Interview with Jesse James: Why is Jesse James Smiling?

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Jesse had been through a lot and I wondered if he was the same Jesse I knew before. And just how do I remember Jesse? I was on the phone a number of years ago talking to Jesse and mentioned that my son had just come back from the mall and bought a West Coast Choppers hat. I told him my son was a big fan of his and considered that the coolest item of clothing he had, even cooler than our Horse shirts, which shows you how cool he thought the hat was. Next thing I know, a week later, I receive this huge box in the mail. It was from Jesse, to my son. Inside it was packed with hats, shirts and everything he had at the time. I’ll never forget that, and that is the Jesse I remember; generous and always respectful.

Steve and I landed in Texas a day early, taking advantage of the airfares, so we spent Sunday just exploring Austin. Time well spent considering the good restaurants we ate at.

Monday morning we headed out to Jesse’s, using Siri as our guide. It was much closer than we anticipated and got there a little early. On the road to his house we could see some gorgeous homes, spaced well apart, like small ranches. When we got to Jesse’s, the gate was closed and he didn’t pick up his phone. Then one of his employees showed up and said to just follow him in. We did and parked at the guesthouse, right at the front gate. We could see a large garage and someone who looked like Jesse, along with several pit bulls who saw us at the same time. The pit bulls ran towards us half barking, but by the time they reached us, we could see they were as playful as any dog I’ve ever seen. Whew, because I am more than a little nervous around pit bulls.

Jesse was in the shop and greeted us as old friends. We made general conversation as the furnace in the back was heating up. Didn’t think much of it at the time, but I found out later it was heated up for us.

I asked Jesse how long he works in the shop, knowing he really doesn’t have to work as hard as he does. He said usually around 5pm, his daughter comes by the big door and asks, “When’s dinner, I’m getting hungry?” He said when that happens; he knows it’s time to quit. With his four children living with him, he spends a lot of time with them, taking them to school, watching their games and helping the older ones with business opportunities. He seems very focused on their lives, which really doesn’t surprise me.

Jesse showed us some ashtrays on the table. They weigh 35 pounds each, made of solid stainless steel. He showed us some round stock he picked up and took a section of it over to the furnace and asked me which logo I liked? I said, “Pay Up Sucker.” He then placed the steel in the furnace and sat down for a rare moment. Jesse never sits still; he’s always doing something.

Jesse said he’s really getting into blacksmithing and wanted to learn from the best so he contacted Uri Ho in in Israel who is one of the best, if not the best blacksmith in the world.

When he called Uri, who is in his 70’s, he had no idea who Jesse was but said, “You want to learn, pay me $2,000 and fly over.” So he did and stayed at a kibbutz, sort of a commune, for a month. Basically, no matter what your profession is, you contribute to the social system and everyone takes from it equally. Doctors, laborers and basket weavers all have access to the same food, health care and comforts, something like Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden’s Pond” where simplicity and self-sufficiency would create a virtual utopia. Not sure this commune was utopia, but Jesse was impressed.

As Jesse described the way Uri holds the hammer, it was hard to believe that anyone could get any power, but as Jesse explained, you kind of snap the hammer instead of pounding it. He said the old man could hit the metal so hard, it would get hotter than it was out of the furnace. You can see in one of the pictures where Jesse holds the hammer and snaps it, and where I can barely hang on to it with that grip. As Steve and I try to come to “grips” with this technique, Jesse walked over to the oven to check on the stainless getting red-hot.

I asked Jesse if he’s still building bikes and he said he is. He showed us a stainless steel frame that was flawless. I mean the welds were so perfect I had to comment on the job. He said one of the guys who welds for him does the welding and is one of the best. This coming from a guy who many would argue is one of the best welders on the planet. The frame looked amazing. I don’t know what it costs, but I know it was more than I had in my pockets, and to me, you get what you pay for and this frame is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Jesse walked back over to the furnace and started to put on his glasses and protective gear. He took the tongs and grabbed the red-hot piece out of the oven and took it to the Watson Stillman 350 ton forging press, where 700,000 pounds of pressure were exerted on this hot steel, molding it like clay. Check out the pictures; it was amazing to watch Jesse form this simple ashtray. Once he pressed in the grooves and his signature “Pay Up Sucker,” he put it on the bench to let it cool. We took a reading from his gun and it was off the charts at 5000 degrees, or thereabouts. The gun wasn’t liking those hot temps too much.

