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Suns Set

 

No one in City Park had ever seen anything like Alvin Maxie. In the summer of 1970, fresh from a twelve-year stint in the U.S. Army, he came rolling through town on a green British motorcycle, wearing knee-high moccasins and a Davy Crockett-style cap.

Other black bikers hung out in the park, but none of them had Maxie's style.

Sam "Sugar" Holmes was one of those bikers. He'd grown up in Denver, rolled with an otherwise white club for a while in the '60s, gone into the Air Force himself for five years. He and Maxie quickly bonded.

"One thing we had in common was motorcycles," Sugar recalls. "We didn't want no part of society. We wasn't radical or nothing like that, trying to change the government. We just wanted to be left alone."

Society didn't want any part of them, either.

Whether Maxie, Sugar and other black bikers were tooling down 16th Street, riding through City Park or heading down the open highway, they could count on being harassed by the law. Sugar remembers frequent pull-overs and hassling over helmets and speed limits.

"In a way, the police organized us," he says.

But being young, black and organized was a complicated -- even dangerous -- thing in the early '70s, a local Black Panther warned them.

The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies were keeping a close eye on black organizations across the country. Another eye was on the lookout for biker groups, like the Hells Angels, whose outlaw ways Hunter S. Thompson had chronicled a few years earlier.

Despite the warnings, Maxie, Sugar, ten other black men in their twenties and a single white dude named Bob formed the Suns of Darkness motorcycle club in November 1971. The thirteen bikers linked together like the chain on their flag, which also featured a bat and a skull.

"We illuminate the dark, we brighten it up, so we became the Suns of Darkness," Sugar explains.


Alvin Maxie was born in Louisiana. His father wasn't around, and his mother died when he was just two years old, so he was raised by his grandmother. Although Maxie also had some Cherokee and Creole blood, he mostly identified as a black man. He was just sixteen when he joined the Army.

The Army sent him to Germany, where he learned to speak the language fluently and developed an admiration for the sharp, crisp uniforms once worn by Nazis.

Maxie came to Colorado for the first time in 1964, when he was stationed at Fort Carson. At an Elks lodge in Colorado Springs, he spotted eighteen-year-old Rose Gardner. A New Yorker, she was visiting her sister in the Springs. Much to Rose's surprise, Maxie asked if she liked horseback riding. "Most guys got a line," Rose says. "They want to rap, say all kinds of things, and he just came out of the blue with 'You like to horse ride?'"

In the days that followed, they hit another dance club or two, then rode horses along the Garden of the Gods trail. Rose stayed on in Colorado Springs, and they dated for three months before getting married that July. "I don't know if you want to call it love at first sight or what," Rose says.

Maxie had other hobbies besides horseback riding. He loved guns. To practice his quick draw, he'd hold a book at chest level and drop it, then try to get his piece pointed by the time the book hit the floor. He often had Rose pack a gun in her purse, and he taught her how to throw it to him by the barrel so that he could catch it by the grip in an emergency.

In January 1965, the Army transferred Maxie to France. By the time Rose joined him that spring, he'd taught himself to play the cello or the bass -- she can't recall which. The couple stayed in Europe for two years. Maxie got his GED, and a captain adopted him as a teacher's assistant, often leaving Maxie to lead the very class he was enrolled in. The captain tried to talk Maxie into officer's training, and Maxie took the test and passed it. But he ultimately passed on the opportunity because he feared he'd be thrown on the front lines of the Vietnam War.

In 1967, the Army again transferred Maxie -- this time to Kentucky, to teach basic training. Life there moved slower than it had in France, but Maxie still had fun. "Everywhere we were stationed, he always knew lots of people," Rose remembers. "We would do different things. We'd play cards, we'd have a night at this family's house. I don't think he ever met a stranger."

 

After Kentucky, the Army moved Maxie to Korea for a year; Rose opted to stay with family in New York. In Korea, Maxie busted an arm learning karate, but he didn't give up until he'd earned his black belt. He also met Judy, a captain.

Captains and non-commissioned officers aren't supposed to fraternize with one another, and especially not in a romantic way. The black man/white woman dynamic of their relationship made things even more difficult.

