Don't call them "bikers." Forget talk of "hogs" and "choppers." Look at black leather as practical clothing, not an outlaw fashion statement.
The next time you think about motorcyclists, don't let your mind dwell on Marlon Brando, James Dean and similar rebels without causes. Instead, think of the 80,000 motorcyclists who are expected to gather tomorrow at Fort Smallwood Park to collect toys for children.
"Motorcyclists should be looked at as individualists who choose a certain mode of transportation," said Robert A. Ritter, chairman of the 10th annual Motorcyclists' Operation Santa Claus.
"The rape, rob and pillage image is a bad rap," said his wife, Nancy Franke-Ritter, who rates riding behind her husband on his 1986 Harley Davidson Liberty Limited Edition as one of the top pleasures in her life. "I think motorcyclists are for the most part kids at heart. They enjoy the freedom of the road. That's why they're so drawn to this event."
Motorcyclists' Operation Santa Claus (MOSC) began as a "toy run" in November 1981 on Pier Five, attracting 5,000 participants, who donated toys for the Salvation Army to distribute to needy children. It has grown to tomorrow's event at the 15-acre park in Anne Arundel County, featuring three live bands, food, beer, commemorative souvenirs and a raffle of two motorcycles.
The first Operation Santa Claus was financed on a shoestring; the budget for tomorrow's event is $80,000.
Price of admission is a new toy, canned food items or a $5 donation. In its 10 years of existence, Mr. Ritter said, MOSC has collected more than $250,000 in cash and "several millions of dollars worth of toys and food." Last year, the toys that were collected filled seven 30-foot trailers.
"They pretty well take care of our toy shop," said Maj. David Jones of the Salvation Army, which supplies toys for Christmas for more than 2,000 families in Baltimore City and County. "I think it's a great operation. These people have big hearts, and we're glad to be riding along with them."
Participants are attracted to the nature of the charity. "The whole idea is there's nothing to do with a toy but give it to a kid," said Sam Conver, an MOSC board member.
And as participation has increased, the idea has grown beyond toys for Christmas. "Our thought is to make Christmas a year-round project," said Mr. Ritter.
While the Salvation Army remains the largest beneficiary, cash donations also help the University of Maryland Hospital Pediatrics Center, the Baltimore City Summer Jobs Program, several city sports teams and Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School in Brooklyn, which the motorcyclists have "adopted."
Though the impetus for Operation Santa Claus has always been to help needy children, no one involved denies that they welcome the byproduct of helping clean up the image of motorcyclists, who often find themselves battling a Hell's Angel stereotype.
"Any society breaks down into different groups," said Rick Galloway, MOSC's vice president for administration. "The Hell's Angel image is there, and it's a shame because it's a stereotype. They call themselves the 1 percenters -- they're only a small fraction of motorcyclists."
"Bikers are some of the nicest people I know," said Charlie Ellis, a 64-year-old retired government worker who plays Santa Claus every year at the toy runs. This year Mr. Ellis will need more padding than usual in his costume: To raise money for the drive he has been hiking the Appalachian Trail, a trek about two-thirds completed, and he has lost 30 pounds since he began on April 1.
Motorcyclists emphasize the diversity of lifestyles they represent. Mr. Galloway is an insurance program analyst. Mr. Ritter is an administrative officer for the state, teaching courses in motorcycle safety. His wife is an administrative assistant at a -- medical laboratory. Mr. Conver is a carpenter. There are plenty of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals who commute to work on a motorcycle.
These days, Mr. Ritter said, "with the average cost of a decent motorcycle $6,000 and up, a good set of leathers costing $300 to $600 and a decent helmet from $150 to $400, you've got to be a reasonably responsible citizen just to afford to be a motorcyclist. Today's motorcyclist is not a ragtag individual."
In fact, added Mr. Conver, the changing profile of motorcyclists has given rise to a new term: "rubbies -- for rich, urban bikers."
While their backgrounds are varied, motorcyclists seem to agree about one thing: Riding a motorcycle is the best way to travel.
"I get in this car, and I've got this big piece of metal around me," said Mr. Galloway. "It doesn't feel right."
"I just like the freedom of having the wind in my face and the brotherhood of the people on the road," said Mr. Conver.
"You're not just driving through a place, you're driving in a place," said Tom Wheeler, an electrician and MOSC treasurer. "Once I was driving in upstate New York with an apple orchard on one side of me, a Concord grape arbor on the other, and it was like driving in a fruit salad."
Motorcyclists toy drive
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow (rain date: Oct. 20).
Place: Fort Smallwood Park.
Music by: The Nighthawks, Road Ducks, Dixie Allstars.
For more information, call 433-3919.