It must have been around 12 noon and Jesse asked if we were staying until 5pm? I said sure, so he said let’s grab lunch. We went out to eat at a cool BBQ joint. By this time we were all just relaxing and I wasn’t really thinking about a story, just hanging out with friends. And it was around this time I gained more insight to Jesse and how content he is with his life now. Did you notice the proverbial question in the title? “Why is Jesse James smiling?” Actually, he was always smiling. It’s because he has it made. I’m not talking financially, although I’m sure he will never have to worry about that, I’m talking about life in general. He’s back to doing what he enjoys, spending time with his family, has a gorgeous, successful wife and is excited about some new projects – which I hope to share with the readership in the not-so-distant future – and is really happy where he’s at. In fact, when I told him I probably have the only photo of him smiling, he quickly responded that “I’m” the one who never smiles and looks angry at the world in all my shots. So I’m going to make a point and smile once in a while, probably. When we got back from lunch Jesse showed us his house, which as you’d expect, is full of relic bikes. One of particular interest is the famous 1937 Knucklehead built by George Smith Sr. of S&S that set National speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the “Tramp.” Jesse said that a guy by the name of Bill Gamen bought Southside HD in Chicago in the 1970’s. Southside owned the bike and when Bill bought the dealership, the bike became part of the acquisition. For about 40 years the bike sat as-is, untouched, just as it was when it ran its last race. Jesse got wind of this bike and made it his sole ambition in life (at the time) to make it his. After haggling back and forth with Bill, Jesse finally went to Chicago to close the deal on the bike. In a garage, next to the freeway, sat the Tramp, like a blast from the past. Jesse told me he has no desire to restore it because he wants it to remain, as it was, in perfect period, less-than-perfect condition. We stared at that bike for what seemed like hours.

We talked about the new “Indian,” and both feel the same way about it. Jesse told me what he would do if asked for advice by Polaris on how to build an Indian that would have appeal and retain the Indian legacy and I couldn’t have agreed more. Jesse gets it. Why can’t these trademark-grabbing manufacturers get it? I had a good idea what I would advise them on if, hypothetically, they were to ask me, but Jesse’s idea is even better. It’s actually quite simple but brilliant. Maybe the next owner of the name “Indian” will ask Jesse? I doubt Polaris will get it because they are convinced they’ve already got it. Pity, the Indian name is once again used just to sell a motorcycle, damn the legacy.

Back at the shop I asked him if he still does community work, knowing that he was always active in helping the young kids. He said yes, with a slight hesitation to his voice. He told me about a young black kid, around 17, who was a natural at welding. Jesse worked with him for I think he said a year, getting him certified saying this kid has the potential to be one of the best welders around, he was that good and took to it so naturally. Then he started to hang with the wrong crowd again and ended up being locked up again. He said it really affected him. So yes, he still does volunteer work in the community, but his frustration and disappointment were obvious.

Jesse was tinkering on his personal Knuck as we talked the afternoon away. Notice the knot in the sissy bar? He forged that a little at a time. He did not weld pieces together as some have suggested. It took a long time to tie that in a knot, but he did it. And as he made the exhaust, I was highly impressed that he made zero mistakes in cutting the sections of “J” tubing. He would hold a piece up, kind of mark it, cut it and tack weld it and it fit perfectly every time. I was secretly waiting for one screw up to prove he was only human, it never happened. Jesse has it down to perfection, measuring once, cutting once and ready for the next piece. Even Steve was impressed.

Walking around the shop is like a museum of sort; presses, steam engines, machinery Indian Larry cut from ruins after 9-11, generators, etc. I can’t begin to name all the heavy-duty machinery, but it’s impressive and all very functional. Look at the photos and look at this stuff. It’s nothing short of amazing.

Around 4pm, a car pulls up and the guys from Acadiana Gunworks step out and bring Jesse a box. I listen in as Jesse opens it up. It’s a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), yes, a real one. Jesse has all the licenses and permits, so nothing going on here illegally. We walk down a short path to the side of his house, where Jesse has an outdoors shooting range. The SAW had some work done to it and he was anxious to see how it worked. It was flawless. It was beautiful to see a f ll auto again. After leaving the Marines I hadn’t really had a chance to get up close to a full auto and it brought back memories. But the rain kept us from shooting longer.

Back at the shop I heard a girls voice at the front door, “Daddy, I’m hungry, when are we going to eat?” Just as Jesse said, 5pm and the alarm had sounded. It was time for us to leave and I knew it. We had just spent a fantastic day with a legend, a man who helped shape the industry and whose talent continues to grow. So was it the same Jesse I remembered? Same Jesse, just smiling more.

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