Harley riders are not afraid of rain. Harley Employee Rider Association members don’t even fear snow and ice, and far be it from them to slow down for a little moisture, particularly when the evening’s events include go-kart racing, spicy chicken wings, and a hot band guaranteed to warm the crowd. It was a good thing, too, as the stalwart would soon be dripping their way through the crowd after racing for the annual go-kart bragging rights through five inches of standing water.
The event was the 13th annual Employee Rider Association’s “Cabin Fever Bash,” and it was held on April 24 at Flannigan’s in North Kansas City. Three days prior to the event, the spring rains began with a vengeance, and Saturday was no exception, although by the time the event started they had subsided to a mere sprinkle.
Al Hirshman, ERA’s Sergeant at Arms, noticed me walking around Flannigan’s hall with a camera around my neck a good two hours before The Bash started and introduced himself. I was a little wet from having walked across the parking lot in the rain, sheltering my camera. Everybody else was dry – they had already been here a while.
Al quickly introduced me to Harlan Eagleson, the association’s Secretary/Treasurer, and Brian McKee, ERA’s Vice President. I later found out that Brian won this year’s prestigious Harley-Davidson Eagle Award for this region, although I had to find it out from somebody else because Brian wasn’t talking about it. Nobody could find the president, George Young, who had already been on site for quite some time. He was surely attending to some setup matters, as everybody else was.
It would be two more hours before the event kicked off, but I was busy scribbling down names in my notepad and writing down my impressions of the Herculean effort it was taking to put this shindig together. “No apostrophe’s’” came a call from over my left shoulder, and I realized it was directed at me. “I beg your pardon?” I asked. Brian was looking at my scibblings and pointed out that “ERA” stands for “Employee Rider Association,” and there is no “’s” in that phrase. “A common mistake,” he said, as several boxes of T-shirts went by, attended to by other members of the group. I hoped I wouldn’t get stepped on during setup.
The Employee Rider Association is made up of employees of the Harley-Davidson plant here in Kansas City, although there are chapters in York and Tomahawk as well. They enjoy riding, camaraderie, and working within the community supporting local charities in Kansas City. The Cabin Fever Bash is their biggest annual event, and it allows them to raise funds to support their charities. The ERA doesn’t just donate money; they also donate their time throughout the year, and have been doing so for the past 13 years. Former employees and others can become an associate member, but to be a full member you have to work at the Kansas City plant. The patch on the back of their vest says, “We Make the Eagle Fly.”
Backing out of the way of the flying T-shirts, I almost tripped over George Young, the ERA president, as he was rushing in from the rain having moved his truck from the front door. I introduced myself and told him I was from Cycle Connections and was here to cover the event.
“Well,” he said after a warm handshake, “most importantly, you be sure to have a good time!”
I laughed. “Sir,” I said, “when you get a chance, I want to talk to you about this event.”
“Sir?” he asked. “Don’t call me names!” We both laughed, and after assurances that we would have a moment to talk later, he disappeared into the growing crowd of ERA members in attendance during setup. I didn’t dare interrupt. There would be time to talk later.
John Adams noticed my predicament and introduced himself. John is a former employee of Harley-Davidson, retired, who has a more road miles on him than all the states in the Midwest combined. “Any relation?” I asked, noticing his surname. “To which one?” he replied. Apparently he can trace his lineage to both the former presidents and to the beer maker, Samuel.
After a brief discussion I asked him about the unique patch he had on his vest, at the lower back. “That’s a Harley patch from 1935,” he was proud to say. “Ken Kirkpatrick, a dealership owner from Springfield, Massachusetts, gave me that.” Apparently Ken had kept his dealership going from 1939 through the war and up to 1953 by buying Harleys from other dealers. John had started riding at the age of 14 and learned to work on Harleys at 33. He eventually went to work for the factory, retiring in 2006. He is still a fixture at these events.
This is going to be an interesting crowd.
I saw George go by again, and followed him. Flannigan’s is attached to a 48-lane bowling alley that has a go-kart track outside, and I quickly got the impression that something (other than the rain) was amiss. I found George among a group of people, and everybody was listening to the manager of the bowling alley and go-kart track about what the rain meant to the night’s events. Apparently go-karts have an expensive belt on them, and rain causes them to be in danger of breaking. A broken belt costs $70, and the ERA is on a tight budget. After much discussion the Association decided that the bragging rights for the year were worth the potential cost of the broken belt, and everybody would pony up if that happened. No cost to the charities.
The crowd of attendees has started to out-number the volunteers by this time, and an announcement is made that “The go-kart races are ON!” to much cheers and clapping. Quickly, the bracket of contestants started filling up as the line to sign up stretched around the corner.
