It’s the holiday gift-giving season again, and one of the many things that motorcycle riders and Harley owners in general get as a gift is a “gremlin bell,” a little metal bell that attaches to your bike and is supposed to have the magical power to ward off “gremlins.” I doubt anyone really thinks there’s gremlins or that there needs to be some way to ward them off, or that the bell would accomplish this if such little nasties did exist. But it’s a nice way to buy something inexpensive and meaningful for the biker in your life, especially when you have absolutely no idea what he or she might want or need. Besides, it’s the thought that counts with small gifts like this, anyway.
Well, there’s a history to gremlin bells, and it’s not the one you’ve seen on websites and on packaging and retail displays. The story behind them is real, and they served and continue to serve a very real purpose, but the real story may surprise you.
The Retail Story of Gremlin Bells
It doesn’t matter if it’s a Harley Davidson dealer site or an online retailer, the story used to sell these little trinkets is that “once upon a time, a lone biker riding at night on a long, lonely stretch of highway was beset by road gremlins who attempted to make him crash. Having pulled over (or crashed, or been pulled to a stop by these gremlins depending on who’s telling the story), a mysterious figure comes out of the dark and hands him a little bell (or walks to his bike and ties it to the bike) and tells him “this bell will keep the gremlins away.” They then go on to suggest that giving someone a gremlin bell for their bike as a gift is a great way to help keep your friend or loved one safe on the road. Well, that’s all fine and good for advertising copy, but does anyone *really* think that’s what happened, and why those bells have a history?
There’s nothing wrong with superstition (so long as it doesn’t result in burning little old ladies at the stake for “souring the cow’s milk with witchcraft” or whatnot), and with a lot of superstitious rituals, well, it doesn’t hurt anything to do it, right? I mean, when was the last time YOU saw a gremlin? Superstition isn’t harmful so long as it isn’t harmful, so to speak, and it ain’t exactly gonna do any harm to have a tiny bell making a tiny racket as you roll down the road, especially if it makes someone feel better that they gave it to you.
I suspect NONE of these websites ever found any original source. At this point I think they all get their stories from other bell sales sites and the original source is probably one guy (or gal) misremembering the real story or misunderstanding what he/she was told. It’s also possible the source of that retail story if it were ever traced, would probably lead back to a piece of fiction in an old Easyriders magazine, or one chopper shop selling bells and the old “telephone game” distorted the original story into something unrecognizable long before the internet was ubiquitous.
The thing is, these stories are missing an important point, but one that was very real and had a very real history that can be documented. ¬No, there wasn’t some guy who was attacked on his bike by a bunch of little green men, and no, a stranger never came along and gave him a bell to protect him, but I can certainly see where the story came from.
The Origin of Gremlin Bells that’s not part of a Retail Campaign
Contrary to the “lone biker beset by gremlins” story, some 30-plus years ago, I was told an intelligent, believable story about the origin of gremlin bells and I’m inclined to believe it because the source was part of the story long before there was a retail industry selling these things. He’d been riding his Harley Knucklehead since he came home from World War II, where he’d been flying over Europe and Germany as part of the Army Air Corps. His story, and the story of the gremlin bells, have their origin in that war experience.
The first time I saw it, I asked about the bell he had hanging off the frame on his bike because I’d never seen one before. This guy (I feel bad that I can’t remember his name) was a greybeard in his mid to late 60s when he told me this story back in the early 80s, and was still riding the Knucklehead he’d purchased new when he came home from the war in 1946. He had been a WWII bomber crewman, flying B24s from North Africa to eastern Europe, and later from Britain to Germany and back. American “daytime” raids leaving during the morning would often return after dark after being in the air for 8 or 9 hours, particularly in winter. Flight crews often flew from dawn til dark, and after a mostly monotonous day in the air is when and where the gremlin stories began, apparently. If you’re a fan of old sci-fi television, you’ve actually seen the origin of the bells but didn’t know it.
There’s a famous Twilight Zone episode from when it was a TV show 50 years ago, with good ol’ William Shatner (Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek TV series), as a former WWII pilot who sees gremlins outside the window, tearing apart the wing of the passenger plane he’s travelling on. Was it really some metaphysical creature trying to tear the wing apart, or was he just losing his mind? This episode of the show actually had a foundation in history, and it’s the same history as the gremlin bell.
