Schenectady County

Passion for Harleys rides again

Chuck Schmidt paused as he stared Saturday across the tents and Harleys dotting “No Man’s Land.”
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Chuck Schmidt paused as he stared Saturday across the tents and Harleys dotting “No Man’s Land.”

His octagonal shades eclipsed his eyes but couldn’t mask the quiver in his voice. This is what Kemp wanted, he explained softly; this is what he was all about.

“All bikers, no four-wheelers,” he said. “Just get on your bike, come to the Rendezvous and be with the motorcycle folk.”

Blue skies adorned the Indian Lookout Country Club early Saturday as the cacophony of Harley Davidson engines purred across the countryside. Schmidt was busy organizing the Great American Motorcycle Rodeo when he took a moment to reflect upon Kemp O’Connell, the original organizer of the Harley Rendezvous and his close friend, who died of cancer 14 years ago.

O’Connell’s friends pledged to keep the event as a beacon for bikers to escape the more commercial meets throughout the Northeast. True to their word, they have.

Today, the Rendezvous — now in its 30th year — has two sides. There is the unrefined and unrelenting party machine, where booze and lascivious behavior are a prerequisite.

And then there’s the other side, where there is a brotherhood and family forged amid a common passion for the deep intonation only a Harley engine can produce. Here lies the juxtaposition that Frank Potter now presides over at his Batter Street property.

Potter, the former chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature, has been the driving force that has kept the Rendezvous a household name among the biker culture. He’s also been the peacemaker that has managed to keep the event’s critics at bay for the most part.

“[Former Schenectady Count Sheriff] Bill Barnes once said, ‘No matter what we do, it’s like they’re indestructible,’ ” Potter recalled. “That’s how we got our nickname: The indestructible Harley Rendezvous.”

Revered by many, tolerated by others and loathed by some, the Rendezvous has become a meeting ground where the bike culture meets life in a rural community. And in some way, these two cultures forge a tentative but lasting coexistence.

For three days each year, the Rendezvous is an outpost of freedom and a haven for a brand of mayhem some consider anarchy. The music is loud, the beer is plentiful and there’s always someone or something to stare at.

Each year, the 177-acre country club is transformed into a pseudo town equal to — and sometimes greater than — the roughly 6,000 residents of Duanesburg. In the center lies a stage, where musical acts bathe an addled crowd with rock n’ roll long into the morning hours. But despite their carousing, the Rendezvous remains largely docile.

There are incidents, Potter confesses. But they are quickly handled by the droves of volunteers on hand. They’re not there to police people, as much as they are to intervene if there’s a problem. That’s because the Rendezvous crowd is family, Potter explained. Many of them have been part of the event for years.

One of those riders is Colorado T. Sky, who has gradually become the historian and independent voice of the Rendezvous over the course of nearly two decades. Were there a quintessential biker, it would be Sky, a man who wears a lifetime’s worth of tattoos on both arms, a full beard and a patch over his missing eye.

In life, he’s a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Vietnam and a writer for a local weekly in Ohio. At the Rendezvous, he’s a chatty philosopher who’s never short of words when it comes to describing his devotion toward his fellow bikers.

“It’s a family reunion for people who haven’t met yet,” he said, as the sound of southern rock filled the air. “It’s a family reunion for brothers and sisters who haven’t met.”

But sometimes the reunions are bittersweet, said Tom Worcester, a woodcarving and chainsaw artist who has attended the Rendezvous for 28 years. Sometimes the Rendezvous is a place for old friends to say goodbye.

Each year, Worcester totes a nearly 10-foot long log to the Rendezvous. And each year, he fills segments of it with the names of bikers who have died.

The logs are placed in a garden at the country club, where the bikers can pay their respects. “It’s not a job I chose,” he said. “It’s a job that chose me.”

With its brash outward appearance, it’s easy to misjudge the Rendezvous. At first glance, Potter’s revelers are easy to stereotype as a drunken band of misogynists, simply looking for a cheap thrill at the expense of a salacious woman or a free-flowing beer tap.

For many longtime patrons, the Rendezvous travels far deeper. It’s a way of life for some, and a method through which they can escape the constrictions of modern society; it’s an escape from a world that has little room for someone who views an open road, an extended fender Harley and an azure sky as the righteous path through life.

“I’ll come back until they put me on the wrong side of the grass,” said Juergen Kraska, the owner of Wayne County Choppers, as he overlooked a tent full of custom Harleys.

Yet some aren’t as smitten with the procession of Harleys as it winds past Mariaville Lake. Some neighbors of the country club aren’t keen on three days of revving engines and blaring rock music, even if they don’t mind the bikers themselves.

About a year after moving into his Mariaville Road residence, Seth Goldstein found a biker urinating on his apple tree. Several hours later, he lay awake past midnight as the sound of revving engines drifting into his home, which abuts Potter’s country club.

He called the state police to complain, but troopers told him there was nothing they could do. The Rendezvous has a special permit through Duanesburg that supersedes their authority when it comes to noise.

“I asked them to keep the noise down and they laughed at me,” he said. “Everybody is entitled to have a good time, but the organizer should pay attention to what‘s going on.”

Others regard the Rendezvous as an inconvenience, but one that pumps an infusion of cash into the community.

Less than a mile away from the country club, the Mariaville Lake Volunteer Fire Department serves up a pancake breakfasts for the bikers, and religiously they attend. Fire Chief Ken Labelle said the department sells close to a thousand breakfasts over the course of a Rendezvous weekend.

“These guys really support us,” he said.

Members of the Mariaville Lake Civic Association were just as fortunate. The organization raised more than $1,200 in donations from the passing bikers by giving away cookies along Batter Street.

“We love these guys,” said Barbara Bieniek, a member of the association. “They’re a really good bunch of people.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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