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His friends at the Sin City Deciples clubhouse say Frank Earl Brown was straight-up.
Generous, he'd give you the shirt off his back. Dedicated, he had the club's moniker tattooed on his left arm. Dependable, he worked as a crane operator in Alton for as long as anyone can remember.
Growing up in East St. Louis, Brown didn't make it past the tenth grade, but he believed in working for a living. He started hanging around the Alton docks as a youth.
"He started sweeping the docks and loading barges and everything," recalls his sister Evelyn Brown, who lives in Kansas. "He was always willing to learn. He always hung around the older men up there, and they were willing to teach him. As he got older, they hired him on."
Brown was blue-collar, and he was fastidious, ironing his T-shirts and his money -- his relatives remember him exchanging soiled bills for fresh ones. But he was a man's man, the kind who didn't easily show emotion. A relative who'd known him since he was six says she saw him cry three times: when his parents died and when he sat at the bedside of a brother who was dying of cancer. "He turned his head quick and wiped his eye so I couldn't see," recalls the relative, who had walked into the room where Brown's brother lay. She asked that her name not be published.
Fellow bikers called him Mongoose because he could spot a snake. You can almost feel his ghost in the clubhouse on the outskirts of East St. Louis. He often stayed here in a trailer parked in the yard. A plaque dedicated to him hangs at the end of the bar. His leather gas-tank cover hangs above it. Photos of Brown adorn the walls, as does a program from his funeral. A headstone -- one version of it, at least -- sits on a shelf, wrapped in plastic and safe from dust. The maker carved the wrong date of death. Frank died on Friday the 13th, not the next day.
You have to ride a Harley-Davidson to be a Deciple, but Brown started with a Honda. He once organized his own club, called the Wild Bunch, which eventually petered out, as did Brown's interest in foreign motorcycles. He signed on with the Deciples in 1985. In six years, he rose to chapter president. He lived to ride. The only things his sister worried about were black ice and her brother catching cold.
"He would ride all during the winter until ice was so bad he just couldn't hold it up," Evelyn Brown says. "It would be freezing, but he didn't care."
Brown was old-school, favoring models from the 1970s, when the AMF Corporation owned and nearly killed the motor company by putting out notoriously unreliable bikes. But outdated engineering didn't matter. Brown could fix nearly anything. He made his motorcycles from scratch.
"He could get pieces and just make a motorcycle," his sister says. "He would find the one that was in 100 pieces. He put them together, each one of them. He taught himself to do it. He didn't go to school, but he'd get books and read things, and he could just do it. Even puzzles: I would look for a puzzle with the least amount of pieces. He would get the one with a lot of pieces. That was his love, putting little things together."
Before runs, Brown made sure his ride and everyone else's were straight. From Sturgis to Daytona, he roamed the country. And he didn't take shit from anyone.
Take the time Brown was relaxing at the Parkside Lounge in East St. Louis back in 1989. The evening ended in gunfire. The way Brown told the tale to a judge, the victim had it coming.
Someone at Brown's table had spilled a drink on a woman. He offered to get her dress cleaned or buy her a new one, but she wouldn't calm down. The situation escalated when a guy grabbed the woman's behind, Brown later told a judge: "I said, 'You got a problem?' He said, 'You're not talking to me.' I said, 'Yes, I am talking to you.' And one thing led to another, and we got to fighting. We fell through the door, and I fell down and someone stomped me in the face, broke my glasses."
"Kicked you," the judge interrupted.
"Stomped me," Brown corrected.
One of Brown's partners pulled a gun and fired a couple of shots in an effort to stop the fight, but the gunplay only made matters worse. Brown told the judge that the man he had been fighting pulled what looked like a knife. Brown grabbed the .25-caliber pistol from his partner's hand and shot the man in the chest. The bullet passed through the man's torso. The victim ran to the bar and got his own gun, chasing Brown and his companions out of the lounge, but his weapon wouldn't fire. The wounded man drove himself to a hospital and made a complete recovery. Ultimately Brown pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and was put on probation for two-and-a-half years. It was his only felony conviction on a rap sheet dominated by traffic offenses.