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The growling voice and speed of the motorcycle thrilled her. It was a pretty thing, a Harley-Davidson with glossy curves and gleaming spokes, and big enough to feel secure. In helmet and goggles, Geraldine took flight down the river road behind her mother’s house, past stands of sugar maple and hickory trees and neat rows of tobacco plants lining the fields of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She wheeled downtown by the railroad tracks that divided Main Street, past the brick façades of shops shaded by fancy awnings, the wind on her pink cheeks. She had ridden her bicycle down the same roads in her childhood to visit neighbors, leaving her farm chores undone, forgetting to stoke the smokehouse fire or weed the kitchen garden. Her motorcycle gave her that same floating feeling of freedom for a while.
Then Bill wrote home from the front in France during World War II: “That motorcycle better be gone by the time I get home, or you can choose: it or me.” Jerry thought, That decision won’t be as easy to make as he thinks. He didn’t realize that when she wanted to do something, she did it. She didn’t care how it looked or what other people thought. Like when she cut her long hair into a short crop—it was the new fashion and it felt light and easy, but her mother was so shocked she’d cried. And no one approved of the way she kept working, even after the babies came; she refused to give that up.
Jerry needed a vehicle while Bill was away and the motorcycle was cheaper than a car and used far less gasoline. She was smart with money. During the Depression, she saw how no one could afford gas for their cars, so they disconnected the wheels from their chassis, hooked them up to mules, and called them Hoover carts. She even brought her sister Janie’s baby girl, Jo Jane, her first birthday cake on her motorcycle, strapped behind her in a box. She drove it all the way to Fort Bragg, where Janie’s husband, Joe Pitt, was stationed. The Harley was practical and it was a pleasure to be able to go wherever she liked.
Bill wouldn’t have liked it if he had known how she learned to ride. Jerry saw an ad in the newspaper for the Harley, and decided to go and get it; then she had to walk it home. It was heavy to push, but she had no idea how to ride it. While she was rolling that metal beast beside her, a man drove by in a truck, slowly circled around the block, and passed her again. On the third pass he finally called out to her, “Hey! You know how to ride that thing? You want me to carry you home with it?” She ignored him. “Miss, I ride a motorcycle, too, and if you’d like to learn, a bunch of us meet on Saturdays and we’d be happy to show you how.” She climbed into his truck and they became friends. Now she spent her free days learning to ride with a new group, and she wasn’t the only woman there. She didn’t see anything wrong with it. With a little help, she learned to trust her instincts, steering with her body before her mind could get in the way. She leaned into turns, powering the engine with a twist of her wrist on the throttle, braking with her feet and hands; it all became second nature.
But Bill got his way in the end. She decided the motorcycle wasn’t worth the fight it would have taken to keep it. When Bill came home from the war, all that was left of the bike was a great photo of Jerry riding it. That picture came in handy later, when she was raising their two sons. The sight of her on that motorcycle was instant cool to Duane and Gregg. They teased her that she was one hot mama, and later they asked her if they could put the picture on an album cover, but she said no.
The first rebel on a Harley the brothers ever knew was their mother. Now that picture sits on my desk.
My grandparents, Willis Allman and Geraldine Robbins, called Bill and Jerry by their friends, met in a local tavern in Jerry’s hometown of Rocky Mount. Bill and a fellow serviceman joined Jerry and her girlfriends, sliding in beside them in a circular booth. Bill joked easily and looked smart in his khaki uniform; his eyes kept meeting hers. It wasn’t love at first sight, but she had to admit they had chemistry. Soon he was challenging her to have another drink, then one more, and when he swore she couldn’t have another, she drank it in a single gulp. She outdrank him with her head held high. The taste of whisky burning down her throat, the low, glowing light of the bar, and Bill’s smile, none of it could bowl her over. Later, he told her that was the moment he decided she was the girl for him. With her blond Betty Grable curls piled neatly on her head and high-heeled shoes with straps around her ankles, Jerry was a beauty with a sparkle in her blue eyes. More than all that, she had a quick mind. She had an answer for everything and she was funny—Good Lord she could make him laugh. Within a week, walking home from the movies, passing through pools of light under streetlamps into darkness, Bill said, “Geraldine, I’m going to marry you.” She told him he was crazy and quipped, “I hope you don’t ask every girl you meet. One of them might say yes.”
Jerry had been married before. Memories of her first love got in the way of giving Bill an answer for a time. She didn’t let herself think of Roy very often. She didn’t much like to form her first husband’s name in her mind; it still hurt that much. They were sweethearts and jitterbug partners, and married right out of high school in 1935, when they were both eighteen. Her first two years with Roy were wonderful. They set up house and took romantic trips to Daytona Beach, Florida, where they stayed in a motel with little separate cottages by the sea. He was sweet and daring, and she was completely in love. He also liked to drink, just like her daddy.
Jerry’s daddy, Simon, was what they used to call a garage drinker, secretive and solitary, not fun-loving like Roy. Her daddy sipped gin from a hidden jar while walking in the woods with his rifle, hunting at dawn while he drank. Simon Robbins brought his kills home and skinned them on the porch, bent over the body of a rabbit or a squirrel with his big knife. Her mama cooked the little animals for his dinner, and he ate alone after his children went to sleep. He thought his kids didn’t see his drinking, until they became teenagers. Then he noticed how they avoided his eyes when he said he was going out. He pulled away from all of them then, even his eldest son, fearing their judgment. He had his share of disappointments. Simon was forced to close his garage and filling station and go back to working leased land after the market crashed. At harvest time, his three children had to work in the neighbors’ cotton fields, weighed down by canvas bags as long as they were tall, picking bolls for hours in the sun. Jerry hated it. She hated the work and she hated how her father gave up. He flat refused to help them, and her older brother Robbie took his place, doing the work of a man even as a young boy. And then their mother, Lizzie, had a fourth child, a baby boy named Erskine, after all her other children were almost grown. They loved and doted on the baby, but it wasn’t easy to add another need to their own.
