The Rise and Fall of the Camp Zama Motorcycle Club

Text: Dennis W. Lid • Photography: Dennis W. Lid

In the beginning was the bike, the bike was with the rider, and the rider formed the club. Not long ago on the Kanto Plain in the Land of the Rising Sun an entity was born. It was in the form of a motorcycle club that does honor to all aficionados of this two-wheeled conveyance. This rendition of the birth, life and death of an organization unique in character known as the Camp Zama Motorcycle Club (ZMC) is a tribute to honor its memory. It is gone now, but once it lived and roamed the highways and byways of Japan.

Larry, a soldier formerly stationed in Japan (whose last name is lost to us in the recent mists of time) was the founder. Known as a wild seed and dedicated Harley rider, Larry loved to roam, and his passion for it helped enlist fellow riders on the same brand of bikes in the ZMC, the Zama Motorcycle Club.

Established in 1978 as a private association, chartered, and sanctioned by the US Army Garrison Honshu Commander and US Army Japan/IX Corps at Camp Zama in Sagamihara, 30 kilometers south of Tokyo, the club was authorized to use garrison facilities, which included an old wooden building at Sagami Depot some thirty minutes' drive from Zama. The depot became their clubhouse and repair facility and the original band of members equipped it with salvaged furnishings, workbenches, and a pool table. This facility served the members well during the club's almost 15 years of existence. The club logo and colors were displayed within the clubhouse and embroidered on the vests worn over our jackets or leathers. The original logo, ZMC letters connecting white wings, was later changed to the US Stars and Stripes and Japanese Rising Sun encircled with appropriate inscriptions to complete our colors.

But as the years passed and new members joined, the character and texture of the club changed as well. The diverse membership of the ZMC led to the rise of the "rice cooker," the Japanese motorcycle, as the club's machine of choice. This preference changed the maverick (Harley) character of the club to one presenting a more international and inclusive image. Mellowed, in effect, to a gentler, more organized and disciplined structure, the club honed the rough tool that built it into a precision instrument that served a membership of roving goodwill ambassadors for the US and Japan. And just as truckers in the states used to be, the ZMC riders evolved into true "knights of the road."

Led by men like Dave Newman, club president (1982-1983), Harry New, his road captain and an army civilian employee at Sagami Depot, vice-president Glen Keener, an intelligence detachment civilian employee, treasurer Dan Reyes, a non-commissioned officer with Garrison Honshu, and secretary Bruce Lucas, the club refined its constitution, bylaws, and developed a group-riding guide (rules of the road for formation flying).

Club officers in the Camp Zama Motorcycle Club inspected for the appearance of bike, rider, and equipment before each ride. We were briefed on route, destination address, telephone numbers, and emergency procedures, and we rode according to the rules but took advantage of every legal loophole, such as split-lane driving and curb crawling. Staggered formation was used on group rides and arm, hand, and light signals transmitted to convey formation commands.

Dave Newman said that our club was unique because "its riders would ride anytime, anywhere during any weather (including typhoons)." Glen Keener noted that the equality extended to all ranks, military and civilian, all races, religions, and nationalities was pretty darned unique, too. The club represented that elusive level playing field for all concerned, and that's what made it "a great club." With military and civilian members, the group also was bilateral, embracing Japanese and US members, multi-racial, and ecumenically diverse. A harmonious melting pot, the Zama Club quashed the Ugly American image wherever it rode, promoting tolerance and the golden rule.

Keener was fond of saying, "It ain't only where we're goin', it's how we get there that's important," and he enforced that doctrine during his reign as president, vice-president and later, as road captain. The list of abiding club members was an illustrious one that included men and women from various units and agencies. They drove a multitude of different motorcycles, models and displacements from Yamaha to Honda and Suzuki to Kawasaki.

The ZMC rode an annual schedule developed by Harry New, Ken Hirano, and others. Our shortest trips were day rides to nearby areas: Yamanaka and the five lakes region at the foot of Mount Fuji during June, Hakone National Park and Lake Ashi in October, the beach on the Sea of Japan for New Year's sunrise, and a family picnic along the river at Tanzawa Prefecture Park during May.

