He snapped awake at 0500, a full 30 minutes before the alarm was set to go off.
For more than 50 years, he has awakened at 5 a.m. It didn’t matter which time zone he was in or even if it was daylight savings time. When the big hand was on the 12 and the little one on the five, he was awake.
He crawled into the shower and laid there for 30 minutes, letting the hot water loosen up his muscles and numb the throbbing pain of too many arthritic bones broken in too many places over the years.
The water and shower limbered him up enough to pull on some faded blue jeans, t-shirt and a leather vest covered with patches and pines. It took some effort to pull on the boots, but he managed. Four cups of strong, black coffee and several accompanying groans later, he headed into the garage where waited.
She doesn’t get as get much use as times before, but she never complains. Instead, she waits patiently a the tarp, waits for special days like Memorial Day weekend to come around, knowing he would polish her up and take her out onto the open road.
He worked for the better part of two hours, polishing the chrome, checking the oil level and the tire pressures. Then he climbed aboard, kicked the stand up, punched the starter button and smiled as she erupted into a slightly muffled roar. He warmed her up until she was ready to and head out into the morning air.
Not much traffic on Arlington’s Washington Boulevard on a Sunday morning. A few cars. Some slowed to take a look at the gleaming Harley Road King. Few noticed the gray-haired, aging rider. He turned off onto Columbia Pike, nosed into the parking lot of Bob & Edith’s Diner on Columbia Pike and parked beside a half-dozen other Harleys, noticing that two he expected were not among the group.
“Afternoon, did we sleep in this morning?”
“You know me chief. Just couldn’t get up.”
He looked around.
“VA Hospital in Albuquerque. He’s fading.”
Damn. Each year, the list of those who don’t make it gets longer.
“What about Horsely?”
“Laid his Softtail down on 50 in Indiana three months ago. DOA.”
Well, at least it wasn’t age. Or maybe it was. A younger man might have survived.
For the next 90 minutes, they ignored the ravages of age and worries about cholesterol and hardened arteries, wolfing down pork chops, bacon, eggs and hash browns, talking about days that have long since passed.
“They say we will have a quarter million out today. Maybe several hundred thousand bikes. Kinda miss the old days when there only a few hundred of us.”
“Hey, remember the guy who showed up some years ago with the Vulcan? Thought he was gonna get trashed. Bringing a Jap bike to Thunder. Ain’t right.”
“Saw some Jap bikes on the way in this morning. Some German ones too.”
“Yeah, a lot of younger vets ride fast Jap sport models. Others have expensive BMWs. Times change.”
They finished last cups of coffee, climbed back on their Harleys, and headed up Columbia Pike to the Pentagon, joining a mass of others and the thunder of unmuffled exhausts. Getting into the north parking lot took about an hour.
He parked in tight formation and shut the King down. Opening the saddlebag, he pulled out the same American and black POW-MIA flags used over the years and mounted them on the luggage rack, along and put on a Boonie hat that still fits.
They mingled, visited with riders not seen since the year before, joked about some of the celebs posing for photos. Some napped.
Finally, more than four hours later, they fired up started pulling out, headed for the ramp up Memorial Bridge and the Mall in Washington. Staff Sgt. Tim Chambers, greeted each of us. The Marine would stand and salute for more than three hours.
Rolling Thunder was under way.
He’d been on the first Thunder, a much smaller group of riding their bikes into Washington to protest the U.S. government’s inaction on resolving the nagging issue of what happened to too many American servicemen who were unaccounted for Prisoners of War or still listed as Missing in Action.
Back then, the local law regarded the bikers with concern some of the veterans groups looked askance at the mostly long-haired group of motorcyclists who looked more like Hell’s Angels than those honoring a forgotten war.
Thunder had grown through the years, along with the awareness that Uncle Sam had not done right by those left behind in Southeast Asia. The longhairs were still there, the heart of the movement, but Thunder now included bank clerks, accountants and the widows and children of men who were left behind. Now they got police escorts and the Vets groups were more tolerant.
As he crossed Memorial Bridge, a number of those in the crowd stepped out to slap the hands of those coming in. A young woman handed him a small American flag. He stuck the flag in his handbrake.
They circled the Mall before parking and head. He headed over to the Wall. Officially, it is called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Those who were there just call it the Wall. It takes a while before some Vietnam vets can go there. Some never can.
He walked the length, scanning the dark surface for names he knew. He always found them: A young man who had one day to go when a mortar round took him out. Another who appeared safe because worked on the Armed Services Radio station just off base but died when a military jet crashed into the building. Names and faces that still clear in his memory after 30 too many years.
They skipped the speeches but knelt and prayed before leaving. They rode back across the Potomac and visited Arlington Cemetery to say hello to some others who didn’t make it.
People looked at the small group of gray-haired men in their motorcycle leathers and gave them a wide berth, not sure of what brought such a dangerous-looking group out to a place of honor on Memorial Day weekend. But it didn’t take long for the rough-looking crowd to quickly outnumber those in their Sunday best.
Later, they sat at Hard Times Cafe in Arlington and wondered how many more Rolling Thunders it would take before the federal government finally did something.
“How much longer we gonna keep doing this?”
“Until we get some answers.”
Then they parted, promising — as always — to keep in touch during the year but knowing — as in years past — that they probably would not see or talk to each again until next year’s Memorial Day weekend.
The trip ended when he wheeled the Harley back into the garage, listened to it idle for a few minutes, and shut her down.
Once inside, he hung his vest on its customary hook, took off the boots, and put them away.
Until next year.
(Originally written in 1998 for the web site Capitol Hill Blue and, updated from time to time, over the years.)