It was recently suggested that I invest in a new jacket and I found myself bristling at the thought. Granted, it’s over 20 years old, but I realized what an exalted place leathers hold in our hearts. Bikers count on jackets for more than just apparel: as bedding, both pillow and blanket, padding while on the ground wrenching on cantankerous bikes and as insulation from the weather. Personally, I’ve wrapped my children and grandchildren up to keep them warm and strapped it to fender racks to cushion my tush. The pockets are loaded with assorted necessary paraphernalia, making it a valuable vessel besides being a first defense against road rash should we hit the ground. I have to admit: I’m devoutly attached to my jacket.
Just like first bikes and first loves, I’ve never spoken to any biker who doesn’t remember their first leather. Reliving that rebel feeling that comes with first zipping into the heavy black hide that, while meant to provide protection and warmth, emanates an air of confidence. “I am biker. I am bad!” At least that’s how it was for me back in the day. Mine was a Made in America Perfecto with the American flag stitched into the collar, the kind Marlon Brando made famous in The Wild One. His character was cool beyond words in leather with stars on the epaulettes, zippered and belted, with “Johnny” scrawled in longhand over his heart. Perfecto jackets were sold for a while with one star on each epaulette, but discontinued sometime in the ’60s. Mine had neither stars nor holes so I always figured it wasn’t that old. The jacket, along with a pair of riding boots, was purchased used from a friend for $80. Both were well worn, fit like a glove and kept me company for many miles before my husband gifted me a brand-new Harley-Davidson jacket years later. The first jacket hangs in my youngest daughter’s closet now, though she doesn’t have a motorcycle. She wears it when she goes out, since that kind of cool never goes out of style.
A new friend shared that as a kid of 18 he had his first leather jacket custom made. He had the foresight to have it tailored big, knowing he would grow. “I had them make the sleeves long, clear to here, because I knew my arms weren’t going to stay that length,” he explained as he held his arms out in front of him as if holding onto handlebars, indicating the cuffs at the backs of his hands. “And I absolutely knew I was going to fill out here,” he says as he pats his belly. “I still had that jacket right up until I had my big crash in ’97. Some girl T-boned me and I died twice: once at the scene and the sheriff worked on me and once again in the helicopter that landed to fly me to the hospital. It was really something. I lost a lot of blood; lots of rods and stuff to put me back together. The EMT guys cut my jacket off.” He imitates a pair of scissors cutting along his arms and shoulders and shakes his head, then he smiles. “But I saved it. Took it and had it all sewn back together. It’s a sort of Frankenstein jacket, but I still have it.” Quickly doing the math, I calculate he’s had the jacket for 32 years.
Another rider tells about his leather that was obtained through a series of trades back in 1970. “I had a 1959 ’Vette my dad bought me. I really liked that car, but traded it off for a three-wheeler with a 45 c.i. engine and 20-inch-over front end along with a ’58 Panhead basket and a box of parts. I loved that three-wheeler; me and my girl went all over on that thing. I ended up trading the springer front end that came with the Pan for my first jacket. I’m on my second jacket now; gave the first to my oldest. He doesn’t wear it, though. I think he’s afraid he might get busted for drugs,” he laughs. “I cleaned it out real good before I gave it to him, though. Found about a half-ounce worth of pot in the linings and lots of seeds in the pockets and stuff from back before I got clean and sober. A bunch of girls’ phone numbers, too.” Asking why he gave it to his son he says, “I dunno. I just wanted him to have it. I got it before he was even born; thought he might think it was cool. It’s all scraped up from all my crashes and everything, but he’s still got it.”
Do you know where your first leather is?