Six AM, and we stepped out of our air-conditioned hotel room to find it was already sunny and humid. The air was thick with haze as a large group of motorcycles rumbled out of a motel on the other side of Arlington Boulevard: several Rolling Thunder chapters were headed for the Pentagon already.
We spent the night at the Best Western in Falls Church, Virginia. After watching the bikes depart, we wandered over to the nearby IHOP—their Colorado omelet is tasty, and enough to hold one over till well past lunch. Three local cops wandered in, starting their morning shift with breakfast. Bikers staying at the Best Western began to trickle in.
Rolling Thunder was started in 1987 by a group of veterans who sought to bring awareness to the POWs and MIAs left behind in Vietnam. The first year, 2,500 motorcycles rolled through Washington, D.C. Support has grown in the biker community, and the event has become a bikers’ tribute to veterans of all wars. In 2009, 250,000 bikers took part. This year, Fox News reported the number was 400,000. The run starts from the Pentagon, crosses Arlington Memorial Bridge, follows Constitution Avenue along the Mall past the White House and Congress, then loops back west on Independence Avenue.
After breakfast, Holly and I bought a couple of water bottles at the CVS and mounted up. Traffic on Arlington Boulevard was still light—just a couple of cars here and there. This was a relief—I find driving unfamiliar roads from a memorized map takes a lot of concentration, especially with so many interchanges so close together.
We arrived at the Pentagon a few minutes after 7:00 and already about a third of the lot was full. Motorcyclists were directed into lines, nose to tail, parking across the parking lot, with barely enough space between lines to walk. By 8:00 AM, much of the open space was filled as more and larger groups of bikers arrived.
Our position put us right next to a CMA group from Wilson, North Carolina. They came in with a pickup truck loaded with a tank of cold water, trays and thousands of paper cups. What sounded like a nice idea turned out to be a real blessing—the temperature hit 90+ degrees. Folks were very grateful for a steady supply of cold water and cool water-soaked bandanas with which to fight the heat.
The run officially begins at noon. Rolling Thunder chapters move out in the lead, with a “POW” in a bamboo cage leading the pack. People began moving from the shade to their bikes as engines began firing up on the north side of the lot. Forty minutes after the first engines fired, our line began to move. Nose to tail, two lines abreast, we moved across the parking lot to the exit road and then out onto Arlington Memorial Bridge.
The crowds along both sides were cheering, waving, some even exchanging “high fives” with us as we rode past. Then we came upon the first marine: at key points on the route, a marine or soldier would stand at attention in the middle of the road and salute as we rode past. Seeing this, I started to choke up, and had to bite my lip to stay focused.
After we turned on to Constitution Avenue, traffic backed up and I was riding the clutch and brakes quite a bit. When we reached 17th Street, at the Washington Monument, the DC Police stopped us to allow pedestrians to cross. This opened a gap in the line, and for a few blocks I had fun opening up the throttle and letting the Fatboy roar.
All too soon it seemed our run was over, and the Park Police were directing us onto the grass to park. It was about 1:30 when we parked.
Crossing Independence Avenue, we passed the Korean War Memorial. The Rolling Thunder organization had a stage for bands and speakers set up below the Lincoln Memorial. We paused to listen to the opening remarks from some of the key-note speakers, then continued north to Constitution Avenue. For another hour and a half, motorcycles continued to roll past.
We came upon a long line of people stretched across the promenade, waiting to see the Vietnam Wall. Holly asked what they were doing—the line was so long that we could hardly see the Memorial. For the second time I had to bite my lip and take a deep breath as I explained that they were waiting for a chance to read the name of a loved one, engraved on the wall, who died in Vietnam.
We met many active service members and veterans, but it seemed the vets from the Vietnam era carried the heaviest hearts. They share the sole distinction of having been rejected and scorned by their countrymen, despised for their service, and it seems for many of them, the wounds of that unrequited love of country have not healed. I recall an editorial in the Wall Street Journal twenty-some years ago, written by a Vietnam vet. He wrote of how they were rejected by society, then “ambushed by Hollywood”—movies about that war portray them as psychopaths, social outcasts, drug addicts, and mental cases. The writer stated they are like the veterans of any other war—each war has its atrocities and heroes, people who cannot cope and those who shine under stress. Most simply did their duty when their country called, then quietly returned to civilian life.
The last bikers roared down Constitution at nine minutes past three in the afternoon. Briefly we strolled among the vendor tents on 22nd Street: the usual leather vendors, patch and pin vendors, and accessory vendors. One patch really stood out: “All gave some, some gave all.” Exhausted from the long day of heat, sun and humidity, we slowly made our way back to the hotel. Cold showers alleviated traces of heat exhaustion, and we changed for dinner.