Common Tread

Halfway to Berdoo: Mother Ruthe and the outlaw bikers

Oct 27, 2016

I’m taking a page out of Spurg’s playbook today.

I’m reporting on a book that’s now out of print. Spurg, you see, loves all those books that you can’t just jump on Amazon and buy. I must confess, I have feet of bookshelf space devoted to similar tomes. Today’s book is just a bit different, though: It’s not available, but it is brand new.

That’s because just 1,500 copies were printed and all sold out via presale. Essentially, the book never even made it to a shelf for sale. There is not yet word on future editions. For those of you who might want a taste of the book’s content, however, you can grab a slice for free. Book collaborator Bo Bushnell posts frequently on the Straight Satans Instagram page. He has a seemingly endless supply of images from the Sixties and Seventies. Those photos whetted my appetite to buy the book.

"Halfway to Berdoo 1961 to 1965" began as a collection of photos — there are 70 five-by-seven snaps in the book. The photos were shot by Marilyn Ruthe Foster, better known as “Mother Ruthe.” Mother Ruthe was friendly with many of the early one-percenter biker clubs. Her house was halfway between Venice Beach and San Bernardino (there’s the “Berdoo” in the title) in California and she served as an unofficial mother to the roughnecks who made their way to her doorstep. She took minutes for many of the club meetings, as she was a paralegal.

“Ruthe would feed us, bandage us up, give us a new shirt if we needed one, or just give us a place to rest. Before we headed off on our way, she would take a photo of us in front of the hedge on the side of the house,” says contributor Dougie Poo in the book. Those carefully taken photos went missing and were later found by Bushnell, about 50 years later.

Book inner
A majority of the book is arranged with a shot of a rider on his machine, and a page of stories about that club member. RevZilla photo.

The book also has a written component. Text comes verbatim from interviews conducted by Bushnell. Former members and those close to the club paint a picture as to what life was like in an early one-percenter motorcycle club. The stories are wild; almost beyond belief. Even in the first days of outlaw motorcycle clubs, life was beyond rowdy. The book’s interviews are chock full of drug use, rampant sex, pimping, ripping off bikes and weapons, fighting, and the occasional death. But, you’re not gonna give this book to your kids to read, now, are you?

The stories are fun (and funny!), but the transcription contained what I believe to be a few errors. Nothin’ major. The editing was a little rough, too, but let’s be honest here: This is a book about violent criminals who happened to ride motorcycles every-friggin’-where. It’s gonna be a little rough around the edges. The stories are good enough, though, that characters come to life with multiple facets to their personality, so readers see these men as people, not just as riders or criminals.

The stories are augmented by shots of the club members with their bikes. Historically speaking, it’s nice to see how the chopper evolved by looking at the images in the book. Sitting down to thumb through photos has a pretty high value to me when I want to see how a bike was built at a certain place and time.

Stylistically, the bikes Ruthe shot are very similar. There’s the occasional Brit bike, Sporty, or 45 to be found, but the prototypical Big Twin short chop is best represented. Most are Pans, with a few Knuckles making a showing. Front ends appear to be an even split between hydraulic and springer on the Big Twins. Frames are almost all uncut and rigid. Most bikes are running 16-inch rears with something taller and skinnier on the front like a 19-inch or 21-inch wheel. Oddly, almost everything has front brakes. Upswept fishtail or cocktail shaker mufflers seem to be the dominant exhaust style, and tall sissy bars are noticeably absent.

Direct scans of handwritten notes really make you feel like you're there reading the letter after the envelope was opened. RevZilla photo.

The book is 144 pages and ran me $45 plus $5.95 to ship it. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s a first run of a book that sold out before it ever went to a bookseller. The layout was good. Better editing would have been nice, but that’s my only real complaint. The book is hardcover, with what appears to be glued binding. It has a glossy cover and the same design is printed on the glossy book jacket.

The book serves as just a glimpse into the life of outlaw motorcyclists, and it’s an interesting way to become familiarized with a breed of men who were strange, violent outcasts, who would die for their brothers and were in love with their  bikes. The last few pages of the book contain some handwritten notes to Mother Ruthe. It is odd to read their scrawls, some less than articulate, from a time when written communication was far different from what it is today.

I'm glad I got this book while I could. It’s a good read.