The Army next transferred Maxie to Virginia, where he was rejoined by Rose. But Judy followed him there, too.

Rose loved Virginia's countryside and beaches. Maxie bought his first motorcycle there and organized a social club, which had a snake for a logo. Rose was pregnant with Maxie's baby when she found out he'd been cheating. She left him and returned to New York.

On Valentine's Day 1970, Rose gave birth to a daughter named Kim. Maxie passed out cigars when he got the call from the Red Cross.

Soon after, Maxie and Judy were both honorably discharged from the Army. They moved to Denver, because Maxie had fond memories of all that open space in Colorado.


At first the Suns of Darkness got kicked out of just about every bar they went to in Denver. The bikers were viewed as "black rednecks," Sugar remembers.

Once, they tried to get biscuits and gravy at the Jet Set nightclub on Colorado Boulevard, but management said that their biker attire was inappropriate. Several of the Suns went home and put on suits, but they were again refused service. They left again, and this time returned buck naked, to streak the joint.

When they lined up their bikes outside Pierre's Supper Club, dozens of girls would come to see the Suns, Sugar says. But then the bikers snuck in their own beverages and got 86ed from Pierre's.

The Suns got tossed out of other places, including Mr. A's, after Maxie showed up with one of his boa constrictors wrapped around his arm. A waitress carrying a tray of drinks complimented him on his bracelet, then realized it was really a snake. The drinks went flying as the waitress screamed "Snake!" all the way out the front door.

"Everybody thought bikers were like in the movies, that they'd come in and take over the town, rape the little girls," Sugar says. "But it wasn't like that."

If the Suns didn't feel welcome somewhere, they just moved on to the next party.

Although veteran cops knew better, rookies continued to be suspicious of the Suns, even after the group's first president, Bill Phillips, left the club and joined the Denver Police Department. That's when Maxie assumed the presidency. The club began meeting at his house, and one of his first orders of business became finding a place where the Suns of Darkness could party by their own rules.

He soon found a building at 2835 Welton Street that had served as a Black Panther headquarters. The Suns rented it as their clubhouse for $70 a month. The black-owned businesses in the Five Points area initially seemed a little paranoid about their new biker neighbors. But the Suns' partying all night long actually deterred crime in the area, Sugar says.

Family, job, religion, Suns of Darkness -- that was the club's suggested set of priorities, in that order. But members were free to live their lives as they chose, and some wound up doing time in prison for crimes they committed independent of the club. The Suns remained a purely social organization, however.

An organization that was growing fast. By the time William Vaden joined the club in 1972, it had grown to more than twenty members. He remembers his initiation as a frat-boy thing: getting pelted with eggs and oil, being fed spaghetti while blindfolded and told it was worms, swimming across the Cherry Creek Reservoir.

Vaden was known as "Dubby" from his football days at Manual High School, where he'd been a classmate of Sugar's. But Maxie soon changed that to "Doobee," even though Dubby hadn't smoked a doobie since the first time he tried pot at the age of twelve. Doobee's older brother, James "Pretty Eyes" Vaden, was an original member of the Suns, but Doobee had missed out on the club's first year because he was doing time in prison for forgery.

Some biker clubs required that a member's motorcycle be signed over to the group. Others made their members get tattoos or swear allegiance to the club above all else. The Suns of Darkness just required that a member's bike be at least 500cc so the crew could ride together as a pack.

 

In the tradition of Easy Rider, the Suns often hit the open road to see the country. "We went just to go," Sugar remembers. "You get on that highway, you meet a lot of beautiful people."

By 1973, Maxie and Sugar had both graduated to Harley-Davidsons. They used inner tubes, blankets, pillows or whatever they had to pad the hard seats during long, rough rides -- and the trip to Oakland that year was one of Sugar's favorites. Seven riders left Denver with a total of thirty bucks in their pockets. They took five days to get there, partying the whole time. They then stayed in Oakland for three weeks before finally coming back to town. They still had thirty bucks.

Charles Garrett, a photographer who liked hanging around the Suns, didn't have a bike, so he followed the brothers in a truck on that trip. "It was fantastic," he says. "My world was completely opened up to the whole biker lifestyle. You had to be a certain person, you had to have a certain energy to even hang in the club. I dug the fact that they did what they wanted to do and went where they wanted to go. They exposed themselves to this country more than most people who live here."

