As I shuffled down Beach Road on a dog days afternoon, Led Zepplin wept from the outside speakers of the old rock-n-roll bar luring me in like a siren’s song. Slipping through the velvet curtain, I entered another world. The sign behind the bar declared this place established in 1978 and for sure I felt magically transported to that era.
When my optical system switched to “black light”, I could see more than a few others seeking shade and refreshment had discovered this little oasis as the joint was jumping. The back half of the windowless cave was dominated by a group of 15 or so boisterous bikers. Big American, European, and Australian dudes with lots of hair and tattoos were slamming beers and swapping stories. Their matching leather vests identified them as representatives of a motorcycle club called The Jester’s.
The sinister grinning-skull-wearing- a-fool’s-hat emblem was prominent on their garb and throughout the bar. Unknowingly, I had stumbled into the Jesters hangout of preference. Intrigued and intimidated, I hung out for a while.
In the center of their circle stood a guy holding court clad in immaculately pressed biker attire. Fit and tan, with that “alpha dog aura” … there was no doubt he was their leader. He looked like Clint Eastwood at 50; obviously no spring chicken, but no stranger to the Stairmaster either. About the time I recognized his face from the gym, he noticed mine and crossed the room with a big old American handshake.
He told me to call him “Woody” and he introduced me to just about everyone in the room. These guys called The Jesters seemed to hail from every corner of the globe. I remember hearing at least 4 different languages … 5 if you count Australian.
They had just returned from an event for a children’s charity and were celebrating another successful fundraiser. I felt silly for being intimidated earlier. “Threatened by what?” I thought … “Teddy bears in leather?”
Fast forward a few years to now and I see Woody in the gym everyday (… well every day that I go … he’s there). Always sporting his “Jester’s Care for Kids” T-shirt and meticulously logging his workouts. At 60 years young, he is discipline personified.
This year Woody agreed to let me interview him to talk about The Jesters and his circuitous path to “Legend” status in Thailand. If being an expatriate has a “Master Class”, Woody is in it.
An Interview with Lewis Underwood
Q: Woody, Where do you come from?
A: Well, I was born in Hawaii, but my Dad thought it best to get a “mainland” education, so we moved to California when I was just a little boy. I grew up on the Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay area.
Q: What were your ambitions as a young man?
A: When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be was a baseball player. When I got older all kinds of things got my attention. The music scene in San Francisco in the 60’s certainly shaped me quite a bit. Even though I can’t play or sing, I became a real aficionado. My brother and I basically had a front row seat to the rock-n-roll revolution.
I always wanted to be a teacher, so I went to college at Humboldt State University in northern California to learn literature and philosophy. Something about those majestic Redwoods changed my educational and career path towards biology and wildlife. I was all about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees.
In 1973 I joined the Peace Corps. My father said that after my two year commitment was over, it would be time “to come home and get serious”. I never did come back home but I’d like to think I’ve finally gotten at least a little bit serious.
Q: How did your departure from the US come about?
A: I spent several months touring Europe, and then applied for posting with the Peace Corps. In 1973 my first assignment was in Nepal teaching the locals about sustainable fish farming. Katmandu was just a village then. At the end of my two year stint I was just getting to be effective with the Nepali language, so I opted to stay on and train incoming Peace Corps volunteers. Eventually I wrote a cross-cultural manual for the region. So, as it turns out, I finally got to be a teacher.
It just came kind of natural that I ended up involved in trekking company, showing foreign tourists the wonders of Nepal. The Himalayas cast the same spell on me the Redwoods had and it was a dream job. Between my Peace Corps work, the trekking company and a little bit of import/export I spent the better part of 12 years in Nepal.
Political problems there had the government seeing CIA agents under every rock, so visas to stay and work got really tough. I left for good in 1986.
Q: How did you end up in Thailand?
A: Coming in and out of Nepal, I got routed through Thailand several times. After seeing the beaches down on The Gulf I thought to myself, “this looks like a viable alternative”.
In the 80’s I tried my hand at several businesses in Thailand with mixed success. I had a rubber tree plantation and a tiger prawn export business to name a couple. The community of expats in Pattaya is why I stayed there. You just don’t meet a better bunch of people.
Q: When did you become a motorcycle enthusiast?
A: I’d never ridden a real motorcycle until my time in Nepal. I ended up with some friends riding some of the coolest bikes ever made. We found three 1957 Triumph Thunderbirds that used to be owned by the Royal Guard of the Nepalese King. Back then there were only about 10 miles of paved road total in the whole country, so they were hardly used.
We used to ride them all over Nepal in the late 70’s till mid-80’s, including into India, specifically Darjeeling. Sometimes we had to carry extra gas to get between petrol pumps and always carried tubes, patches, sometimes extra tires and oil on the long trips. Around town the older royal guards would recognize the bikes and salute us as we rode by.
