Riding With That Good Ol' Marine Corps Spirit
By Sgt John Neal
| | December 23, 2002
GARDEN CITY, N.Y. --
Whatever you do, don't call them a "gang." As Stew Rubin will tell you, even the Commandant of the Marine Corps had to learn that lesson.
When Rubin and a group of fellow motorcycle enthusiasts who call themselves The Leathernecks attended a Marine Corps birthday ceremony at Times Square in 2001, Commandant Gen. James L. Jones was impressed by the collection of motorcycles and former Marines who rode them.
"He said he didn't even know he had a motorcycle gang," said Rubin, a stocky man with a close-cropped goatee and high-and-tight haircut. "That's where I had to correct him and tell him we're not a gang, we're a club."
In fact, the Leathernecks Motorcycle Club International website describes the organization as a "family oriented club." And it is ... though in more ways than one.
Members commonly address each other as "brother." There's also plenty of "Ooh-rahs," barking, and inside jokes strange to any one outside of the Marine Corps. Almost all of the members cite one reason for joining the Leathernecks: Esprit de Corps.
"My wife says, 'When you guys get together you act like kids,'" said Mike Devine, president of the New York Chapter. "We do. We talk about our pasts and experiences and it's something we can all relate to."
But the Leathernecks also unite to do more than share their stories, tell jokes and drink the occasional beer. They also share a passion for motorcycles and take that, in combination with their love for the Marine Corps, to the community. Chapters along the eastern seaboard participate in the annual Rolling Thunder ride to Washington D.C. in tribute to America's service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Closer to home, chapters focus on charities to benefit children and veterans. They ride to raise money, donate clothes and essentials to veterans in hospitals, collect toys for children, and participate in parades to raise awareness for their causes (all rides, by the way, are sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association and adhere to standard safety guidelines).
This service to community varies in visibility. It can come in the almost invisible form of private donations. In November 2002, the Leathernecks raised more than $1,100 to give to disabled veterans in Long Island. At other times, it is for the whole world to see. At Fleet Week in 2001, Leathernecks provided support to Marine Day events at Central Park in New York City. And at other times, still, it can come in the solemn means to remember a brother. When a street in New Jersey was renamed after a Marine killed in Vietnam, Leathernecks were there to show solidarity and serve as a reminder that Marines take care of their own through the very end.
There is the unfortunate stereotype that comes with being a motorcycle enthusiast. But the work, mission, and pride of the Leathernecks shatter it. They dress in leather, but their clothes are neat. They ride in groups, but they ride in a column of twos with the National colors and a POW/MIA flag up front. It is a constant battle to separate themselves from the infamous image of motorcycle gangs, but it is one they wage successfully.
"We're on the complete opposite side of the spectrum," said Bob Engler, a member of the Leathernecks and freelance writer in Delaware. "I'm not a criminal, so I don't want to be looked on as a criminal. I'm not out there to scare or bully people. I'm out there to fly the colors of my beloved Marine Corps."
"We've worked hard to get where we're at as an organization," said Rubin. It's a fact he's clearly proud of.
Their appearances may seem rough at times. Who wouldn't look like someone out of Easy Rider after sitting on a motorcycle for miles on end? The tough and rugged look of many of them, however, doesn't come from the boozing and roughhousing associated with motorcycle gangs like the Pagans and Hells Angels. Theirs' comes from time spent serving their country in war. Larry Gaynor, for example, was a sniper in Vietnam, a distinguished sergeant who received several wounds including a bayonet to the right side of his face at Khe San. A salt and pepper beard covers most of the scar, but he's quick to point it out. Like Larry, some have beards and a few have long hair but it's all neatly groomed.
And, of course, there are the leather jackets. Brown or black (though preferably the latter), crisp or beaten soft with years of use (the biker version of "old salt," if you will) the jackets help keeps them warm on late-autumn rides, but also serve as an identifying mark as to who they are and where they've been. Patches and pins cover nearly every inch of black. Each one holds some sort of significance, whether it is in memory of a comrade, a memento of a ride, or a salute to Chesty Puller. But the one that sticks out is the giant red and gold Eagle, Globe and Anchor on the back: the colors of the Leathernecks. It is what unites this motley crew of former Marines and strengthens their pride in their organization and the Marine Corps.
"It's putting the EGA on again," said Rubin. "It's the pride, the respect we get."
When not riding motorcycles, Rubin is a postal supervisor, football coach and grandfather of three. He's just one sample of the diversity found in the organization. In the New York Chapter alone there's a bank president, a bank vice president, and its current chapter president is a lawyer. Rounding out the club is a mix of blue- and white-collar workers and retired gents. Some have brought their wives into the club; one brought his kid who dons a special EGA patch with "Support" written below it.
"No matter what we do, we leave it outside when we walk through these doors and the camaraderie takes over," said Devine in an interview at the Marine Corps League in Massapequa, N.Y., which serves as New York Chapter's clubhouse.
It doesn't matter what one does in the "outside world." According to their website, the Leathernecks is open to Marines of all types - active, reserve, retired or honorably discharged - and corpsmen who served with the Fleet Marine Force. It also doesn't matter if one served in combat or not, though ones with combat experience usually have the best stories to tell. New York, one of the largest chapters, has 48 members; 20 are combat vets from Korea and/or Vietnam; several more served in Beirut, Desert Storm, and various other operations; and a handful of others are currently on active duty or are reservists who have been activated and deployed.
Regardless of one's military status, the Leathernecks seek to serve. The Marine Corps provided a transformation for these men and women from civilian youth into Marines. The transformation continued when they left the Corps and returned to society as better citizens. According to one member, the motorcycle club serves as a transformation point once again.
"It's a transition from service to country to service to community."