BLOODLESS RUMBLE ON THE MAIN DRAG

A report from behind the battle lines of a not untypical small Ontario town, where some citizens felt they needed a vigilante committee to handle their own young bloods

Shirley Mair January 26 1963

BLOODLESS RUMBLE ON THE MAIN DRAG

A report from behind the battle lines of a not untypical small Ontario town, where some citizens felt they needed a vigilante committee to handle their own young bloods

Shirley Mair January 26 1963

BLOODLESS RUMBLE ON THE MAIN DRAG

A report from behind the battle lines of a not untypical small Ontario town, where some citizens felt they needed a vigilante committee to handle their own young bloods By Shirley Mair

Shirley Mair

LAST NOVEMBER, the small southern Ontario community of Preston attracted an unusual amount of attention in the nation's press. Newspapers reported that a group of Preston citizens, most of them members of the Canadian Legion, had formed a vigilante committee to stop a gang of black-jacketed Preston teenagers who had gone on a two-month binge of vandalism and violence.

"Seven fights involving young people have been broken up by Preston police in the past week," the Toronto (¡lohe and Mail said. The Globe's report went on: "Two black-jacketed youths w'ere picked up for carrying .22-calibre pistols ... a fifteen-year-old girl was dragged screaming into a car and when a citizen attempted to interfere,

he was threatened with a knife. No charges have been laid." The Canadian Press mentioned that defiant teenagers had hanged Preston's mayor Allen Reuter in effigy from the town's flagpole. But most of the reports centred around "a brawl. "a fray," “a shouting match" and a "clash" between vigilantes and teenagers outside what the London f ree Press called "the restaurant headquarters” of the gang on Preston's main street just after midnight one Saturday morning early in November. According to the Toronto Star, "This was the climax of two months of trouble between teenagers and police.”

The Globe and Mail, in its more detailed account, said, "Acting quickly, police separated the

two factions and drove the teenagers to one side of the street and the adults to the other. They stood and hurled epithets at each other until 2.30 a.m. while the police patrolled that no man's land between."

The newspapers and wire services quoted Mayor Reuter and Police Chief Bogle as saying the Legion was as bad as the boys. The mayor added that unfortunately the vigilantes were riled up by exaggerated reports of the gang's activities in local newspapers.

A LEGIONNAIRE: “WE DID OUR DUTY”

These excuses, however, did little to dispel the reader's impression that the accounts of the rumble in Preston had been at least based on some unsavory facts. For one thing, they were really only the last of a scries of similar reports from other small Ontario communities. For example. the week that the vigilantes and teenagers clashed in Preston, they shared headlines with Strathroy teenagers who were setting fires with abandon all over their town.

Teenage violence in Preston, unlike Strathroy, seemed to flare and subside in a week end. Ernest Kells, then president of the Legion and spokesman for the vigilantes, said first, “We did our duty as citizens." But after Mayor Reuter chastised the Legion for its part in the fracas Kells gallantly turned around and offered to provide coaches and equipment to the teenagers for an organized sports program. It was apparent the Legion had acted in haste, goaded into action when a member who’d lost his right hand in World War II was jostled by the teenagers outside their restaurant hangout.

A few days after the bloodless rumble, I went to Preston to find out what it’s like to live in a town afraid of its young—and, more importantly, what the predatory teenagers w'ho had scared the townsfolk and raised so much hell were like.

Preston is sixty miles west of Toronto. On most maps it is dwarfed by its neighbors, KitchenerWaterloo, eight miles northwest, a.uJ Galt about four miles southeast. Highway 401 bypasses Preston a few' miles to the north. King, the main street and part of Highway 8 linking Galt and Kitchener, looked peaceful and orderly the rainy afternoon I arrived. On King are, among other buildings, Preston's red-brick town hall, combination fire-police station, a memorial park and a few' blocks of stores. Also on King is Mary’s BarB-Q, the pseudo-log-cabin-style restaurant where the boys mentioned in the news stories hang out. At one end of the town there are two nineteenthcentury hotels and the Grand River, which flows under a main-street bridge. Shopkeepers like to pass the time oí day with strangers and the restaurants serve plain, wholesome food.

I turned olf King and walked a few doors to the Preston bureau oí the Galt Evening Reporter.