Q: Who are The Jesters ?
A: On Halloween 1996 some members of a Thai Motorcycle Club called “The Immortals” in Bangkok branched off on their own down in Pattaya calling themselves “The Jesters”. We’d seen The Immortals sponsor some charity events so we started our “Pub Nights” fundraisers for children in need. It just grew from there.
Now, the Jesters have 43 members, perhaps 10 who live here year round; ages range from late 30’s to mid 60’s with at least 10 different nationalities. We have 23 members married (all with Thai women) and with families; most of the rest have live-in Thai girlfriends. The majority of our guys are here part time; many who rotate out of here on a regular basis as oil field hands or as merchant seamen, which also includes, doctors, airline pilots, sea captains, as well as an avionics mechanic, golf course designer, and concert pianist. Of those that live here, some run businesses some are hired locally and others are retired military.
We are a Harley-Davidson club and our guys are often going for rides all around the country, which also includes forays into Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. There are many “Bike Weeks” in Thailand we participate in. There’s Chiang Mai Bike Week up north in December, Phuket Bike Week in the south in April, and the grand-daddy of them all in Pattaya in February. By the way, being in the tropics, we ride year round.
Q: What charities do you work with?
A: At first we were kind of “need based”, helping underprivileged kids with shelter, schooling and scholarships. For the past 12 years our number one benefactor is The Fountain of Life Center for Street Kids which is part of The Good Shepherd Foundation.
The Fountain of Life Center is not an orphanage, but more like a “day care”. They pick up kids from slums and construction camps every day. They feed and give them medical care if they need it. Most importantly, The Center helps get the kids documented. Many of these children have no birth certificates or ID cards and they can’t go to government schools or get health care. The first step is to get these kids documented and in school.
Q: What has been the impact of The Jester’s fundraising efforts?
A: Since we started our Jesters Care for Kids events in 1998, we’ve raised over 52,000,000 baht. We’ve helped hundreds of kids and dozens of schools.
Perhaps the best example of our impact has been a street kid named Em that was sponsored by The Fountain of Life Center. Em came to the Fountain of Life Center when he was twelve years old. Both his parents were dead and he was living on the street. Through The Center’s “Next Step” program, he received assistance and scholarships all the way through to a Bachelors Degree in Engineering from Technology Rachamongkul in Nakon Pathon. Now 24 years old, today that young man is an Engineer.
Q: What’s next for Woody and the Jesters?
A: Just keeping up with the growth in Pattaya is enough to keep anybody busy. The Chonburi-Pattaya Metro area gets bigger every day … with plenty more kids who need our help. We have been fortunate to best ourselves in raising funds each successive year and we will try to keep moving in that direction.
Q: How would you describe your life in Thailand?
A: I’ve lived outside the US for 36 years so I really think of it like a pretty normal life. My wife and I have been together for 16 years. My 13 year old daughter goes to International School. I’m busy with The Jesters and a handful of business ventures. My dance card stays pretty full.
The pace of life here allows me to spend a lot of time with my daughter. If you’re looking for a big difference between life in Thailand and the US, I’d say that’s the most important thing; the quality time I get with my family. That’s a benefit of living here you can’t put a price on.
Q: Would you ever consider living in the US again?
A: I’ll have to answer that question when my daughter gets to the higher education stage. I don’t know what I’d do there. It doesn’t appeal to me, but I can’t really rule it out.
Q: What advice would you give someone considering expatriate living?
A: As we say in Thailand, “cha-cha” (slowly) and “jai yen-yen” (have a cool heart). Do your research and get your own impression. A place that’s fun for vacation isn’t always the best place to live. The importance of the expat community cannot be overstated. Talk to people who actually live wherever it is you might want to move. Remember, it’s the people that make a place special … not the warm weather and palm trees.
End note from the author:
Here in Pattaya we have several weekly newspapers. Yesterday I walked to the trash bin with a stack of Pattaya Mail issues I’d been meaning to throw out. I noticed right on top was Woody in a picture on the cover handing some giant check to yet another charity. Just for fun I thumbed through all 7 issues destined for the trash to see how many times I’d see Woody.
Well, he wasn’t in every issue, but he appeared 10 times in total. A week simply does not go by that Woody and The Jesters aren’t doing something for kids who need help.
Lewis “Woody” Underwood … from tree-hugger volunteer to Pattaya’s Biker Saint … his is a life well lived.
[ Note from the editor – If you enjoyed this story please consider giving a donation to the charity Woody works so hard for. This charity is part of the Good Shepherd Foundation and so contributions are easily tax deductable. This is a 100% volunteer organization with NO administrative fees taken.]