If any one thing can be said about the experience of spending Memorial Day weekend in Washington DC, it would be, “I wish I had done it sooner!”. The idea originated with the thought that I might like to ride in this year’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle parade that began some 28 years ago to, at that time, honor mostly Vietnam Vets. As a Vietnam Vet myself, I have always looked upon the event as a happening that seemed to be a good thing but not being a “Harley guy” (…sorry, H-D & riders…), or having an interest in the whole dress like a pirate, make a lot of noise, and act somewhat obnoxiously scene, I passed it up each year. My apparently sudden decision to go this year was really not all that sudden – for the past few years, my motorcycle touring expeditions around the country have included visiting all the VN memorials I could find and making the effort to talk to a lot of vets, both VN and otherwise, and especially those on bikes. One recurring topic that continually crept into our conversations was the Rolling Thunder event – so many spoke of the event in almost reverent terms – the connection with thousands sharing a common background, the outpouring of genuine good vibes from everyone encountered at the event or on the streets of DC, and fulfilment of participating in an extraordinary event of that dimension – that I felt a genuine desire to be a part of it myself.
With the wheels set in motion, I left a week early so I could ride the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive which dumps you out pretty close to Washington, DC. I then made a little detour into Maryland for a visit with and old friend from the military that I had not seen since the early 80’s. Friday morning, I rode into Gotham City to meet Sandy, who came by airplane, at our hotel just a quarter mile or so from the VN Memorial. I brought with me the VN Vet hat given to me by my friend Emmett Cox a few years back – the hat turned out to be as powerful as the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter.
Friday night we attended a candlelight vigil at the Wall. I had been to the Wall several times before to visit with my friend Jack at Panel 34W, but I had never been late at night and when there was a huge shoulder to shoulder crowd of vets and others – wearing The Hat ensured a handshake, a hug, and even a few kisses as we moved through the crowd that night and for the rest of the weekend. For the vigil, we stationed ourselves near Jack’s panel and were very nearly emotionally overwhelmed as the drum and bagpipe procession made its way through the crowd and as the ever poignant Taps was played in the dark. After the vigil we placed a few items at Jack’s panel and slowly made our way back to the hotel.
Everywhere we went for the rest of the weekend and especially at the Wall, The Hat continued to elicit those most welcome greetings from every kind and age of folk. And it was not for just VN Vets – the greetings extended to all that could be identified as Vets of any war. Several folks that gave me extremely heartfelt hugs and handshakes went on to tell me they had lost sons, relatives, or friends in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars…with those folks I lingered longer to talk…
So, how do you get 400,000 or so motorcycles lined up for a parade? Well, it takes a while. Even though the parade would not start until noon on Sunday, we were told to report to the Pentagon parking lot at 7:00 am (0700…) to be lined up. A few people I spoke with the night before suggested getting there even earlier if you wanted to be positioned to pull out with the first groups. I was a bit surprised to arrive at 6:15 am and find thousands of bikes already either in the parking lot or lined up to get in. What they do is line up the bikes end to end across the parking lot so they can be sent out row by row – then they positioned the VIPs and others (I really don’t know the pecking order – maybe I will figure it out next year…) at the front just after the huge group of motorcycle police officers that lead the way. It takes most of the morning to get everyone into the parking lot and organized. For the folks that are already there, it is a long and hot wait – the smart folks brought shelters of various types or as I did, an umbrella. Once you thought you had a few landmarks to find your bike again (not as easy as you would hope), you could wander about chatting with others, visiting vendor booths, or getting something to eat from the many vendors. I was quite impressed by the level of organization – plenty of porta-potties, free bottled water stations, multiple first-aid stations and ambulances, and plenty of organizers to park the bikes.
Meanwhile, Sandy waited at the hotel during the morning and would take up position on the parade route later on to take photos. The route was just a short walk from the hotel with plenty of shady areas, in contrast to the Pentagon parking lot with zero shade.
I spent the morning mostly just walking around and talking to everyone – it turns out that just about everyone is either a vet, a relative of a vet, or a friend of a vet – easily determined because almost everyone had their own version of The Hat or some indication of their service. It was an extraordinary morning of connecting with folks of shared past. It is difficult to explain the emotional impact. I really had no idea what to expect, having never attended any type of event such as this, and I had worried a little that it would not be my cup of tea. As it turned out, it was a continuation of the feeling that started on Friday night and continued through the weekend…I just wished it would never end…
At noon, right on time (military precision and all…), the police motorcycles cranked up their sirens and lights and led the way toward Constitution Avenue, next were the VIPs (whoever they were), and after them each row was directed toward the route. It was over an hour before my row pulled out and Sandy said it took almost 3 hours for all the bikes to go past. All the roads were blocked and we didn’t have to stop for any lights, just an occasional group of pedestrians crossing the road. The entire route took about 20-30 minutes to complete. At the end, the bikes were parked in a large field and there were concerts for the rest of the afternoon. Once again, I was just not prepared for the size of the crowds and the almost endless outpouring of good will from those crowds. All of the “Welcome Home” signs held up really spoke to me as a Vietnam Vet but it was really a celebration for all vets of any conflict.
I can now say that if you are a Veteran of any time period, get a hat or jacket that identifies you as a Vet and go to Washington DC for Memorial Day weekend – just don’t wait as long as I did to do it…and you might even see me in the parade or ride with me…I will be there next year for sure!