1 asked Don Mullan, the bureau's manager, if he knew any black-jackets. (I was to find out later that the boys, a gang of thirty-five motorcyclists, called themselves The Cobra Kings of Preston. But local newspapers, the mayor and everyone living in Preston called them "the black-jackets.")

Mullan said. "I'll know' some in five minutes. Two of the black-jackets and a blind man are coming in to tell me their stories. Stanley Morton, the blind man. has already told me that these boys are better than some churchgoers he knows. The old man lives at the Commercial Hotel and every day the boys take him over to the Catholic church so he can play the organ. They sit and listen to him — neither of them has a job right now — and walk him back to the hotel."

A YOUTH: “I THUMPED A NUN”

What I learned in Preston in the next few days seemed to place the black-jackets somewhere between this hearts-of-gold cliché on one hand, and the outlaw pack the newspapers had conjured up on the other. (A black-jacket was to tell me later. "I got kicked out of school in grade eight for thumping a nun." Seeing my astonishment he added quickly, "She hit me first. Hit me from behind so Ed get into line.")

While I was talking to Mullan, two boys wearing black-leather jackets zipped up to their chins, guided a blind old man through the door.

After they'd told their stories to Mullan, the boys led Morton to a nearby chair to talk to me. "Sammy here’s my friend," said Morton. "I came to Preston a couple of weeks ago without a dime and went to the Legion. I lost my sight during World War II and the Legion wouldn’t give me a cup of coffee. Now Eve got a room at the Commercial and Eve got Sammy, and Mike here, and the rest of the boys. My government cheque's

come through and Em going to help Sammy because he’s out of a job. too."

Sammy was nineteen, blond, tired and looked hot. Both boys still wore their jackets closed to the neck and they sat pulling nervously at their black-leather gloves. T heir expressions suggested they knew from experience that nothing good was likely to happen.

“This town won't give you a job if you're wearing a black jacket." Sammy said, "but gosh, this is the only jacket Eve got. I was a wrecker until 1 got blood poisoning in my right hand. 1 came to Preston from Toronto and Em not going back there. Three years ago 1 ran away with a fifteenyear-old girl and married her. Her mother had the marriage annulled and I got eighteen months for abduction. That's Toronto. Just after I got out another guy and I were in a used-car lot one night and a cop yelled at us. We ran and the cop shot me in the back and charged me with attempted auto theft. That's another good reason why I don't like Toronto.”

The other boy said: “The cop got an extra two weeks’ holiday for bravery." This boy. Mike, was shorter than Sammy, who would probably stand five feet nine if he didn't hunch his shoulders. Mike was more talkative than Sammy and he laughed more. "Eve been in jail, too," he said. "I stole thirty-two cases of pop and some loaves of bread from a beach store one summer and only got probation. But after that 1 stole fifty bucks out of a pool-room cash register in broad daylight and got sent to Guelph reformatory. It was boring there and it was boring here, too, until the Legion got mouthy. Now we're never going to take off these black jackets. A man came up to me outside Mary's and he says, 'Em going to burn that jacket and you in it.' and I says, 'Just you try.' Yeah, we’ve

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For three hours they taught me about jail, switchblades, gang fights, motorcycles and logic

got lots to do now.” He paused for tnought. "Not much during the day. The other guys are working.”

Sammy and Mike said most of the black-jackets had been in a reformatory or jail. One of them was serving his first term in Kingston penitentiary at the moment but almost all the others were out of prison and working as machinists, truck drivers, laborers and shippers. They made between forty and forty-five dollars a week, and that wasn't bad considering they'd left school in grades eight or nine and were still, except for their leader, in their teens. The leader. George S>lvain, was twenty-one and envied because he could drink legally in public.

"I'd like to meet the others,” I said.

Mike said, "It can be arranged."

A few hours later I was sitting in a lumpy armchair in the concrete-block cellar of a gang member's house, looking down the room at twenty-five young men bundled up in blackleather jackets and crowded along board benches, sprawled in canvas deck chairs, or standing propped against the wall. President Sylvain couldn't come on such short notice, but about two dozen of the others were there and for three hours we talked — or rather they taught me — about jail, switchblades, gang fights, motorcycles, justice and logic. (Preston bored them. Its people hated them. It didn't even have a movie theatre. )

The prototype was Brando

Some of the boys were unkempt, with long, greasy hair and dirty fingernails. Many had acne — perhaps because their staple diet was Frenchtried potatoes at Mary's. Collectively they reminded me of Marlon Brando in a tough-guy movie: they affected his swaggering walk.

rattered blankets strung along a clothesline divided the cellar. I was on one side with most of the boys. Someone — or some group — sat on ihe other side and occasionally one of the boys went in there to talk. I was afraid to admit I knew there was somebody behind those blankets and I never did find out who it was.

