Story and photos by Marilyn Stemp
The Rolling Thunder organization presented a powerful presence in Washington D.C. over Memorial Day weekend this year, as it’s done for 27 straight years. Coincidentally the 2014 Run was bookended by two news events that may have raised the organization’s visibility even more so: the revelations of mismanagement in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the release of Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl.
Though those events may have further increased general awareness of U.S. military veterans, neither altered the massive motorcycle ride from the Pentagon into Washington D.C. on Sunday May 25th; it was as spirited and compelling as ever with radical patriotism and blatant emotion boldly on display. And there was a full house at Rolling Thunder’s hospitality gathering the night before, too, with Executive Director Artie Muller reiterating the mission: we’re not giving up until everyone is back home and accounted for. Further, he added that an unresponsive government makes the need for Rolling Thunder even greater. “We have to keep going, we have to keep making a lot of noise,” he said.
Initially formed to bring attention to the POWs and MIAs from Vietnam, RT also advocates for veteran’s rights for all military people. The more I interact with Rolling Thunder the more I learn. This year I noticed more younger members, veterans of recent conflicts, attending Rolling Thunder in force. That’s good because the future of the Rolling Thunder organization depends on new members to insure that veterans’ issues stay relevant to all Americans. And I was lucky to meet Chris Noel, a one-time starlet who appeared in Elvis Presley films before making veterans concerns her personal mission—a cause for which she’s worked tirelessly for decades. It was heartening to learn, too, that funds from RT are distributed directly to recipients: active, retired or disabled military people and their families. RT chapters provide wheel chairs, build access ramps, and do home repairs. It’s the kind of giving that makes a tangible difference.
The day before the demonstration ride this year a group of Rolling Thunder members visited residents at a Maryland vet’s hospital as they usually do, a visit that was planned well ahead of time but made more poignant by the news of poor treatment at America’s veteran’s hospitals. Said one participant, “That visit made the entire weekend for me. It put things in perspective.”
Over the years, the Rolling Thunder event has expanded to incorporate the larger D.C. metro area with activities spreading well beyond Constitution Avenue. Regional Harley-Davidson dealers such as Fort Washington hold open house events and host their own rides into the city on Sunday. One American Legion in Greenbelt, Maryland hosts a breakfast followed by a group ride into D.C. via the Baltimore-Washington Parkway escorted by the National Park Police. In a city of this size, how often do you think ramp restrictions and lane closures occur simply for the convenience of motorcycle riders? The answer: once a year and this is it. Thanks to Roy and Margaret of C&C Cycle, we rode with this group. The Park Police got us into the District in record time and parked us in a secret spot easily walkable to the Lincoln Memorial. (See Sidebar.)
Of course, people rode to Washington from all over the country, many traveling in one of the three planned rides that RT sanctioned. But smaller, free form groups are quite typical and it’s common to find groups of friends who have made RT an annual pilgrimage. I met up with some folks who have traveled to RT for many years, first riding as a group from New England, now meeting there from various points due to life changes over the years. Steve’s brother John was one of the original riders who gathered up his buddy Gumby and a few others to make the trip to D.C. from Massachusetts in the late ‘80s. They were mainly military men who saw the trip as a show of respect for lost brothers and an affirmation of their camaraderie.
Just within this small group, years passed as riders fell out and joined in; though John passed away a few years ago, the pilgrimage continues. This year, telling lies and stories around the fire at their campground HQ, were Steve and Gumby plus Steve’s nephew Paulie from Florida, and niece Bailey, in the Navy and recently posted to a base in southern Maryland. Being there among them as an observer gave me a window on authentic friendship, with all its warts and flaws, the kind that weathers well and becomes more than friendship, a family of choice. That said, pranking runs rampant with these guys, so you have to learn fast, and don’t turn your back for a second.
These people, their stories, the traditions they perpetuate are emblematic of Rolling Thunder. It’s this kind of goofing around, silly stories and habitual customs that resonate everywhere at Rolling Thunder, in small groups and large. The kind of antics you might find at any biker rally where people congregate habitually but here there’s another layer. At Rolling Thunder the good-natured camaraderie is salted with echoes of regret, memory and tragedy restlessly rumbling ever so barely under the surface. It’s personal and private while also being so very public in scope and reach.
That’s just how Rolling Thunder is, and that’s the way it will remain. As long as people continue to remember and to care.
How to Get a National Park Police Escort (without the ticket)
Now retired and loving life, Ronnie Gould worked as a mechanic for the National Park Police for several decades. One day 15 or more years ago, Ronnie thought it would be a good idea to start a ride into D.C. from the Greenbelt, MD American Legion where he hung out. “It was the ninth or tenth year of Rolling Thunder,” he said. “Before long, when the group had grown to over 300 bikes, I sent a formal letter requesting a Park Police escort.”
Since then, the ride has become a regional favorite, starting with breakfast at the Legion followed by a Park Police escorted ride on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. And there’s no fooling around when the Park Police are involved. “We have to beat Fort Washington H-D into the city with their 25,000 bikes,” said Ronnie. “One year we left late and it was a long wait till they went by.”
Ronnie rode his ’76 Shovelhead, a refurbished Park Police bike he calls the Rose Tattoo that he built up in his basement, “like Johnny Cash’s Cadillac, one piece at a time.” He changed it from electric start to a kicker as a safety measure, he explained, “because after drinking at the Legion if I couldn’t start it myself I shouldn’t ride it.” He’s ridden the bike to Daytona since 1979 where he parks on the beach and gets pretty girls to pose with it. He’s got the photo album to prove it, too, right in the saddlebag. Wearing his flamed Chucks and with a leather bota bag of his homemade wine available for tasting, Ronnie is a rolling sideshow—and a helluva good hearted guy.
Ronnie’s buddy Mark, a.k.a. Shamrock, another of the trio who started the Legion ride, was on hand this year, too. Mark rides a first year trike built by Lehman for Harley-Davidson with custom details that represent his Irish heritage. He also has a ‘76 Shovel similar to Ronnie’s and just finished restoring a ‘34 Ford.
Why go to this trouble all these years to organize the ride? “The names on that wall are buddies of mine, guys that I went to school with,” said Ronnie. “It’s just to say thank you.”