Making of “Tail of the Dragon” Part IV: The meaning of Freedom and how it’s lost to obligation

Overmanwarrior FlagIn front of a seafood restaurant in Delaware flies the flag readers of this website will proudly recognize, pictured on the left.  At the base of that flag pole are items the owner of the establishment greatly treasure, pictured on the right.   These pictures were posted by a fan of my new novel Tail of the Dragon.  The rum is a reference to an article I wrote about pirates a few weeks ago.  CLICK HERE TO REVIEW.  She has let me know that these are some of her current favorite things, and her idea of an exquisite evening is drinking some of that rum while reading Tail of the Dragon from her nightstand so that she can crawl into the mind of the novel’s hero Rick Stevens and enjoy his rebellious charisma from the greatest car chase in the history of car chases. Tail of the Dragon and RumAbout halfway through the first draft I realized that I wasn’t just going to tell the action packed story of a modern car chase, but the philosophic underpinnings of a society struggling under the pressure of “statism” and a rebellion against it.  This article is Part IV of a Making Of series for my recent novel which explores the path I took to arrive at its unique philosophy of freedom.  CLICK HERE to review the previous installments.  I had clear in my mind the locations I was writing about, and I understood the rebellious nature of the main protagonist, Rick Stevens, but one thing that still lingered in the back of my mind was the notion of freedom versus collectivism and how those two things are so closely associated sometimes within the same context.  For me, there is no greater example of this duality than in motorcycle riders who claim to be free and independent, yet tend to travel in gangs riding their motorcycles in formation whenever they gather.  This trait was as I saw it a failure of American philosophy so I wanted to become more acquainted.  This was the reason I joined the Suzuki Owner’s Club of North America and quickly became the Vice President of the Ohio Chapter.  One of the tasks of such a leadership position was to organize new membership drives, so the President and I organized a small ride to promote the organization.  The President was from Cleveland and I was from Cincinnati, so we agreed to meet up at a McDonald’s just south of Cleveland and head across the top of Ohio to the Fremont Suzuki dealer south of Sandusky and set up a booth to recruit new members.  It was a planned day trip that seemed like a simple endeavor on paper taking place just a few months after my wife and I traveled to Key West, from Part III.  The trip ended up being a 500 mile adventure that took us to many places throughout the day and would prove to be a memorable escapade that was more epic, than simple.

We left our home at 4:00 AM to meet the President and some of the other Suzuki Owner members at 7 AM.  It was not difficult to cover the vast distance between Cleveland and Cincinnati by motorcycle in such a short time.  With an average speed of 77 MPH, and just a few stops, we arrived at the designated McDonald’s ahead of the other riders.  I enjoyed my affiliation with the Club, but in the back of my mind was the nagging sensation that I felt constrained by my involvement.  I knew I shouldn’t feel this way, yet the closer to Cleveland we became, the more tense I was.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like the President or his riding partners, but it was the feeling that the closer I came to Cleveland the more I lost my individual identity.  I was honored that they invited me to become the VP of the Club after only a few short months, but VP was still a subordinate role, and I’m not a very good subordinate.  Typically if I’m not the leader of the pack, I’m not interested in any endeavor.  I just can’t stand taking a passive role on anything in my life, no matter what it is.

We arrived at the McDonald’s, ate a well deserved breakfast, and met up with the President and his riders outside.  After some brief introductions and typical motorcycle talk, we planned our route to the Fremont dealership roughly 70 miles away across very rural farmland.  There would not be any highway access, so we’d be traveling relatively slowly across God’s country of the Ohio north 40 to 50 miles south of Lake Erie.  Once the route was established on a map spread out across motorcycle fuel tanks we were off.  The President in such groups usually takes the point position on such rides which is slightly off-center to the left of the road.  Riders behind the leader take up positions of formation staggered behind.  I migrated to the back so I could observe the behavior and noticed that the other riders worked very hard to maintain the closest position behind the leader possible.

