One quarter-century ago, the Vietnam war was still sharp in the rearview mirrors; 25 years on, that southeast Asian conflict and its combatants have begun fading into history, as a litany of fresher US military interventions have sprung up to keep our soldiers, sailors and airpersons occupied – many of whom weren’t yet born in the Vietnam era. Eventually there won’t be enough real estate in our nation’s capitol to memorialize all of them, but in 1997 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was only four years old, the wound was still fresh, and a great excuse for a ride on your Harley. Hats off to all you veterans on this Memorial Day weekend.
May 30, 1997. The peace of a quiet Virginia morning was disturbed by a distant and scattered rumble. Though at first indistinct and widespread, it had unsettling similarities to the big guns that had once shredded this gentle countryside. Then, brother fought brother in a conflict that nearly destroyed this great nation at places named Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Bull Run, and Gettysburg during our Civil War.
No, this Big-Twin rumble instead came from thousands upon thousands of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. All around the Commonwealth and Mid-Atlantic coast, bikers were preparing for a ride to the Vietnam War Memorial — The Wall — for Rolling Thunder X, often spoke of as the largest one-day motorcycle event in the world. Literally hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists uniting for a good cause – a full accounting for those men and women still missing from this nation’s wars.
I am a Vietnam veteran. Though I did not personally participate in combat, I have seen first-hand the effect it can render. Many vets still, and always will, carry emotional baggage from that staunch attempt to preserve the sovereignty of a tiny nation at peril. Rolling Thunder is not a political statement about the rights or wrongs of war, but rather a show of solidarity amongst veterans for our MIAs.
My first Rolling Thunder was just last year during Rolling Thunder IX. By the time we reached the Wall we were enduring cold and miserable rain. Yet some 150,000 motorcyclists paraded through the District of Columbia in a show of solidarity and determination. We will not forget our brothers and sisters left behind.Our first stop on this year’s Rolling Thunder saw us dock at Gargoyles Coffee Bar in Stafford, Virginia. We were pretty well wired from high-octane espresso when the last of our group’s riders arrived. We were to head from here to our main assembly point at Classic Iron, just north of the Quantico Marine Base. Riders continued to drift by in twos and threes. Slowly, our little group grew to become a gleaming sea of chrome and iron.
Word was passed to fire ’em up and the rumble began again. Like last year we had police escorts, and Interstate 95 car pool lanes were actually closed for us all the way to the Pentagon. Even with rainy weather threatening, spectators dotted the streets and stood on the overpasses waving to us as we glided underneath. Emotions rose. I blamed my watery eyes on the wind, and the lump in my throat from the coffee shop’s pastry.We took a turn off toward the Pentagon and joined a line already there. By now most spectators were brothers and sisters who had already parked and climbed the hill from the parking lot to welcome us. We were surrounded by motorcycles of all varieties and styles. License plates appeared to represent at least half our Union.
Initially people were still in a party mood, but the tempo slowly shifted to a more somber note — one that would dominate the rest of our ride and visit to the Wall. First-time riders, like myself last year, had a lot of questions and were tense about doing the right thing. Old timers knew what the Wall does to your mind. Memories and emotions locked away since last year resurface. You can’t help it, it’s gonna happen.
Soon it came time to leave for the Wall, so Rolling Thunder President (and ride organizer) Artie Muller pulled out. Slowly the noise grew until it was a feeling rather than a sound: It crept over toward us like a slow moving wave as columns of riders moved out.Due to the sheer number of participants riding in this year’s event, it took an hour and 20 minutes for us to work our way up the hill and out of the parking lot. Once into D.C. proper, we rode around the mall area and all its monuments. One rally vet estimated around a quarter of a million motorcycles present here today. As we got closer, spectators were becoming charged with the emotion a rumbling V-Twin brings out in people. We parked, secured everything and headed for the Wall.
The Vietnam War Memorial is this event’s focal point, but tribute is paid to veterans of all our conflicts. There are actually three parts to the Memorial. The Wall itself — with names of confirmed dead in Vietnam etched in its face — and two bronze statues, one for the men who fought in Vietnam, and one for the women who served there. Both statues are so lifelike you expect them to move at any moment.
Rain was coming down lightly, very much as I remember Danang. Watching it stream down the faces of those statues, I could feel their anguish. “Why?”By now emotions are churning and conversations hushed. It’s hard to imagine the quieting effect this place has on even the hardiest biker. You have to be there. The feeling is almost as if walking on sacred ground. Grown men, bikers, tough guys, blue collar guys — all crying. It has to run its course and that really sucks, man. We thought we were doin’ the right thing, like our fathers did in World War II. We were so damn naive.
A small contingent of Vietnamese ralliers held up a “Republic of Vietnam” banner. The republic no longer exists of course, physically, but it will always exist in their hearts and in our memories.Slowly, in small groups at first, then larger ones, bikers began to splinter. My companion and I pulled out late that afternoon for home. Rolling Thunder was once again drawing near a close. What effect this annual event has on our country’s politicos one really doesn’t know. We just understand we won’t quit trying.