Was he losing his mind, or was he sleep-deprived and/or … well, not to put too fine a point on it, spun out from sleep deprivation and/or speed? You see the greybeard pointed out that “gremlins” aren’t mythical creatures. Nope, they’re the things you see out of the corner of your eye when you’re sleep deprived and have been taking amphetamines and your mind begins playing very real tricks on you, particularly in your peripheral vision. 10 hour bombing missions were boring as hell for 99% of the trip and the drone of the engines, the sheepskin lined clothing from head to toe to keep them warm, sleep deprivation, and prolonged lack of mobility all contributed to lulling them to sleep. The air forces of the various nations didn’t want their pilots falling asleep and flying into the ground at 400mph (or failing to see enemy fighter planes swooping down on them), so many issued amphetamine tablets like candy to help these people stay awake. Amphetamines were, and are still an acceptable method of compensating for sleep deprivation in such circumstances, and well, lack of sleep and amphetamine use can lead to hallucinations, particularly under stressful conditions.
That’s where the whole gremlins thing started. Keeping fighter pilots and bomber crews awake was critical for obvious reasons. This wasn’t the tooth rotting, brain eating crud your wife’s cousin makes in a 2 liter soda bottle in the No Tell Motel and smokes from a glass pipe. It was pharmaceutical stuff made by Bayer and Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson and other large pharmaceutical companies. Not quite the same chemical responsible for The Faces of Meth, even if it contains the same (or very similar) chemical compound, but more like the Adderall you and your buddies did to study for exams in high school and college.
But flight crews and fighter pilots would often go long hours without needed sleep, and they’d see things out of the corner of their eyes, that looks like “something out there on the wing.” Add to this the battle damage from German fighter planes or anti-aircraft artillery, and occasionally bits and pieces of the planes would fall off in flight, and if you just caught it out of the corner of your eye after 3 days with little or no sleep, you were likely to “see” something out on the wing, tearing chunks out of the wing, just as William Shatner’s character did in that episode of The Twilight Zone.
According to the guy who told me all this, different people came up with different ways to get around this effect, from singing to playing harmonica to… hanging a cowbell or dinner bell from the dashboard of the airplane where the constant jingling would cause them to bring their focus back to reality when it began to drift, even if it was just because it had become annoying. Gremlin bells WERE to keep the gremlins away, and they even sometimes worked. It’s just that they weren’t given to some lone biker to keep gremlins from tearing his bike apart on the long, lonesome highway.
Fast Forward to the End of WWII
WWII ended and vets came home and more than a few of them got on motorcycles and made history in another way – they were the original bikers and MCs to become something different than the AMA motorcycle clubs, with their nifty “Bob the friendly milkman” riding outfit and cap. They became the 1%ers in the late 40s and into the 50s and 60s. These vets who had been flying during the WWII and Korea brought the gremlin stories with them. In the late 40s and 1950s you could go to your family doctor and get a prescription for amphetamines, just by telling your doc “I’m tired all the time and work and kids are taking their toll.” Abuse was as real then as it is now, and amphetamines, like many prescription drugs, were treated as social drugs, that would “extend the party.”
Fast forward to the 1960s and hardcore 1%ers were the majority of bikers in the US and some/many/most of them used amphetamines for recreation and to add hours to the day and to help get shit done around the pad and working on the bikes. Nobody smoked that shit until the ephedrine based shit started around 1990 (that’s another story, and one that I don’t think gets told in the media… ever), and the only tweakers we worried about in the 80s were people putting the stuff in their arms. They/we partied all weekend, slept Sunday night, and got up and went to work… at least those who had jobs. People used amphetamines during the week to get stuff done, the way you might have used Adderall to get through school. Dope was just part of the life, and it generally didn’t screw up your life unless you were an IV user or just didn’t bother limiting your intake.
After two or three days or even four days of partying, people riding at night would experience the same hallucinations, especially on dark roads where headlights leaking light to the side would cast weird moving shadows as you went past a tree or a bush or a rock or a… “damn, was that someone standing on the side of the road back there? Was that a dog? What the hell?!? There’s nobody there, but I swear there was a second ago.”
Gremlins are real, they’re just not physical things. They’re the tricks your mind plays on you when you’re exhausted, and they’re a sure indication that the brain desperately needs sleep to replenish and rejuvenate itself. They live in your nervous system, and they can be very annoying and very scary some times. I’ve been on night rides (going somewhere, rather than pleasure riding) where I was so tired that every tree or bush or rock had someone or something start to jump out at us as we went by, where every shadow shifting as we passed a bush was a deer or a dog or a mountain lion about to run across the road. When it starts, it’s just slightly annoying – it’s your brain telling you “Pull over. I need sleep or you’re going to crash.” These were the things this old greybeard was talking about and this is what the internet bell sellers get wrong because they don’t actually believe gremlins are real. They’re just selling bells.
So if someone gives you a gremlin bell for Christmas or your birthday, it’s not based on a completely made up story, but it’s not the story the giver thinks was the origin of the bells. Who knows, the endless, annoying ringing that can make you think something is falling off your bike may well keep you awake, or allow you to stop drifting off, since you’re obviously too tired to think clearly and pull over and get some sleep.