We traveled across the top of Ohio by many farms and several rain storms before arriving at the dealership right around 9:30 AM.  We were scheduled to arrive at 10 AM so we were a little early.  Once at the Fremont location the President set up a booth for the Club to promote itself.  We spent from 10 AM to 2 PM having lunch, telling biker stories, and talking about various wild adventures.  The company was good, but all the while I had a terribly uneasy feeling that was difficult to shake.  There were three times in my life prior to this bike ride where I had a similar feeling.  The first was in the fifth grade when some girls I knew set me up to “go steady” with the class beauty at the time.  She was a pretty girl, but I didn’t want the obligation to have to speak to her every night on the phone like boyfriends and girlfriends were required to do.  In the fifth grade I had just won the pull-up contest in the Winter Olympics and many people were projecting me to be a star athlete as I was clearly the fastest kid in the entire school.  I could shoot basketball, play hockey, and I was untouchable in dodge ball.    But I hated all those group sports, even though I was excessively good at them.  This drove my gym teacher nuts as he didn’t understand my reservations.  Because I was so good at these sports, this little girl wanted to be my girlfriend so her friends arranged it by nagging me until I said yes.  I went steady with the girl for about 2 hours.  Once I came home from school and was eating dinner and planning the activities of my evening which involved, reading, drawing pictures, playing war with my brother outside, and building a model car, I did not have time for the little girl when she called and wanted to talk on the phone for an hour.  I reluctantly told the girl I wanted to break up.  She cried, all her friends were mad at me for years, but I was free—and that made me happy.  I was free to read my books, draw my pictures, write my stories, and play outside—and that’s all I wanted out of life.  I reasoned that the only reason I wanted to go steady with the girl was because I wanted to see her naked—but that wasn’t a good enough reason to imprison my soul to another person.  When I broke up with her I was greatly relieved.  The second time was when I allowed myself to be talked into trying out for the Lakota soccer team during my freshman year.  I had a reputation as “The Animal,” because I was so vicious when I played the game.  I would often head butt other players intentionally to take out their star players.  I was good at disguising the effort as going for head balls to avoid the yellow cards, so many of my couches and parents who watched me often talked me into trying out for the school team.    The first day of tryouts I was miserable.  I thought the coach was an arrogant bastard and I couldn’t stand the body language of the guy.  He was clearly looking for butt kissers on his team, and that wasn’t me.  He didn’t like my aggressive playing style, or my rebellious attitude.  I also didn’t like the girls who seemed attracted to the school soccer players, the girls who hung out around the practice field and were always being passed around by the other players.  They were short-legged stubby girls with square faces and potato asses, not the kind of girls I was interested in.  So I became more and more belligerent as the tryouts went on for two weeks.  During a scrimmage I head butted our goalie who had called off the ball because he made fun of my haircut in the locker room.  My mother always cut my hair, but she did it in the classic “bowl cut.”  So I sent him home with a bloody nose that day and a loose tooth.  The coach made me run laps hoping I’d pass out, but I didn’t.  I stubbornly completed his assignment, but our relationship deteriorated.  I was relieved to learn that I had not made the team.  I knew everyone would finally leave me alone about trying out for all the stupid team sports, and I could go back to my books and stories without the constant nagging from the adults in my life who kept telling me to grow up and do something “productive.”  A few years later the high school football coach hinted that I should try out for the football team to direct my “aggression” in a positive direction.  But I had a reputation in school as a person who fought way too much, and was utterly unmanageable socially so their urgings quickly ebbed once they saw no light in my eyes over their promises of college football lights and easy girls.  I had no problem with girls, and the lights didn’t impress me, so they didn’t have much to offer.  The third time was when I was 18 and I had a modeling agent who booked me to do a lingerie show with a stage full of beautiful girls.  I had just met my wife and had a choice to go see her for the evening or go to the paying gig that my agent had set up.  The money was good, and there was a chance to meet not just a few beautiful women, but several.  Not the stubby fingered, potato butt girls, but the kind I liked, with long legs, round lips, eyes just perfectly spaced—the kind of girls who strive to become actresses and fashion models.  So I took the job and my future wife cried because she was afraid she’d lose me to the job assignment.  I found out prior to leaving my apartment that my task at the show was to “dance” around the girls lip-synching to David Lee Roth’s song, California Girls.   I was en route to the event, but instead of taking I-75 south, I took I-275 east and went to my future wife’s house.  My agent was furious as she had a stage full of beautiful fashion models but no David Lee Roth impersonator to dance on stage around them.  The show tanked, and I never worked as a model again.  But I did get married to my wife a year later.  She drew a line in the sand and told me that she didn’t care about making money if I had to make money doing stupid things like dancing on a stage to David Lee Roth songs.  Once I arrived at her house, I felt free of that social pressure to perform to expectations that the media culture valued, but were at odds with my own beliefs.