Our longest trips included a seven-day journey to Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, and a nine-day venture to Hokkaido, the northern island. These excursions required taking ferries across the straits, and two members who especially enjoyed these long rides were Jack Owen and Chuck Cash. Larger-than-life individuals, they were dynamic, charismatic presidents, road captains, and officials during the mid to late 80's and early 90's. Japanese linguists, Jack, a lieutenant colonel in the intelligence detachment, was the quiet intellectual in the group and our chief navigator; Charlie, an army master sergeant in intelligence, became our colorful and flamboyant point man on rides. He rode by the seat of his pants and dead reckoning. Both were excellent riders. We knew it was time to assume formation and move when hearing Charlie's "on the road again" exhortations. Jack advised we follow his navigational instructions by reminding us "we rode with our hearts, while he rode with his head." Then, off we would go on one of our many overnight rides to Suwa Lake during May, gateway to the Japanese Alps and home to one of the best minshukus (Japanese inns) in Japan, or Shimoda in June with its white beaches and Black Ship on the Izu Peninsula, or Nikko through Tokyo to the mountains and the famous Kegon Falls and Chuzenji Lake in September. There were weekend trips to Hida-Takayama in the Japanese Alps during October to view the change of seasons, the Chiba Peninsula in November with its great bikers' roads, the strawberry-picking run to Shizuoka in February, the Fertility Festival at Inuyama (Nagoya) during March and the cherry-blossom viewing trip to Okutama Lake during April.

We took other trips to various destinations during the year. Despite dense traffic in the urban areas of the Kanto Plain, the narrow roads, the deep benjo ditches (gutters) adjacent to the roadside, the detours due to mudslides or washed out bridges in the mountains, the wind and rain of typhoons or sleet and snow of winter storms, we were "knights of the road" and roving ambassadors on all our rides. That is what made us proud to be members of the ZMC. We always made friends along the way, adding to the joy of riding.
The enjoyment continued with our overnight stops at the minshukus that rented Japanese-style rooms, provided meals and bathing facilities to travelers. We'd top-off our tanks at the end of the day, wash and park our bikes, and head for the ofuro (Japanese style bath). Nothing feels better than a steaming hot communal bath to soothe sore muscles while swapping yarns at day's end. After, we would eat, drink, and sing karaoke until we felt no pain.

Sundays on the road we tried to find religious services for those who wanted to attend - no mean task in a country that's only two percent Christian. Many times, Jack (Mormon), Chuck (Catholic) or Glen (Protestant) would pilot our would-be worshipers (all denominations) to the right church if one could be found along our route. During one of these quests, the ZMC discovered a small Franciscan mission at Saku, Japan, attended the services, and established the only Zama Club legacy that lives on to this day. Each Thanksgiving Day since finding the mission and meeting Father Gabriel Alba, members of USARJ bring the makings to Saku and prepare the celebratory meal to share with the padre and his small staff. Now, non-bikers from Camp Zama carry on the tradition.

The club supported its members through two events held at Camp Zama each year. They were the Fourth of July and Bon Odori (Japanese equivalent of All Souls' Day). The ZMC operated a refreshment booth and gave motorcycle rides at these events. A percentage of the proceeds went back to the Camp Zama community while the remainder provided revenue to pay for bike trips, club bills, scholarships and other expenses during the year. The club paid minshuku rental, expressway tolls, or other costs for each trip. The rest was paid out of pocket by each rider. Funds were sufficient during the good years but not the bad.

The bad years began around 1990 when the Japanese economic bubble burst and kept rolling downhill thereafter. The costs of bikes, insurance, road and ferryboat tolls, gasoline, and minshukus increased due to an unfavorable dollar/yen exchange rate. Reassigned members left the club and returned to the states and few new riders came aboard. Club membership dropped from 42 bikes (about 55 family members) during the 80's to 12 bikes (about 18 family members) by 1992. Only four or five riders of those who were left participated in club rides. Morale plummeted to an all-time low. The economy, the lack of funds, declining membership, and low morale led to the dissolution of the ZMC in October of 1992. We took one final ride, conducted our termination meeting, closed the clubhouse doors, and turned over the keys.

Once vibrant and thriving, the club is now dead and gone. There are no monuments dedicated to it; there are few reminders that it ever existed. Yet, the memory of the rise and fall of the Zama Motorcycle Club lives on in the hearts and minds of its former members. "Sayonara" ZMC.