Rolling Thunder Ride to the Wall '13
It’s hard to imagine just what hundreds of thousands of motorcycles look like gathered together until you’ve been to the Rolling Thunder. Rolling Thunder is an annual “Ride to the Wall” on Memorial Day weekend from the Pentagon over the bridge into Washington DC, where it makes a circuit of the mall area, and ends near the Jefferson Memorial. In 1988 the ride drew 2,500, but today as I look around the Pentagon North Parking Lot early on Sunday morning, I am surrounded by an estimated half a million riders.
“A lot of bikes isn’t it?” asks my friend Pat Quinn of Fairfax.
“Certainly is” I remarked, “I never imagined so many.”
“You know this is just the one parking lot….the South parking lot is almost entirely full too” noted Pat.
The weekend had actually begun on Friday, when American Legion riders from across the country coalesced on Post 177 in Fairfax, Virginia. It began with a large meal of shrimp or BBQ ribs, and then a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action ceremony with two gold star families present. Bob Sussan of the Department of Virginia served as the emcee for the event.
From there the group headed down to the Vietnam Wall for a candlelight vigil. The chilly night air didn’t deter thousands from attending. Led by a bag piper and a torch bearer, Gold Star families of Vietnam proceeded along the wall to the center area, where an invocation and prayer were delivered.
Day two dawned with a breakfast at the post before heading down to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath and visit with old friends who have departed. Senior Master Sergeant Chad Woodburn, the son of Illinois Department Adjutant Terry Woodburn was selected to represent all American Legion Riders in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I was asked to lay a wreath today, it’s my first time for doing it,” said Chad. It’s a very special event and I was extremely humbled to do it.”
Joining him in the ceremony was leading candidate for National Commander, Dan Dellinger from the Department of Virginia. “I was honored to participate in today’s wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Dellinger. “Arlington National Cemetery is a very special place and to be part of this ceremony was just unbelievable and fantastic.”
First call on Sunday morning was 5:00 A.M. back at the Post. Considering the early hour, folks seemed in good spirits as we broke fast and prepared to join with hundreds of thousands of others. The Legion Riders numbered around 400 at the post, but intermixed in the larger crowd were thousands of others who rode with friends from other motorcycle groups. Joining us at the post was Tim Chambers, the saluting marine who stands at present arms, saluting for nearly 5 hours on Constitution Avenue in DC as the bikes roll by.
After a brief ceremony, we headed down to the Pentagon. For Rolling Thunder, positioning in the parking lots dictates how long your wait will be. The first to arrive are the first to head off at exactly noon. Those in the back of the line might not even start until 3 or 4 o’clock. We arrived at about 8:30, and found ourselves roughly in the middle of the pack for the first parking lot.
With lots of time on our hands, I talked to Pat Quinn about his involvement. Pat served 22 years with the Army as an air defense artilleryman with the Vulcan Air Defense system, a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, and later as a recruiter. Now retired, Pat works at nearby George Mason University. This was his third ride.
“It’s important on Memorial Day to celebrate those who have fallen comrades, it’s also important to help others remember” Pat said. “By riding in Rolling Thunder I think it helps get the message out that there is still people missing and that we still have our fallen comrades that gave the ultimate sacrifice for this freedom.”
I rode on the back of a bike driven by a man from Virginia Beach who gave his name only as “Mr. Bill.” He smiled as he pointed at the plastic Mr. Bill toy mounted on his dashboard. [Mr. Bill was a clay figurine parody of children’s TV shows that appeared on Saturday Night Live during the late 70’s and early 80’s.] Riding alone, he offered me the back seat so that I could enjoy the ride amongst the rest of the supporters, despite the fact I had a huge backpack I was carrying.
“It’s ok, I ride with my kids quite a bit and they never sit still, just don’t lean too suddenly!”
The ride itself is a fairly short circuit, perhaps no more than 5 miles. But that route is lined with on lookers, people cheering, and bikers who have already completed the circuit.
“So, we made it to the parking lot at before 9 a.m., we set off around 1:30, and the whole thing only took us 15 minutes” noted Mr. Bill with another smile. “Lot of standing around time for a short bit of riding, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Wish I’d been coming every year.”