Now, that nagging feeling was there again in the motorcycle group at Fremont.  I was helping to register new members to a group that I was Vice President of, which I became a part of in much the same fashion as in the stories just told.  I was a reluctant participant.  My talents were desired for various reasons to serve collective institutions, and I have ALWAYS been reluctant to surrender my sovereignty to anybody ever, no matter how beautiful, how lucrative, or under any amount of pressure.  I have always turned obligation away in favor of freedom.  I often say yes initially because I like to help people, but when things get too cozy in the collectivism department, I always look for a way out.

I pulled my wife to the side and suggested to her that when the event was over at 2 PM that we not ride back to Cleveland with the Suzuki group but instead go up the road to Cedar Point and ride roller coasters the rest of the day, since we were close.  She shook her head knowing what was driving me, as after twenty plus years of marriage she had come to understand my decision-making processes.  When it was time to take down the tent, I informed the guys that my wife and I were going to Cedar Point, and not riding back in formation to Cleveland.  I got some puzzled looks, but they agreed to go on without us.  We spoke in a friendly manner as we parted promising to touch base by email when we all returned home.  The minute I was back on my motorcycle going north as they traveled east I felt the shackles coming off me and I enjoyed freedom once again.  That was the last time I would ever see those guys, and the email messages never came or went either way again.  That was my last day as Vice President of the Ohio Chapter Suzuki Owners Club of North America.

My wife and I had fun on the bike trip, but our day really opened up into a wonderful experience once we arrived at Cedar Point about 45 minute later.  It was a relief to not have to ride in formation, to recognize a leader of any kind, to adhere to any kind of pecking order, to go where we wanted when we wanted to go, and to have the freedom to make a decision and to act on that decision.  We spent the rest of the day at Cedar Point until the closing time of 10 PM that night.  Once they closed the doors on us, we got on our motorcycle and headed for home.  We arrived back around 3 AM–23 hours and 500 miles later.   It was a cold ride home, so we were fairly frozen.  We warmed up in our hot tub and I wrote notes on my laptop from the day while they were fresh in my mind as I hung over the side of the Jacuzzi typing madly.   The thoughts of that day made it into my opening chapter which went on for nearly thirty pages.  My editor had me cut it down to roughly the first 5 pages of the final Tail of the Dragon draft.

Freedom is a difficult concept to understand, especially for those who aren’t nearly as stingy with it as I am.  People find themselves agreeing to things they otherwise wouldn’t do because some collective force applies pressure to them to say “yes,” then once they do, they are stuck in rigid confinement.  Most people become used to accepting this gradual loss of freedom, so they don’t see the effects of socialism seeking to subtly impose itself upon their lives.  I never developed that problem, so it’s easy for me to see.  In Tail of the Dragon I had to create in the characters of Rick and Renee Stevens two characters who valued their freedom to such an extraordinary level that they would not yield to those tiny encroachments, so that their refusal would cause the next Civil War in America in an understandable way.  I wanted readers to see what freedom was supposed to look like, how it felt, and how tasted, because most people don’t know what freedom is at all—as they are encumbered with too many obligations.  Freedom is the essence of what Tail of the Dragon is all about, freedom from clubs, from socialites, from agents, from coaches, from all the pressures of life which desire to steer a human mind in a direction that is not authentic to the individual.  My experiment to investigate a collective entity had proved fruitful if it did only last about 2 months.  They were two months well spent, because the result found its way into literature for all time, and many years beyond.

And a special thanks are deserved for Kathy.  I appreciate her flying that flag in front of her Delaware seafood restaurant, and I appreciate the effort she put into making my day a little better by displaying Tail of the Dragon so proudly.  It was for such people I wrote the novel and I am happy to know that Captain Morgan is going on the adventure with her.

Rich Hoffman

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 “If they attack first………..blast em’!”