WASHINGTON D.C., MAY 25-27—It was a warm and humid Washington D.C. night. There was a large, dense crowd gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and all present were somber and silent. The only hushed talking came from tourists on the outer edges of the crowd. These were people who didn’t understand the meaning of the painful memories endured by the 58,261 names on The Wall along with their families and friends. A lone bagpipe played and a torch was seen slowly moving along the face of the wall. Some sobbed quietly, while others seemed lost in thought, paying homage to the names on The Wall. Once the silent tribute was finished, the crowd began to slowly clear. The Wall evokes many powerful emotions, particularly on this Friday of Memorial Day weekend when hundreds of thousands of Americans descend upon the Capitol area—many of whom are bikers and veterans along with their families and friends. This weekend is more special than others past, because it’s the 25th anniversary of Rolling Thunder.
Rolling Thunder began from a single voice in 1987 in a letter to motorcycle magazines and veterans groups. The letter was written by a Vietnam veteran and former marine, Ray Manzo. His call was simple: have a bike rally that rode into Washington, D.C., to move the government into acting on the issue of POWs and MIAs left in Vietnam. His letter was answered in 1988 when more than 3,000 riders showed up and rode across the Memorial Bridge, by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and past the White House. Ray had never intended this to be a continuing event, yet it has grown over the last 25 years to an estimated 500,000 bikes this year.
Saturday saw a number of happenings in the Washington, D.C., area.
Harley-Davidson of Washington had its Memorial Weekend Barbecue and Open House with thousands of people attending for the great food, music and dozens of vendors posted throughout. Also, a brand-new 2012 Rolling Thunder-themed Ultra Limited was raffled off. The drawing was held on May 29, and the winner was a thrilled Joe Horab from Manassas, Virginia. Patriot Harley-Davidson, located across the river in Fairfax, Virginia, also hosted its annual open house with food, music and events. Downtown Thunder Alley was in full swing with vendors selling biker fare, commemorative T-shirts, leather goods, bike accessories and plenty of appetizing food. Although the Alley was crowded, people were able to maneuver around without too many hassles.
Across the street from Thunder Alley was the main events stage. In the early afternoon, above the constant din of bikes, the jamming sounds of the Lt. Dan Band featuring Gary Sinise entertained the gathered crowd. Gary is a big supporter and advocate for veterans and showed his energy on stage. The cordoned-off area in front of the stage was full of invited veterans and their families that danced in the aisles despite a high heat index.
In the late afternoon the much-awaited unveiling of tribute bikes began on the main stage. A solid crowd gathered to watch, as five bikes themed for the different branches of the armed forces were revealed. The event was inspired by emcee Jay Allen’s custom-built U.S. Army bike and adopted as an official build in 2011 by Rolling Thunder. Renowned builders created amazing rides. First on stage was Allen’s Army bike. Although built eight years prior, it still attracted a lot of attention with its classic style. (Jay ensured that the crowd not only saw all the bikes, but also heard the great rumbles of the V-Twins via a well-placed microphone.) Brigitte Bourget was next with the Marine Corps bike. She explained that her motivation for the build revolved around the story of a returning Vietnam Marine who sought to forget his time in the war and just wanted to put wheels to the pavement. The bike had a clear, simple style, but was very rideable.
Dar Holdsworth came next with the Navy bike entry. This bike seemed to be a crowd favorite with a mix of clean classic lines
and modern styling. It incorporated parts made from the soon-to-be-retired aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Mike “Kiwi” Thomas brought out his U.S. Coast Guard-themed 1945 Indian that he had ridden from California for the unveiling and to participate in Rolling Thunder. The last revealed was the Air Force bike introduced by Georgia Lane-Briggs, the sister of the bike’s creator, Billy Lane. Billy received special permission to build this bike from the Avon Correctional Institution where he is currently serving time. The tribute bikes drew a lot of attention and were the definite highlight of the day.
Two other major events were slated for Saturday evening. One was the gathering of the crew of Rolling Thunder Inc. in Crystal City, across the Potomac River from D.C. Here numerous awards and recognitions were handed out. The other was the National Memorial Day Concert that was held on the National Mall and cancelled in mid-performance due to a nasty weather front that hit the area. The demise of the concert only seemed to increase the attendance at the area’s many watering holes.
Sunday began on a great note with clear skies. The north parking lot of the Pentagon was open early, as thousands of bikes moved in and occupied the area. With an army of guides to help, the tens of thousands of machines were neatly parked and staged for the ride across the Memorial Bridge. At high noon, the first ones out were the five tribute bikes and an old-school Model-T hot rod with the parents of Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl riding in the back. Shortly after, the iconic name of Rolling Thunder came to life as the loud collective growl of the thousands of motorcycles rolled through the route to downtown D.C. The miles-long procession lasted almost four hours. Along the route, thousands gathered and gave support. Large flags were flown along with waves and gestures of approval. People who had never seen Rolling Thunder stood by with jaws dropped. In the median along a portion of 23rd Street stood two marines in their dress uniforms holding their salutes for the entire duration of Rolling Thunder. Watching the bikes go by, one Vietnam veteran remarked, “It doesn’t get more American than this.”
Later in the day, numerous speakers addressed the crowds form the stage along 23rd Street. One of the more prominent to speak was Artie Muller, the national director of Rolling Thunder, Inc. Artie touched on the issues of government accountability, the topic of two known live POWs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problems with supporting and caring for the thousands of recent veterans who need help and the fact that unlike previous administrations, the POW/MIA flag was not flying over the White House on this 25th anniversary. His words seemed to focus the gathered crowd; all collectively agreeing that these were major issues in need of attention.
In the late afternoon, small groups of people headed to Arlington National Cemetery. Clusters gathered throughout the expanse
of neatly lined headstones and markers honoring hundreds of years of departed service members. In some sections, families and friends visited the recently departed, some leaving little tokens of flags, flowers or, in some cases, an empty bottle. It was here that the meaning of Memorial Day was brought to stark reality in a close silence echoed by the distant sounds of Rolling Thunder.