Although Garrett wouldn't join the Suns for another sixteen years, he earned his nickname on that '73 trip. Following the Muslim dietary law, he didn't eat pork, and he seemed to preach about it every time he came around the Suns. But by the time they all arrived in Oakland, Garrett was so hungry he couldn't resist the swine ribs on the grill. That's when the Suns named him "Nopork."

Not only did Doobee make all of the Suns trips, but he cruised across the country for much of the next dozen years, earning the club's first Nomad patch and serving as a Suns of Darkness ambassador. "I was known everywhere," he says. "I just rode everywhere. I opened up a lot of doors."

While Doobee was building bridges across the country, the Suns were getting together with other Denver clubs. Another black crew, the Good Time Rollers, had formed, as had a chapter of the Chicago-based Hell's Lovers. And the Suns partied with white clubs, too.

"We rode as fast as they did, we rode as hard as they did, we rode as crazy as they did, we drank as much as they did, too," Sugar remembers. "But we didn't have to fight to be accepted."

Once, someone claiming to be a member of the Hell's Lovers called the Suns clubhouse and threatened to blow the place up. But since some Lovers were in the house at the time, the Suns kept the peace. "We wasn't trying to take over nobody," Sugar says. "We wasn't trying to run nobody."

"It would be nice if everyone in the world could get along. It would be nice of God," Maxie told a reporter in 1978. "All this Nazi stuff we wear is just tradition. What do you think Hitler would do if he knew a black man was wearing an Iron Cross?"

The head of the DPD's motorcycle-gang division told the same reporter that about a half-dozen of the thirty motorcycle clubs in Colorado were hard-core criminal operations. But the Suns wasn't one of them. "We don't consider the Suns a problem gang, although several individuals have extensive records and deserve watching," the detective said.

One Sun, "Saboo," did meet a violent death -- but he was murdered over a woman, not the club.

Women can't join the Suns. "Females seem to initiate shit," Sugar says. "You can take a building full of men and they get along, but put one female in there and you'll get wars going on."

Outside the club, the bikers didn't have much better luck with the women they married. "Motorcycle or me," Sugar remembers his wife telling him. "So I divorced my wife in 1972. I still got my bike. It went up in value, but my wife depreciated."


Six-year-old Kim Maxie heard a rumbling that shook the walls like thunder. Motorcycle after motorcycle roared up as her cousins shouted, "It's Uncle Max!"

Kim looked up at her father. She'd seen him only a couple of times before, during visits to her aunt in Colorado Springs. But in 1976, Rose -- who didn't divorce Maxie until 1984 -- moved with Kim to the Springs, so that the girl could be closer to her father.

"Hey, baby," Maxie said.

Kim was bashful.

"Come here and give me a hug."

 

All Kim's cousins ran to hug her father, so Kim figured she might as well, too. Maxie sat her on his bike, and then they walked around the block together. They talked.

For the next six years, Kim would spend two weeks every year with her father in Denver. And even after she turned twelve and had a social life of her own, she would always call the clubhouse and find her father there. Sometimes when he put the phone down, Kim could hear the partying in the background. Maxie would often get back on the line quite a while later, apologizing for having made her wait.

Papa was a rolling stone, and after he broke up with Judy, he lived with a couple of different women. Sometimes the women were the breadwinners; sometimes Maxie worked security to bring in cash. But by the mid-'80s, he was living alone in his house on Clayton Street.

When she was fourteen, Kim remembers, her father asked her if she smoked weed. Kim lied and said no. At that, Maxie rolled up three joints and said he knew she was lying. But Kim still wouldn't hit the joint until Maxie started laughing over that old Wendy's "Where's the beef?" commercial. Then, when he passed the spliff to his daughter, she took it with a natural stoner's grace.

"I knew you get high," Maxie told her. "I want you to tell me everything about you. If you don't tell me, then I don't know who you are. Drugs, sex, whatever -- don't lie to me. I wanna know who you are."

