My Upside Down Leather Belt

Certain things you keep in your life, sometimes for love, sometimes for habit, sometimes for nothing other than you’ve simply had them a long time.  People, pocket knives, your Army uniform, a favorite coffee mug and certain bikes, you just hold onto.  Perhaps because they just fit.  The “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” adage comes to mind.  Or better yet, “It simply works for me, let’s keep it”.  I subscribe to this logic with several things in my life.  Wife (25 years), panheads (any year), my ’76 Bonneville (30 years), tools, certain clothing items, even an old car or two.  The “clothing” rule really only works with leather clothing.  I still have the tan ‘Fry’ style riding boots Yvonne gave me 20 years ago.  An anniversary present of single digit vintage.  They are not waterproof, they are not trendy fashionable, they are not light or shiny – they have just served me well for many years and have the miles and the wear that only the open road can mark them with.  Quintessential biker boots, resoled a few times, but ready to ride across any landscape in any weather at any time.  Although my favorite leather item that I trust I will be buried with is a leather belt.  I do not know why I revere an item that simply holds up ones trousers with such high esteem, I just do.  Upon my father’s passing I inherited very little.  A few pistols, some Marine Corps memorabilia, boxes of worn tools.  I asked my sisters to allow me his belts.  A couple of thick leather garrison belts with plain chrome buckles.  Humble accoutrements of a simple life lived well.  They hang in my closet and remind me every morning to do good work, be honest, love your family and don’t get caught up in bullshit.  His belts, — simple reminders.

You will notice a picture published with this article of MY favorite belt.  The one I wear when not in a suit.  It is thick, brown, a little worn and tooled uniquely.  It has metamorphasized several different buckles over the years, currently a chrome Harley flame logo.  Although it’s message has remained the same for two decades.  “HARLEY DAVIDSON” proudly etched across the back in the thick leather hide.  The thing that makes it unique is not its style or its color.  It is that fact that when worn left to right as a man wears a belt, it reads UPSIDE DOWN.  The “Harley Davidson” is upended.  It was a gift.   An Assistant District Attorney friend I worked with years ago visited the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.  Seems a small leather shop kept lifers busy with craft work, occupying long days with an entrepreneurial task.  My memory tells me he paid a trifling amount for it.  A few shekels as it were.  Little did I know that his gift would last my lifetime and be perhaps the one clothing item that I’ve utilized above all others throughout the years.  I was told the craftsman was an old coot 1% biker who lived and rode through the 60’s and 70’s until judgment, luck or fate turned on him.  I never met him.  I trust he is dead now.  RIP.

It was two or three years of wearing it before I learned the ‘why’ of the upturned moniker.  It stems from a statement of defiance rooted in the 60’s.  Back when Harley was perceived by some old faithful as having ‘sold out’ to corporate culture in 1969.  In open defiance of the company, old school bikers turned their Harley patches and logos upside-down.  Some vintage black and white photos of this quasi political statement can be seen in back issues of Easy Rider Magazine in the summer of 1971 and ‘72.  In 1969 the company was badly bruised with quality control issues and labor problems.  There was a major strike of the workforce that year and the company was producing bikes inferior in quality to Japanese brands.  The “American Machine and Foundry Corporation” (AMF) bought Harley out and in a  common corporate move back then it slashed the workforce, cut workers benefits and pay and in doing so almost drove the company to bankruptcy.  The AMF buyout ended 62 years of private family ownership.  With the stock transfer so ended an era.  Harley was now to be perceived as big business and no longer a family concern.  The times they were a changin!  Some in the Harley culture thought it to be a sellout to corporate America.  My belt’s artist obviously amongst the old guard still making his statement from behind thick concrete and steel bars.

The leather itself is thick and not very pliable.  Must have come right off the bull’s ass as it were.  Not a week goes by that some barmaid or young biker will tap me on the shoulder.  “Hey Mister, your belt is on upside down”.  Years ago I took great pride in explaining it to the unwitting.  Nowadays I just smile and reply – “Yea, thanks”.  Harley may have sold out but time marches on.  AMF dumped that asset in 1981 selling to 13 investors led by Willie G. Davidson for 80 million dollars, a retrospective ‘deal’.  I bought what I could in the 80’s and 90’s and have seen share prices soar and plummet.  The value of my belt has held tight!  Tough to put a price on keeping your pants up.   It is a little known fact that Harley makes a very small percentage of its profits by selling motorcycles.  They profit from financing, merchandising, maintenance, warranty sales, and the all important licensing contracts.  Licensing of its bar and shield and its name for profit.  That is to say, selling a manufacturer the right to bear the “Harley Davidson” name on their own product.  Perfect example, the Harley Davidson edition Ford pickup truck.  40 million dollars of the company’s net revenues in fiscal 2010, (roughly 0.8%) came from licensing its logo and name alone.  A very loyal following purchases everything from ashtrays to t shirts to Harley belts.  I suspect my belt has not contributed to the revenue stream through any licensing agreement with my imprisoned craftsman.  And I’m not so sure it should!

Well, signing off for now.  Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home.

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