suicide bomber while on his second tour of duty during a battle in the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. Not a very kid-like death.
But this gathering was on a sunny Sunday, which is a bit of a random meteorological miracle for October in Oregon. I was too warm in my armored Kevlar motorcycle jacket. Soon we were all shedding out outer-ware. Wafting over the gathering was wooden flute music and the scent of burning sage. A patriotically dressed woman, making her way through the multitudes, handed me an American flag. Soon after, a yellow ribbon was put in my hand. Hundreds, then thousands of people lined the street in front of the building where the service was held. There was a discernable split between the people waiting for something to happen and those who were there to make sure something didn’t happen. However, it was still a peaceful, respectful gathering of people from all walks putting aside their differences to honor someone’s son, brother, or friend. There was no hatred of homosexuals or bashing of vets or the war. There was warm sun that brought to life the fiery fall leaves, which were waving in ripples over the many, many American flags. I watched two guys holding hands walk between two motorcycle gang members having a conversation. One biker smiled at the boys.
I’m always reminded how long I’ve been in this community when I walk through a crowd like this. I know so many of these people from over the counters of the theaters I’ve run over the decades in this area. I see children, and I remember their parents’ first date at the Avalon Cinema. My friends in the gay community hug me solidly. My biker friends shake my hand, look me in the eye, then give me a pat or two on the back. Very “no-homo.” I see people I know who will not talk to me—either because they blame me for a bad business decision or they think I’m a bastard because they know one of my exes. I crossed the street to find myself amid a gaggle of young women loudly hoping for a chance to scream at the Westboro picketers. They were riled up in pink tank tops adorned with hand-Sharpied slogans and looking for a fight. They’ll just have to go out and dance off that excess energy or go for a run. There were too many of us wanting it just to be peaceful.
Many years ago, before these ladies in pink were probably eating solid food, I did a gay and lesbian film festival at the Avalon Cinema. We hadn’t been open long, and it was a bit of a mess in many ways; but we did it. There were a few homophobic messages left on the theater phone. Painfully juvenile. I wonder if all these years later those people have any regret around being so mean and small-minded as they slung their hate into my answering machine. I wonder if there will come a time when the WBC people will look back and cringe at what they were a part of. Veterans are a big part of our community, and more than once I’ve cringed when driving by the protestors in front of the courthouse—and reading a particularly angry sign. How does that make veterans feel when they are trying to matriculate back into our community?
Soon after the Darkside opened, we played a movie called GUNNER PALACE, which was a doc about the war in Iraq. It was quite good, and many vets braved the Darkside and came to see it. One night a particularly large soldier asked if this was my theater. He was not too long away from battlefield, and you could see it in his eyes. I was very uncomfortable when I admitted I was the owner. He asked how long we would have the movie. I said I would do special shows of the movie for him, his brothers and sisters in arms, and their families. This did not please him, and he demanded I answer his question. I did, quickly, and he left with no ceremony. He came back no less than a dozen times to see GUNNER PALACE—each time with another group in tow. He would never let me just pass him in without paying. It was quite awhile later when I relayed this story to another vet, who told me that many vets in this community feel unwelcome and that scary vet might have thought I was trying to isolate he and his ilk from my “normal” customers. Maybe, on some level I was.
The WBC bus was supposed to be there at 2pm. It was now 3pm, and the afternoon was not getting any cooler. Someone yelled and the motorcyclists all moved toward the parking lot, like school of fish toward a plankton colony. Monty grabbed my arm and told me we’re going. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was Monty; so I followed. We were traveling the sidewalk in a sea of black leather and motorcycle patches bobbing up and down. Monty stepped out of the tide, and I followed him. He surmised there were enough people to handle anything that might come and we should just get while the getting was good. Though a valid plan, I could see he was pissed in that slow, smoldering way he gets pissed. I never asked him what it was, but I’d guess the group of kids texting and complaining about nothing happening had worn him down. Like he said later, “Some people were there for the wrong reason.” Though not a man prone to lingering seriousness, disrespect doesn’t get a pass from Monty.
Soon I was riding west on Western, passing oncoming traffic heading toward the funeral like it was standing still—because it was. As speed created more noise in my helmet, I was thinking about how we had all attended for different reasons. The fact that the WBC hadn’t had their way with us suggests it was a good mix of motivations in the crowd. I felt a historic need to be there. Duty brought Monty. Others were there for reasons that made sense to them. The lightening rod for all of this was a young man from Philomath, a veteran that never got to return to our community. Our community turned out by the thousands, to say goodbye to Cody, and to face anyone coming into our midst to disrespect him. This is who we really are.