In the summer of 1971, a rumor went around Storm Lake, Iowa that the Hells Angels were coming to town. The rumor was linked to a vague mention of the Midwest in a biker magazine, but through the nuanced and intricate ways that news spreads in small towns, the rumor grew into the greatest panic Storm Lake has ever known.
At this point the Angels were long notorious for their exploits all over the country. People were either enthralled with or repulsed by them. The Angels had links to The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and were immortalized in print (outside of news headlines) by New Journalist writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. The Angels symbolized ultimate freedom and debauchery, anti-hippiedom with a Beat-like mindset for exploring what our expansive country had to offer. But unlike the peace-loving, Zen-seeking Beats, the Angels liked to stir shit up, starting fights and assaulting women. Or so it was said.
I first heard of the rumor while sitting at my grandma Shirley’s kitchen table (where we had all of our best conversations), enthusiastically scribbling down notes as she recounted how she’d considered hiding in the bushes behind her house and how she’d worried that the bikers would raid her and my grandpa’s Wholesale Market of all their beer. “People actually left town because they were afraid it would be too dangerous,” she said. My grandpa Jack wanted her to leave but she wouldn’t. Instead, she said, they went and bought some .22 bullets for their rifle. Other families shipped their wives and daughters off to relatives in other towns, or banned them from leaving the house. Men were entreated to stand guard and protect those who dared to stay.
Forty thousand bikers were guesstimated to arrive for the town’s 4th of July Star Spangled Spectacular, inciting a request for the National Guard’s services. Baseball bats were stashed at the ready, a bank boarded up its windows, and trucks were assigned to blockade the girls’ dorms at the local college.
The idea of this event in my hometown’s past thrilled me and I went to my grandma Rose—a lifelong resident of the county—with questions about her experience. She said she hadn’t believed anything would happen even if the Angels did come through, despite my grandpa’s boss warning him that the filthy fiends might rape his four young daughters. But even my grandpa said, “We’re staying right here.”
My mom, along with her siblings, must have read something in their parents’ nonchalance and ditched the house to go swimming at the lake where they saw some visiting bikers, enjoyed their time, and left unscathed.
My dad and uncle were also told to stay home, but in true form they took off on their bikes for another park where dozens of visitors on motorcycles were camped out hoping to see or possibly join up with the Angels. The boys talked to one couple from Pennsylvania who had a baby with them and thought they were the nicest people, so what was everyone so worried about?
The crowds grew so large that the lake road was jammed bumper to bumper with traffic. The state moved in 40 cops with a communications truck for crowd control. Two helicopters were borrowed from the National Guard, and when 35 bikers headed out from Mason City towards Storm Lake, a highway patrol plane followed them in and had them diverted to a park about 10 miles outside of town. Local residents flocked to see the assembly like eyes to fresh road kill on an unmarked highway. But in the end the most unnerving run-in happened at Grace Lutheran Church where a wedding was in session. Two curious bikers saw the full parking lot and assumed it was the rumored biker rally. They were spotted— before any of the immediate family saw them—and were told to leave before the mother of the bride had a conniption fit.
When the fear of the Angels’ visit began to dissipate, rationality filled in the gaps and left the town wondering, How could we have reacted differently?
Is there something to be learned from unfulfilled mass hysteria? I wonder how I might’ve reacted in said time and place. I can speculate that I’d keep my cool and wait for it to all blow over. That I’d be more practical in my efforts to defend my home and self. But there are things that we only know we’re capable of once put in those situations, and we must do the best we can to simply make it out alive.