I he boys were good hosts. One of them offered me a coffee-tin lid for an ash tray. Whenever I asked a question the room fell quiet. We wasted some time waiting for boys to preface their remarks with "Like ya see. Ma am, or "Like ya got to look at it this way. Ma'am," and we wasted more time because the boys obviously were used to larding their conversation with obscenities and they were trying hard not to swear in front of me. Midway through the evening a boy w¡th crooked teeth swore and the rest pounced at him and called him a blank, "a blank. ' "a blank."

W hat s a blank? I asked a perspiring boy at my left.

"A blank is someone who isn't like us and that's bad." he said. "Blank

means 'goof. 'jerk'. A blank doesn't like to ride motorcycles and we never like to get off them. We ride fast. If anyone touches my bike. ever. I'll wrap a bicycle chain around his neck.” He smiled pleasantly and said, "Like one day last summer Mad Dog and I were riding down the highway and he sees a tractor-trailer and takes after it. He's trying to thump it out. see.”

"Thump it out?"

"Push the driver onto the soft shoulder — maybe turn the truck over."

"He wanted to kill the driver?"

"No." the boy said, "Mad Dog's on a motorcycle and the other guy's in a tractor-trailer, that's fair isn't it? Anyway, that's why we call him Mad Dog. He likes to thump out tractor-trailers. This particular driver got nervous and pulled over to the side of the road and 1 came riding by and the driver got mad and took off after me. I was so scared I drove right off the road and practically took three old ladies off a picnic table."

"You could have killed those women. too." I said.

"It's not likely," said a stalky boy on my right. "We're good on our bikes."

"That’s right." another said. “And anyway, they were old ladies, if their time was up. it was up.”

We discussed the boys’ chances of having an accident and they admitted that since they like to drink and drive fast, their chances are excellent — but if they have an accident, it's an

accident. The consequences of an accident were less clear in their minds. Couldn't they be sent to jail, for instance? "So who cares?” Wouldn't they lose their jobs? "So?” What about their insurance and drivers’ licences? "Who's got insurance?” several said at once. "Who's got a licence?” one of them added, and their faces lit up for the first time that evening. A blackhaired boy slapped his motorcycle chaps and the rest howled. There was the sound of laughter even behind the blanket.

Cecil, a blond boy at the back of the cellar, stopped laughing and said, "Licence or no licence, it doesn't matter. The town’s against us.” He told me he was one of the boys arrested for carrying .22-calibre pistols. There was only one pistol, he said, a starting pistol he’d bought to use at bike races. "In court a cop testified it could be turned into a lethal weapon and me and another guy were fined a hundred dollars each. You don't need a licence for a starting pistol. Preston’s out to get us.”

I asked about the other things the boys were accused of doing — molesting women, for instance. There was only one woman, they insisted. "She was a gang member’s girl friend and she got drunk and loud on King so he hauled her into his car to get her away before the police saw her.

"She was the only one, but like if we're in a good mood we might yell at women. Just tonight I saw a woman and screamed, 'here she comes, flabby mouth, two hundred and fifty pounds of fighting fury,' but I didn't touch her.”

"Tomorrow the newspapers will say we molested her." another boy said. He went on to tell me that on Halloween some goody-goodies — boys who weren't Cobra Kings — raised a dummy of Mayor Reuter to the top of the town flagpole. Later some of the Kings drove by and stopped to take a look. Two auxiliary police saw them. "So the next day the papers blamed us and a couple of days later the Legion got drinking and talking about all the things we were supposed to have done and after their bar closed they got brave and came down to make trouble. Nothing happened. They didn't land a single punch but if they want trouble, we'll call in bike riders we know from other towns and clean Preston out.”

