Rolling Thunder

The ride to Rolling Thunder was a nine day adventure, a little less than half of it in the DC metroplex, and a little more than half on the road up and back. I am very glad that I went, but I can see why the organizers are considering making this one the last one. It's an event that creates an astonishing effect, but there's a huge amount of work and expense on the back end, as well as a substantial amount of physical risk for participants. The original participants are Vietnam-era veterans, now in or entering their 70s, for whom the risks are now far greater than once. The popularity of the ride has also greatly increased the scale of the risks.

The two main risks are heat exhaustion and motorcycle wrecks during the ride itself. On Sunday, I arrived at the Pentagon parking lot at 7:30 AM. My group began the ride through DC six and a half hours later. Sunday was a typical day for late May in DC, hot and humid, spent under a bright sun with few clouds on a sea of asphalt and no shade. I brought a half a gallon of water, strong sunscreen, and clothing that was light enough to wear in the heat but would protect me from the sun. Even so, I consumed the entire half a gallon of water and refilled it thanks to the Christian Motorcylist Association, which did great ministry by providing free water in riders. If you had your own container, they would refill it, but if not they would give you water in cups inscribed with prayers and evangelical writings; they also gave out free cloths, dipped in cold water, that were similarly inscribed. The fire department set up several trucks around the Pentagon with sprays of water to help cool riders, but the Pentagon parking area is so large that no such truck was anywhere near us.

As for the risk of motorcycle crashes, I've seen figures for the ride everywhere from 500,000 riders to 900,000. While many come in groups that know each other, very many more are people who have never ridden together before and have no shared agreements on how to do so. The ride (like a long route march) has an accordion effect, bunching up and stopping in places and stretching out into relatively high speeds at other places. It was chaotic, sometimes two abreast, sometimes four, sometimes falling into single file. It is a testament to the skill of the individual riders that there were not far more crashes than there were -- the figure I've heard is fifteen, which in a ride of half a million to nearly a million is itself amazing. This is all the more true given that all the riders were subject to prolonged heat and sun before the ride, and that so many of them are older Americans for whom such exposure is more dangerous than once.

Thus, I get why the organizers might be thinking it's time to hang up their spurs. It's been amazing, but the very scale of their success has made it dangerous to participants.

Now that I've said all that, let me talk about the ways in which it is very much worth preserving.

From Thursday night, DC was taken over by Veteran and Veteran-friendly motorcycle riders. You'd go down to the Lincoln Memorial, near the Wall, and there would be thousands of bikes parked on the grass. Thousands more lined the Mall. The sound of them was constantly in the air. All along the walks and the oaks by our national memorials, men in cuts covered with patriotic patches would greet you as "brother." By Friday, the police had given up on enforcing traffic lights: groups of bikes went together as one vehicle, be they a string of fifty or a hundred bikes long. By Saturday, the already-heavy Memorial Day crowds of ordinary Americans were supplemented by a million or more of us: the riders themselves, and those they brought with them.

I counted dozens of riding associations and motorcycle clubs, all of them patriots. Hotels used to lobbyists in suits and ties were full of bikes, AC/DC blaring in their parking lots. The Legion Riders and the VFW Riders were there in force, as of course was the Rolling Thunder group. The Combat Vets Motorcycle Association had many members there. I mentioned the Christian MA already, but during the heat of the day Sunday they were joined by the Sinland MC, who was grateful for the water they brought. On Saturday I dined at a sports pub in Crystal City, just by the Pentagon. The Nam Knights MC had largely taken over Crystal City, but a bunch of other groups were there as well, especially the Leathernecks MC. The IBEW even had a crew of electrical workers who were also veterans. Unlike at many rallies, though, there was no sense of tension between the various groups -- nobody was trying to prove anything. Everybody was a brother, everybody was already proven, and we were all there for the same reason.

Most of all I will remember the spectators, who lined the ride with flags and flattering signs, and cheered us on the whole way. I've been on many rides before, but never one in which the community made us so welcome. They were proud of us.

After the ride, with my bike in Potomac Park and the shade of the trees to rest in, I met a group of riders one of whom was having his shoe tied by the other. The one guy couldn't bend his back anymore due to injuries, so his brothers knelt down on the grass and tied it for him. He didn't get left behind. No one gets left behind. That's what the ride was about, with the POW/MIA issue as its main focus. It wasn't just words. They were living it out.

1 comment:

Dale Day said...

Thank you for taking part.
It is heart-warming to learn about the love and brotherhood the media won't tell us about. I've shared it with others and hope many of them come here to read the full story.
God bless!