THEY ROARED into town on their ''hogs,'' long hair and beards flying and tattoos blazing in the noonday sun.
In leather and chains, and their gals in bikinis, they looked like the promo for a scary film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
About 25,000 of them, men and women, vrooming in for the annual Harley-Davidson Dealers Association's Spring Rally at Myrtle Beach, S.C.
I had gone down for a short, relaxing vacation at one of my favorite stomping grounds, never dreaming in my wildest nightmare that bikers would pick the same time for their pow wow.
I wondered ''What's a nice little ole lady like me doing here, trying to get from the T-shirt shop to the beach with all these bruisers driving four abreast and taking up my space?''
Up close, they smell like motor oil and sweaty boots, but they are as harmless as Mother Theresa on a mission. Up close, I have a new perm, new tennis shoes shoes and I smell like Chanel No. 5. Still, I remember my father saying, ''If you ever go out with a boy on a motorcycle, you'll never go out again.''
I've done a lot of things in my life but I've never been to a bikers' convention.
They have American and Confederate flags on their bikes. These people look like trouble, they look mean and fat.
But wait, up close they are polite. Some are thin.
Meet Butch and his sidekick. Only she rides in back. They came from Tennessee. He says she is his wife. They are at a yogurt stand with me.
''We ain't no Hell's Angels like people think. People have the wrong impression. We drink beer,but our group is drug free,'' he explains.
''But you don't wear helmets!'' I tell them in horror.
''Nope, we don't thank they help, and South Carolina has no helmet law. If you're gonna get kilt, you wanna get kilt all the way, you don't want to go around with an OK brain but a ruined body,'' he tells me.
That makes sense, I tell him.
''And what is the chain for?'' I ask with trepidation.
''Heck, that's to hold every thang down, including my wallet.''
Listen, Myrtle Beach loves them, they behave well, I am told, and they bring in revenue, $4 to $5 million into the area each year, I found out.
Then meet Jim Mario and his girlfriend, Susan Podgewaite. They're from New Haven, Conn. And we meet up in a parking lot where they'd stopped to change an elderly man's tire.
Jim owns three businesses back home. Susan is going to law school. A fine looking young couple, they're in their thirties.
''Wow, I had you guys pegged wrong,'' I tell them.
I am admiring his Harley -- two shades of metallic blue and more chrome than my dentist's office. I am forgetting my fear of motorcycles.
So long to the old stereotype motorcyclist. These people are from all walks of life, only they don't want to walk, they vroom.
Jim tells me they are all hard-working people, some blue collar, some white, some no collar, some born-again Christians, just your run-of-the mill humanoids gathering for fun and games.
''We treat our bikes lovingly. I've got about $13,000 tied up in this one . . . Yeah, we have some trouble going through a rain storm, but we just put on our rain gear.
''If Susan gets cold we stop at a motel. We ride for charities, as you probably know. Every state has fund-raisers, lots of clubs -- we do for needy people . . . Oh, sure we're party animals, and we have drag races and things like egg-tossing contests.
Jim says the bad gangs of 20 years ago are gone. And so were Jim and Susan when I turned around. But not before they had picked up a box turtle off the hot parking lot and put it back in the grass.