"Why don't you shut up,” the boy sitting beside him said. "Why get mouthy?” It was too late. All the boys wanted to talk about it. Next Saturday, they planned to clean up Preston with some outside help from other gangs and they invited me to watch. "We'll talk afterwards,” Mike said, "and besides you haven't met our president, George Sylvain, or his brother Mad Dog. '

On Saturday it rained all day in Preston and at night it was windy and cold. The gang, many of them dressed in suits and ties, took their dates into Mary's for French-fries and coffee and went peaceably home. On Sunday. a gang member phoned to say they planned to meet me at eight o’clock in the Preston courthouse. It is right over the police station.

"The same place where you boys are sentenced?"

“What difference does it make?”

he asked. "The mayor suggested we use the courtroom instead of hanging around Mary’s. For private meetings. So we’ve used it lots of times. We check it out with the police chief first, but he always says 'any time'.”

At eight o'clock president Sylvain, sitting in the court secretary's chair, swiped the magistrate’s gavel and banged the meeting to order. A sealskin bracelet, dangling from his wrist, rested on a roll-call book labeled "The Cobra Kings of Preston." More sealskin decorated the shoulders of his black-leather jacket and he'd trimmed his beard into an oval around his upper lip and chin. He was taller and older than the other members, who looked respectfully up at him from the court's spectator section.

Sylvain did all the talking. He told me that if a Cobra King started a fight, he had to finish it. If an outsider started something with one of the members, all the others could pile on. It wasn't written into the club rules that the boys must carry weapons but George figured, "there’s three or four switchblades in the crowd tonight and . . .” he was looking around the room at the boys "... a couple of bicycle chains and things we can get our hands on fast . . . some bottles we can break into jagged edges for instance . . . and some brass knuckles.”

"We could wipe out Preston”

George said he wasn't in Preston the night the fifteen-year-old girl was dragged screaming into a car and the man who tried to go to her rescue threatened with a knife. "But I guess the man was threatened all right. She was a gang girl and he had no business interfering. It was private. If two or more people are doing something private, no witness should interfere. Now if these same people are robbing a bank, a witness should tell the police, because that’s their business. A bank robber shouldn't go after that kind of a witness. But our private street fights, that's different.”

The boys in the spectator section nodded approval. Some of them had brought along their girl friends and from time to time the girls would get up and walk into an anteroom with a large pane of frosted glass in the door. Then they'd take out their combs and lipsticks and primp behind the door, so that their shadows showed through. A well-developed fourteen-year-old walked towards the door and the boys followed her w'ith their eyes, and they poked each other.

George watched her for a minute and then said, "You know the citizens of Preston have a right to be afraid. If my boys get riled up, it could be pretty rough around here. The citizens shouldn’t push us. This town's under control now, but we could wipe it out — I don’t say tonight, but in about a week we could. Four years ago bike clubs from Ontario cleaned up Tonawanda. New York. They went down there and locked the police in jail, cleaned out stores and bars, hung a dummy of the mayor from a TV aerial and wrecked the town. The same thing could happen here with clubs coming from Kitchener, Brantford, Toronto, Guelph, Oakville — a guy was up from Oakville tonight to see if I needed help and tw'o riders are coming in from the Black Diamonds

of Toronto later on tonight. We could get riders here from the Centre Gang out of Niagara Falls and the Road Vultures from Buffalo. It 1 ask for help their presidents send down scouts who report the situation back to them. Sure, they can wreck the town. Sure, they can light tires or whatever. . .

But George didn t think it would be necessary to call the other gangs into Preston for the time being. "Our mayor’s on the head — he's O.K. —and this week he asked it he could be the Cobra Kings' treasurer, so we elected him. He's going to look for a barn and a house we can rent somewhere near town for our headquarters and he’s already opened a trust fund for us at the bank and deposited ten dollars. He might even get us a drag strip."

"What’s a drag strip?" I asked.

"It’s a paved, closed road." George said. "A drag's a quarter ot a mile long and a strip has to be a full mile.

"When the mayor finds us our headquarters we're going to have w ild parties out there." Mike said.

I thought of Reuter, a thin middleaged man w-ho looked like a tineboned James Cagney and kept his office and his house open to his constituents and didn't waste time pointing out that he was conscientious. I said. "You might get the mayor into trouble if you have wild parties at a place he finds for you."

"We don’t owe him a thing." George said. "We re grateful, but we won't be obligated to him. And il something goes wrong out at the barn — well he can always say to the people in town, 'l ook what I did tor you. I got those hoodlums off the main street, didn't I?' In tact the mayor can even say to them. 'I got those young punks right out of Preston.’ ” ★