By the time she was sixteen, Kim was spending most weekends in Denver. She called Maxie "Daddy" and he called her "Baby." Since everyone knew Maxie preferred younger women -- they could be trained easier, he said -- several people assumed Kim and Maxie were lovers. Kim went on biker runs and to biker parties. Maxie had her experiment with drinking different liquors so that she could find her tolerance level. He taught her to ride a motorcycle and how to shoot a gun.

He made Kim promise that she'd never mess with bikers. She couldn't keep that one -- she was her father's daughter, after all -- but at least she fell for a biker from a different club. "Don't mess with any of my friends, because I don't want to have to kill him behind you," Maxie once told her.

No man ever disrespected Maxie's daughter at the Suns clubhouse.

Once, drunk on gin after a bike run and some fishing, Kim started telling a story about catching and cleaning a fish. When Maxie accused his daughter of bluffing, Kim called over a witness, who backed up her story.

"See," she said, tossing a freshly opened beer at her father's head. She missed, but still her father grabbed her by the back of the neck and walked her out to the bike.

"Don't you ever disrespect me in front of my club brothers," he said, shoving her on the back of the bike. On the drive home, Kim started acting up, punching her father. When Maxie pulled over, Kim leapt off the bike. She stripped to her socks, bra and panties -- the only clothes her mother had paid for. Maxie stood there dodging boots, jeans, chains, leather chaps and the jacket he'd bought for his daughter.

The semi-nude seventeen-year-old finally walked home, only to find her father waiting.

"You want to act like a little girl, I'm going to treat you like a little girl," Maxie said. He bent his daughter over his lap and spanked her.


The Suns of Darkness continued to party hearty as they got older.

Nopork, who'd become a cinematographer specializing in shooting corporate videos and feature films, finally was named an official Sun in 1989.

Sugar's 22-year career as a customer-service agent and baggage handler for Continental Airlines came to an end in 1990 when he hurt his back on the job. But he could still ride.

Doobee had been arrested on a variety of charges -- including carrying a concealed weapon, assault, shoplifting and a couple of DUIs -- before he finally caught a case for what he says was a gram and a half of cocaine in 1990. He went back to prison and did about three and a half years of a ten-year sentence. After he got out, he returned to his gig as an apartment maintenance man. Since then he's gotten arrested only once -- for firing an antique rifle to celebrate the new year in 1997. He's still pissed that the cops took the gun.

Maxie started working for the U.S. Postal Service to help Kim pay for an associate's degree in electronics, which she was earning at her father's suggestion.

 

He was cruising his Harley along Downing Street one day when a truck pulled out in front of him. The crash messed up Maxie's wrist, and his spleen had to be removed. He had to stay off his bike for a while after that.

A few years later Maxie had an aneurism. He wanted to keep things quiet, but the Suns made Kim promise to keep them informed of el presidente's health.

Maxie's busted wrist didn't heal as it should have, and he noticed he was more prone to bruising than in his earlier years. Doctors ran tests and determined that he had a critical blood disorder that would probably lead to leukemia.

In 2001, Maxie called Kim over to the house. "I'm dying," he told her. "It's time for you to know. I've been thinking about this, and I don't want no one else to know." Kim started crying. Not only was he her father, but her two children also called Maxie "Daddy," and he was only too happy to play the role.

"You can take that home and get it all out and do what you gotta do and be back here on Monday to take me to the doctor," Maxie said.

Maxie quit drinking, because he worried that his medication wouldn't work as well with booze in his system. But he stayed faithful to Mary Jane and continued to ride his Harley, even after undergoing chemotherapy.

One Sunday this past October, Maxie was feeling pretty sick. He didn't want to go to the hospital; he wanted a family dinner and to watch the Broncos. Finally, though, he gave in and went to the hospital. The doctors gave him a day to live, a day and a half, tops.

Then Maxie went home to die.

Kim asked Maxie what she could do for him. First he wanted to listen to some country music, he told her, and then he wanted quiet and peace of mind. "I lived this long because you are not ready for me to die," he said. "You can do it."

After Maxie passed in his quiet house, Kim put the country music back on.

The only funeral instructions Maxie had given came indirectly, at the funeral of an uncle who didn't have a final viewing. Maxie had told Kim that wasn't right, because many of the people who came to pay their respects didn't get to see the man one last time. "My funeral's going to be so big, because people are going to want to make sure I'm dead," Maxie said.

