The first time I saw Terry the Tramp was in the early 90s. I was “securing” a section of a parking lot in San Bernardino when a perfectly green Chevy Caballero pulled into the other end of the lot. “Is that Terry the Tramp,” a guy near me asked. Then he answered himself, “Yep. That’s the man. The man himself.”
All I said was, “I thought he was bigger.”
Now Keith “Bandit” Ball has written a biography of Terry “The Tramp” Orendorff, the longtime President of the Vagos Motorcycle Club. Ball began writing for Easyriders magazine in 1972 and he was the editor during most of the years when that magazine was at its best. He now owns and operates bikernet.com. Motorbooks published Terry the Tramp: The Life and Dangerous Times of a One Percenter about five months ago so the book has probably already found most of its intended audience but if you missed it you should probably read on.
Good News Bad News
The bad news is that Terry the Tramp is an uneven biography. The text and the dust jacket cannot agree about whether Orendorff remains a retired patch holder holed up in Hesperia or “after a lifetime of service to the club, he was unceremoniously expelled.” The book is sometimes schizophrenic about whether the Vagos are good guys or bad guys. It is not a think piece so Ball doesn’t waste time exploring the possibility that the Green could be both at once or something entirely different. The closest the book comes is with lines like “His abusive childhood brought out a fervent need to protect his brothers.” Ball mentions many Vagos by name and includes dozens of photos but he takes pains not to name any of Orendorff’s successors. He carefully avoids biker politics. And, he is sometimes maddeningly shallow when he writes about even recent events like the Hemet Hoax. (You can read more about that here.)
But there is more good news than bad because Ball can write, he is informed and when he wants to be he is insightful. At one point he describes bikers in the 70s as “like a captured hawk released.” In another passage he observes “It’s unfortunate that clubs didn’t invent the World Wrestling Federation and make their disputes an entertaining sport.”
The good news continues with the fact that Ball has been looking at Southern California bikers forever. He is informative about the American Motorcyclist Association during the administration of Arthur Welch — who is now remembered mostly for more or less inventing the idea of one percenters and for doing a lousy job on the AMA’s taxes. And Ball brings up other incidents that would be forgotten without his words.
Ball’s book includes the best account yet of the framing of four Vagos for a murder in Albuquerque in February 1974. All of the book’s account rings true.
“’We got along with hippies,’ Ron (Keine) said. They were all part of the same subculture. But the drunken bikers were too rowdy for Kathy’s sensibilities. Ron stripped and jumped naked into her lap and she freaked and started chanting Hail Marys, so they buckled to her fervent request to be let out.”
A paragraph later Ball continues this tale. “Just up the road they picked up two male hitchhikers and offered them a beer. When they caught one of their guests stealing brews, Art Smith pulled Doc’s .22-caliber pistol out of the glove box and threatened the thieves. Spinning the gun in the old-fashioned Western style, it went off and clipped one of the hitchhiker’s ears. Doc was pissed, but they cleaned up the kid and discussed hauling him to a hospital. But because it was just a flesh wound, they dropped the two off on a deserted stretch of Texas highway to allow the Vagos time to escape, in case the hitchhikers filed a complaint.”
If Hunter Thompson had fired the gun he could have turned the incident into a fortune. The five Vagos in the car were eventually arrested for the murder of a man named William Velten and the unfortunate event with the .22 became part of the case against them. The men in the car, had nothing to do with Velten’s murder. They were provably in Los Angeles when it occurred but they were still framed. Four of them spent 17 months on death row before they were cleared. And, Ball contextualizes this injustice with, “Terry, the young leader in California, quickly learned that the most cold-blooded, fiendish crimes were inflicted by authorities gone bad.”
Ball also describes at length and with sagacity another incident in which the city of Hawthorne, California (near Los Angeles International Airport) decided to crack down on the Vagos. Then as now the cops employed a concatenation of punitive raids. Housewives were dragged naked out of their showers by commando cops. Children were knocked down with rifle butts. The list of “places to be searched” was based on a listing of Vagos residences seized in an earlier raid. Unfortunately for everybody, the list was not accurate so many of the people punished by search warrant had never even heard of the Vagos.
Buy The Book
The best reason to read Terry The Tramp is for the dozens of anecdotes it contains. These stories may or may not have some connection to Orendorff and the book’s narrative but most of them are wonderful stories anyway.
One of these classics begins: “While Terry was in the gunshot ward a black man who had been shot by his wife for cheating was admitted…. As the nurse worked with him in the large sanitary headquarters, which housed six gunshot victims, a nasty-looking, big, black woman appeared.” Ball’s account of the subsequent gun battle is worth the cost of the book. If Sons of Anarchy included scenes like this one more bikers would probably watch the show.
Another great story begins when: “Terry experienced his first heart attack at the age of forty-seven while he was having his way with a beautiful blonde in her second-story, Hacienda Heights apartment.”
“One day the bubbly blonde who had been riding Terry like a rented mule when his heart sputtered and quit popped in the door. ‘She wanted to be my ol’ lady,’ Terry said, ‘but I wasn’t having any of that.”
“A brother jacked her up in the restaurant, dragged her outside and said, ‘Get out of here. You tried to fuck my brother to death.’”
Stories like that, unimaginable by most people who write about the outlaw world, are the reason to buy Bandit Ball’s book. The type is big, the chapters are short and it is a fast read. If you ride in Los Angeles you will find some names you already know. You can get a copy here.