Attention turned to the front door of the convention center as several cart loads of Monster Energy Drink started coming through. Monster is a good drink, but most of the attention is directed toward the Monster Energy Drink Girls, who are trucking it in. Later, the Hooters girls brought the chicken wings.
I KNEW this was going to be an interesting crowd.
I snapped a shot of a board that was up in the middle of the convention center entryway showing all the charities that the ERA supports. The list is long, including (but not limited to) Children’s Mercy Hospital, American Red Cross, Hope for the Holidays, Bikers for Babies, City Union Mission, Cameron Veterans Home, and others.
When the crowd fully out-numbered the volunteers, all the preparations were complete, and the event was in full swing, George found me and was sat down to talk. He said that this was the 13th Cabin Fever Bash, and it grew from the first event that was attended by less than 50 people and raised about $200.
George told me about some of the events that ERA has supported and in which they participated. There’s Children’s Mercy’s “Wacky Science Night,” Camp Courage Ride and cookout, working with North Kansas City Hospital and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kansas City. They donate the factory’s 5’ x 8’ flags for auction (sometimes bringing $1,500), the Kansas City Royals’ “Ride to the “K,” City Union Mission events, and on and on. One of their favorites, repeated several times each year, is holding several bike nights where they ride in and share the biking experience with kids and adults with various challenges. “We talk with them, show them the bikes, and even put them up on a bike and take photos if they want.”
ERA perseveres through weather, economic turns and other challenges. In previous years the Cabin Fever Bash saw snow, sleet and ice, and record attendance. As the plant worked its way through the recent recession, the ERA kept going and even connected with laid-off employees. George finds it an absolute privilege to be the president, and to be associated with this group.
“We figured out a way to hold an event that benefits charities in the local community, and disguise it as a GREAT party!” he said.
And a great party it was.
The vaunted Go-Kart Races began with spits of rain and several inches of water on the track in some places. As I said, a little cold, wet weather wouldn’t stop this group, as evidenced by several pics I have included of the event and the participants afterward.
“No Parking” was the band on stage, and Chad Bourquin, Howard Culver and the others are happy to perform at this event. George had heard them play and invited them to help out, and they were more than glad to do it. “Does anybody like the music of the 80s?” Chad shouted to the raucous crowd, and a resounding cheer swelled the place. “Good! Because you’re gonna hear a LOT of it tonight!” Howard’s bass line began, and the dance floor filled.
In the corner stood a mechanical bull – well, not really. It was a mechanical pig. Several people tried their luck at staying on after watching Eric and his son Wes demonstrate it. Scott Eckard, at the controls, took it easy on the participants (except for Jessica, who dared him to throw her off, and by the time the words were out of her mouth I could only get a shot of her feet flying by out of the frame.)
There were door prizes, food, drinks and plenty of entertainment to be had, but everybody remembered the reason for the event.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Penny Sharp from Bikers for Babies® – a name with which anyone associated with that event will be familiar. Penny was in attendance to support the ERA, as they have always supported Bikers for Babies since the inception of the plant. Many employees volunteer at the Bikers for Babies, and with their help (and that of so many others in the community), that event has brought in millions of dollars over the years.
March of Dimes supports the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit’s Family Support Center, provides education, counseling and advocacy for the families. According to their website, this allows “riders and motorcycle lovers to promote and support the March of Dimes, while educating family and friends about the seriousness of premature birth, birth defects and other threats to their health. The March of Dimes helps moms have full-term pregnancies and healthy babies. And if something goes wrong, we offer information and comfort to families. We research the problems that threaten our babies and work on preventing them.” Much has been written about the March of Dimes and Bikers for Babies, and several stories can be found in Cycle Connections Magazine. Penny was gracious and happy to give me all the information I needed, but soon she was pulled up on stage and thanked the ERA for their support throughout the year.
As the night wound on and the crowd continued to dance and sing along with the band, I slipped out and headed for my truck and the long drive home. It was still raining, but it was apparent by this time that nobody cared. There was a kind of warmth in the hall that overcame the cold, wet air outside – hundreds of people working toward an important cause, and enjoying every minute of it. I couldn’t help but snap a quick picture of some of the volunteers still attending to their responsibilities. You could see the day’s events had taken their toll, and there was still much work to be done, both tonight and into the future. The Employee Riders Association will be there to take it all on, I am certain.
On the way out I once again noticed the ERA patch on the back of a volunteer’s vest. “We Make the Eagle Fly” is their motto. They sure do. And they make a lot of hearts soar, too.
By Bruce L. Stimpson