About 800 people filled the church for Maxie's funeral, and a hundred motorcycles lined the street. His casket was open.

Maxie's body was later cremated; his ashes will be spread on his mother's grave in Louisiana.


There's a more informal service for Maxie when the Suns of Darkness celebrate their 34th anniversary at their $700-a-month clubhouse on Williams Street, where they moved in 2002.

Sugar, who's known as "Uncle Sugar" these days, stands by the door, collecting donations to help cover booze, beer and food at the festivities. Most of the women coming through get a hard time from Sugar, especially the one who tries to pay with a hundred-dollar bill.

"How you walkin' round the ghetto with a hundred dollars?" Sugar asks. "You might be a narc or something."

Sugar is the last original member of the Suns. Some have died, others are sick, still others have gone "square," he says, settling down with their families. But membership is holding steady at about two dozen. Sugar still rides the 1972 Harley he bought 33 years ago for $2,750. Maxie's 1980 Harley will sit idle until Kim's son is old enough to handle his inheritance.

A 6' 4", 300-pound biker named "Viper" stands by Sugar. Now 45 years old, he joined the Suns ten years ago, a year after his father, "Snatcher," one of the original Suns, passed away. Snatcher got his nickname because he was quick to put his hands on a woman. Viper was just a kid when he first met Maxie.

"Everything was particular about Maxie," he says. "He was the biggest problem-solver. When most people would be running around with their heads cut off, he'd sit back and analyze it."

Viper stays out of trouble nowadays, but back in junior high, he liked to steal. He once nabbed a sack of cash from a carnival -- only to have Maxie surprise him in the parking lot, taking the money and returning it. "If I catch you and your cronies stealing around here, I'm gonna kick your ass and tell your dad," Maxie told him.

 

Viper quit stealing, and Snatcher went to the grave without ever hearing that story.

The Suns aren't used to partying without Maxie. Sugar remembers how Maxie would claim to be a 200-year-old vampire, and how even racist skinheads took a liking to him, dazzled by a black man's fluency in German and his fondness for swastikas. He remembers what it was like when he and Maxie first formed the club. "We had a bad taste in our mouth for what the United States was doing," he says.

Their concern over the war in Vietnam and the fights here at home echoes in party conversation about the situation today in Iraq and the Patriot Act. "You wouldn't believe the atmosphere now," Sugar says. "People who don't know bikers, they think we're terrorists."

But while some individual Suns may have run afoul of the law over the years, the group itself comes out clean. Sometimes even squeaky. "Don't forget the Easter-egg hunt," Sugar calls to a few bikers as they leave the clubhouse. The Suns of Darkness have hosted that family-oriented event in City Park for 33 years.

There are no kids at tonight's celebration. Instead, the Suns are shooting pool and dancing alongside black bikers from the Hell's Lovers, the Good Time Rollers, the Road Warriors and the Swords of Justice. Alongside white bikers from Tribal Judah, EZ Thunder, Rocky Mountain Riders, the Sons of Silence, Long Range Riders and the Iron Horsemen. Alongside members of the Bandidos, a Chicano club. Everyone's here to party with the Suns and pay their respects to Maxie.

"Maxie was one in a million," Sugar says. "I feel sorry for the people who didn't get to meet him."

Maxie stories keep circulating. He raised several children as if they were his own. (He had another biological daughter that he wasn't able to parent as much as he would have liked to.) A non-biological daughter whom Maxie walked down the aisle now sits with Kim, as someone serenades her with "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."

There are more songs and tributes and toasts, then an unveiling of a photo that Maxie took of himself a year or two ago. He's standing before a dresser wearing all black, with a black cowboy hat, snakeskin boots, an earring, a six-gun in his holster and a rifle by his side. A whip hangs on the wall; a couple of baseballs sit on the dresser.

Photos dating back over three decades cover the walls of the clubhouse. Some have turned yellow and are peeling at the corners. Maxie's framed picture will soon hang among them.

But first, a moment of silence. Then the glasses are raised.

"To our fallen president," someone says.

Doobee has been elected the Suns' new president. "Nothing's changed," he says, toasting Maxie. "Not a thing."


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