On the Sunday before Memorial Day, I decided to get a little bit of an inside view of how veterans see it. So I rode my motorcycle over to a dealer in Gaithersburg, Maryland at 7 a.m. There I joined, oh, two or three thousand other riders to drive in twin columns to downtown D.C. via the George Washington Memorial Parkway. I peeled off at the Roosevelt Bridge rather than join the galaxy of bikes arriving at the Pentagon North parking lot from all over.
The lot provides the staging are for the official Rolling Thunder parade. To do that you’ve got to park your bike and wait until noon. Whereupon the parking lot empties and the bikes form the parade for the next several hours. Instead I parked in the field at the southwest corner of 23rd Street NW and Constitution Avenue. Along with what looked like another 5,000 or so bikes. From there I was only a block from the Vietnam Memorial.
Riding to the Wall or participating in Rolling Thunder itself is supposed to be a way of honoring those lost in the nation’s wars. Rolling Thunder emphasizes not forgetting those missing in action. Therefore I was eager to visit The Wall, having not visited it in many years. 2018, after all, is 50 years since many pivotal events in and connected to the Vietnam Conflict (as the U.S. Park Service officially calls it).
The Wall remains an amazingly powerful, evocative construction, decades after the controversy over its design. Vietnam is recent enough that The Wall draws people with direct memory of those 58,318 names engraved in its black granite panels. Watch the people looking at the wall and you’ll see the tears running from beneath sunglasses.
For the most part, veterans blend into the general population. I found that the pre-Memorial Day Rolling Thunder offers a chance for many veterans who love motorcycling to express both their vet status and riding affinity at once. Maybe someone ought to stage a Veterans Day ride of some sort. On Rolling Thunder day, veterans seem more than happy to have the rest of us join in and connect, if only for a few hours of riding and conversation. Bikers love to talk about bikes and riding. That often leads to deeper conversations about work and past lives.
Biker-veterans express their status in several ways, principally through patches on their riding vests. Many of these patches simply say “Veteran” or “Vietnam Veteran.” Others are more descriptive. Patches — sold by camp-following vendors in huge tents — come in a nearly infinite variety specific to branches, ranks, battalions, ships, units, platforms and squadrons in which or on which their wearers served.
The ride into D.C., no less than the Rolling Thunder Parade itself, brings out people along the roads and on the overpasses, shouting and waving flags. I thought, why wave at me? I’m just a radio host on a Harley riding to pay respects to those guys (it’s 99 percent men) with the patches. Nevertheless I got into the moment, honking my horn and waving back.
A special thanks is also due to another uniformed branch of service, namely local law enforcement. Motorcycle and regular units blocked the intersections and on-ramps as miles-long streaks of bikes streamed into D.C.
From one of the vendors in “Thunder Alley” I did buy a commemorative patch for my own heretofore unadorned vest. A nice lady at an industrial-grade machine sewed it on in exactly the right spot. That way, on every ride I can carry bit of Memorial Day,