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The Life-Saving Photograph

A very dear friend of mine was in prison, and it may not be germane to the story, but if you knew him for even a few minutes, you would know that he was not capable of committing the crime he was imprisoned for. I know the circumstances, and I know why his neighbor lied and said what he said, but as it was, my friend was in jail for over seven years. 

Despite all the horror stories about his time in prison for a crime that is notoriously hated by inmates, my friend started and ran an art program in the prison, and was known to be always available to write letters to the wives, girlfriends and children of the other inmates. He was artistically talented and his letters and gentle spirit were appreciated by the guards and around “the yard.” He never aligned himself with any faction, gang or group, kept to himself outside of his cell, his class and various consultations with other inmates. He was generally highly regarded and left alone until a new prisoner was transferred in, and for what my friend swears remains an unknown reason, the new con developed a hatred for my friend, and vowed to kill him. 

Because of his being so generally well-liked among guards as well as inmates, this information was quickly relayed to him, but as it was a prison, his options for avoiding the man were limited. He knew he was as vulnerable in his cell, if not more so, than in the yard, if he was alone, but he couldn’t ask his “cellie” to stay there. He knew that when someone wanted someone “got” in that place, they were often got. 

And that would be about the time that I sent him a book I wrote about the radio station we worked at, at which his contributions were widely known and appreciated. I loved the man, so of course I’d want him to see the book, and of course I’d included several of his artistic contributions in one of the three photo sections. But it wasn’t any of those that made a difference- it was a photo of him at a Willie Nelson concert that the station put on in conjunction with the Hells Angels. While the Angels’ contribution to concerts is mostly known for the disaster that was the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, what is not as widely known is that the Hells Angels used to put on concerts themselves. If you ever see a concert poster put on as “A Charlie Magoo Production,” that was the Hells Angels. 

The Angels were fans of Willie, and as our station, KFAT, was the only radio station in California playing Willie, the Angels asked us to sponsor it, which we did. At that show we had a booth that sold the station’s T-shirts that my friend had designed, and someone took a photo of him in front of the booth, next to a booth asking for donations for the legal defense fund of Sonny Barger, the founder and president of the Hells Angels, who at the time was in jail for murder. But back to the photograph.

I remember going through all the drawings, photos and documents I would include in the book, and separating them from the photos and other memorabilia that I would put up on the website. I loved that photo of my friend in front of his booth and dithered about where to use it, but ultimately decided to use it in the book. Which I sent to my pal. Who was in prison. Where he got it. Which was when he opened the package and started looking through it. Which was when he saw the section with his artwork and the photo of himself and his then-girlfriend in front of the booth that sold the T-shirts which was next to the booth about Sonny Barger. Which was when one of the guards strolled by and asked what he was looking at.

As I said, he was well-liked by the guards, most of whom had a casual relationship with him, so it was not unusual that the guard would see my friend deeply engrossed and ask what he seemed so wrapped up in. He told the guard that he’d just gotten this book from his friend, and it was an amazing tale of what had to be the strangest radio station ever, and that he had done the artwork for. Already a fan from what he’d seen my friend do at the prison, the guard asked to see the artwork, and my friend obliged. He showed him the artwork, and the guard hummed and yeahed agreeably, and then as an afterthought my friend showed him the photo, which was when the guard
said, “Wait a minute.” He studied the photo and asked what it was about. My friend told him about the booth and the T-shirts and how well they used to sell, but the guard said, “No, I mean this,” and he pointed at the sign above the adjoining booth, the sign that said, FREE SONNY BARGER, so my friend told the guard about the relationship between KFAT and the Hells Angels, and how they used to come there almost every time they went on a run and the bars closed. Twenty to thirty strong, they’d roar into Gilroy around 2:30 and stay until dawn, drinking, snorting speed and hanging out. The overnight DJs have told me so many Hells Angels stories, and enough of them appeared in the book that I thought it prudent to go see them and tell them about what I had and what I was doing.

I know it’s off-point, but perhaps it’s interesting that they eyed me suspiciously and disdainfully, looked at me like I was a bug on the dinner table, and when I told them why I was there, one of them said they had only two questions for me: was the book about the Hells Angels, and did it have the words Hells Angels in the title? I said no to both and he growled, “Okay. Fuck off!” And I did. Back to my pal in jail.

When my friend explained about our relationship with the Hells Angels, the guard nodded and said, “Okay, yeah. Interesting. Thanks for showing me that,” and he left the cell. Twenty minutes later a huge shadow fell over his cell and he looked up to find a massive man standing in the doorway to his cell. In jail, I was told, no one would enter another man’s cell without permission or at least acknowledgement- unless there was murder or mayhem at hand. The giant asked if he was the guy with the book about the Hells Angels, and my friend explained that yes, it was he, but it wasn’t a book about the Hells Angels, it just had that one photo. He had just gotten the book and opened it moments before the guard showed up, so he didn’t know that there were about a half-dozen outrageous Hells Angels stories in there (aren’t they all?), but the guy only wanted to see the photo. As he was a well-known man of respect in the yard, known by all, my friend already knew that this man was a Hells Angel.

When my friend found the photo and showed it to the guy, the man studied it as if looking it over for authenticity. He asked, “Do you know who Sonny Barger is?” and asked if he knew what the booth was about, to which my friend replied that of course, that it was he in the photo and he’d been next-door to the guys in that booth all day, and had given a fair share of the day’s earnings to the cause. The giant said, “Come with me!” They went down to the main room and then out into the yard, whereupon he put his right arm over my friend’s shoulder and then casually walked him around the outer perimeter of the yard. 

When he got out jail I went to see him, and when he answered the door and saw me, he opened his arms and grinned and said, “Brother! You saved my life!” I had no idea what he was talking about.

It seems that by escorting my friend in so public a manner, he was telling everyone, inmates, guards and wardens, that this man was under the protection of the Hells Angels, and any grief that befell him would befall anyone who caused him grief. Then he told me that also arranged that day was a visit to the cell of the man who had threatened my friend, where it was explained that if any grief befell my friend, and it was determined or even considered to be the result of this man in any way, that all of the people he loved would meet tragic and sudden ends, and they would eliminate him last, so he could live to hear of their painful ends. My friend was informed that the man got the message and declared his beef against my friend to be null, void, and need never be mentioned again. So that’s at least one reason my friend was so glad to see me again.