Jerry’s mama never spoke of hard things. Lizzie was a saint, the way she understood each of her children and showed them her love. She was sixteen years old when she met the handsome suitor who became this surly sinner, her husband. Simon gave her a gold bracelet as a promise of his intent to marry. She was the daughter of a Primitive Baptist preacher, and her family believed she was too young to wear an engagement ring. Even though she was proper, Lizzie wasn’t above a good joke, saying, “When I first met that man, I loved him so much I could have eaten him alive. After we were married, I wished I had.”
Jerry understood that. The real trouble in her first marriage to Roy started when she realized she wasn’t the only one who appreciated her husband’s looks and charm. Women loved Roy and he let them. He took Jerry to parties, and before long a girl would come sit on his lap and say, “Why is she here?” gesturing to Jerry. She would answer the tramp herself: “You better get off of his lap or I’ll show you why I’m here.”
Roy would laugh and reassure her, but she could see through him. He couldn’t help himself when it came to drink or women. It took Jerry three more years to leave him, after the first two good years were over. She had to be sure he would never change. She cried her tears before she got in front of a judge and asked for a divorce. She wasn’t going to wail in a public courtroom and make a fool of herself.
By the time she met Bill in 1943, Jerry had learned how to hold on to herself and her liquor. She wasn’t looking to marry again, but Bill was tenacious. He was handsome and tall with sandy hair—a country boy from a town fifty miles west of Nashville, Tennessee, called Vanleer. You almost couldn’t call Vanleer a town, just a place with a post office, a church, and a dry goods store. A few hundred people lived in small homes nested in the dense green hills, eating what they could grow. His parents’ place had a dirt floor, tamped down and swept clean. Their kitchen was outside under a little roof and their water came from a well. Bill’s father was another hard drinker, and his mother wanted more out of life but couldn’t figure out how to get it.
Bill knew from a young age the army was his best way out. He got his younger brother, Sam, to come with him, and they both worked as recruiters, convincing other seventeen-year-old boys to join up. Eventually, they were able to move their mama into a comfortable home in Nashville. Their daddy stayed behind, and lived out the rest of his life alone in the country. Bill and Jerry shared common ground: They both watched their parents work hard and end up with very few comforts. They were determined to live better lives for themselves.
While Bill was courting Jerry, he brought little gifts of scarce and rationed treasures: a pair of silk stockings, red roses, and an enormous box of Whitman’s chocolates. Jerry and her sister Janie, who was pregnant with her daughter, sat knee to knee balancing the big candy box between them and ate every perfect piece.
Bill said, “Geraldine, to know you is to love you, but you won’t let anyone in close enough to know you!” That was true. She was cautious with herself now, but the idea of getting away from North Carolina, away from her family’s opinions and advice, that was a notion strong enough to pull her toward Bill. She was close with her brothers and sister, but she was cut from a different cloth. They seemed as rooted to home as the oak tree planted in their mother’s front yard. Jerry wanted to live out in the world. She wasn’t satisfied to nest in North Carolina forever. Bill was career military. He was strong, and confident, moving from town to town with ease. He didn’t know where his next assignment would take him and she liked that idea. She thought he could be a good father to the children she dreamed of having, and she wasn’t getting any younger. She had planned to have a family long before she turned thirty, but here she was, twenty-five and divorced. She was ready to begin again. She better be, she told herself. It was clear Bill wasn’t going to stop asking until she said yes. After a short ceremony at the justice of the peace on the army base, Jerry told Bill, “This marriage is the result of a smooth snow job!”
They were married only a short time before the war called Bill away. Jerry waited for letters from him, rode her motorcycle, and worked for her brother-in-law, Joe, managing his restaurant out by the airport. She stayed with Joe and Janie, and spent time with her friends. As much as she missed her new husband, she was also comfortable in her independence. It was her nature.
When Bill came home from Europe, he was a changed man. He had landed in Normandy on D-Day and survived. He was volatile and moody, what they used to call shell-shocked. Jerry knew he had horrible stories to tell, but he only talked about the war at the Officers’ Club, with other men who had been there.
Bill was continuously reassigned once he was home. If something didn’t have wheels or fit in a box, they didn’t own it. They moved around North Carolina, on to South Carolina, then to Tennessee, sometimes living on army bases, sometimes in houses near small storefront recruitment centers. They settled for the longest stretch of time in Nashville, where they bought a beautiful clapboard house on Westbrook Avenue in 1947. That is where they lived when their first son, Howard Duane Allman, was born.
Bill’s brother Sam lived with them, and it was a happy time. Jerry cooked big dinners to share with their friends. They played cards in the kitchen, and Bill seemed better than he had in a long time. Bill carried Duane proudly around the house and took him to Vanleer to show him off to his father. He took him to the Officers’ Club and set his little bottom up on the bar beside his glass of beer. But the happy time did not last for long.
Bill soon got word he was once again going to be reassigned, and they packed up and sold their house.
Jerry hated to give up their first real home, and then, when it was too late to get it back, they found out Bill’s reassignment was only across town, in another part of Nashville.