Rolling Thunder’s Ride for Freedom motorcycle ride

Published 11:35 am Sunday, June 16, 2019

My participation in the recent Memorial Day weekend motorcycle ride to the U.S. Capital was a trip to remember.

Well known among motorcyclists everywhere, the event called Rolling Thunder® was started in 1987 by Artie Muller and Ray Manzo, two Vietnam veterans. With thousands of reported sightings of Americans living in dismal captivity and intelligence reports of those sightings generally ignored, the two veterans saw the ride through D.C. as a way to bring public attention to American prisoners of war.

In 1988, about 2,500 motorcycles from all over the country converged on Washington D.C. to demand a full accounting from our nation’s leaders for all POW/MIAs.

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Each year since that first ride, the number of participants and spectators for the Memorial Day weekend Ride for Freedom has grown.

Earlier this year, event organizers announced that the 2019 ride would be the last. With an annual tab of about $200,000 to cover security, toilets and parking lot use, president of the non-profit Rolling Thunder® Inc. Joe Bean said it was time to shift gears.

It was shortly after that announcement when my son Chris called from his home in Apex to say if this is the last one, we should be part of it. He and his son Lucan wanted to go and they thought I should join them.

Most motorcycle riders do not need a valid reason to make a trek across the country and participating in the last of this popular event was enough to change almost any rider’s plans.

It would have had the potential to be like a toy run on steroids.

The event rally point would be the north parking lot at the Pentagon and a hotel close by seemed like a good idea. When my search revealed how much that would cost, I expanded the search and found a more affordable room large enough for four people with less than three digits a few miles out in Starling, Va.

I also called a college friend, Woody Parker, who now lives in Houston, Texas to join us. During our college days in Tennessee, we often rode together and even made a motorcycle trip from Tennessee to Florida one spring break.

About two weeks before departure, I happened to check my hotel reservation. It’s a good thing I did. My suite with two double beds and a couch had been changed to a room with one queen size bed. I called the hotel to question the change and received some comment that I had been upgraded. Four guys and one queen bed is not my idea of an upgrade.

Our plan was to all meet in at the Harley-Davidson shop in Rocky Mount Friday morning. On Saturday we could check out the area before the ride on Sunday morning. Chris asked if I thought my bike would break down that early in the trip. I just thought it would be a good bathroom stop.

It proved to be a good meeting place after all. My Harley Davidson Electra Glide was running rough due to an adjustment I made to it that gave proof I’m no mechanic. While Mike Blankenship, the service manager and mechanic there, adjusted my carburetor and replaced the spark plugs, I met some other bikers also headed to Virginia.

One was Debbie Miles from Florence, SC, a member of Rolling Thunder Chapter 4. Turns out there are almost 100 chapters spread out across the nation. There would be groups riding together heading to Washington from all over the U.S.

She said this was her second year for the ride and although numbers were down last year from previous year turnouts, more than one million were expected for this the last ride to the Wall.

The Wall is one of three separate parts to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. There is a Three Soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to honor service members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War, service members who died in service in Vietnam/South East Asia and those service members who were unaccounted for during the war.

Around three million visitors stop there each year, as do a large majority of bikers who to pay tribute to those who have fallen.

My wife and I visited a mobile version of the Wall that toured the country a few years ago when it came to Currituck County. It’s a moving experience to see the names of former friends, school mates or even family members.

It did not go without notice that Miles said her group would be up at the crack of dawn to go get in line Sunday at the Pentagon parking lot.

Departing Rocky Mount, our ride to Sterling was almost uneventful. For motorcyclists, an uneventful ride is not always a bad thing.

We did meet other bikers along the way and at our hotel. There were lots of bikers everywhere. Saturday, we checked out the route to the Pentagon and fell in behind a long line of bikers as other bikers at entry ramps blocked oncoming traffic to keep all the bikes together. We rode to the park and vendor area that was so crowded we had trouble moving. Then it was back to the hotel.

We left early Sunday knowing there would be a lot of people. I also expected a lot of sitting around. Just reading the schedule told me that. If you start lining up at 6 a.m. for a parade starting at noon, there has to be a lot of down time – and there was.

As expected, there were a lot of bikes and a everybody everywhere had to sit and wait. It took us more than an hour to get off the road and into the parking lot less than one mile away. Then it was sit and wait some more.

In spite of our best efforts, we also got separated. Chris and Lucan took one exit while Woody and I took another that put us on opposite sides of the Pentagon. Then it was sit and wait some more, so I turned off my engine top avoid overheating and killing the battery.

Right on schedule, the first bikes rolled out at noon. Parked less than halfway across the parking lot, it would be almost two hours before Woody and I moved. Then, after all that waiting, the ride only took about 20 minutes to make the circle across the Arlington Memorial Bridge and along Constitution Avenue over to Independence Avenue and on to West Potomac Park.

At least 19 streets were closed to accommodate the ride. There were American flags everywhere leading on participant to say “You can almost smell the patriotism.”

Although President Trump appears to support another ride, organizers have said there may be other plans.

According to Rolling Thunder spokeswoman Nancy Regg, the group appreciates Trump’s support but there are no plans to return to Washington. Not just because of the money, but after 32 years and with a founder who is now 73 years old, the group feels it’s time for a change.

Most likely the move will be toward state and local chapters to hold their own rides on Memorial Day weekend. That will provide opportunities for older vets who can’t make the trek to Washington.

I’m glad we made the ride. It was a historic event with an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million bikers participating.

Would I make another ride to Washington if there was one? Probably not, but Woody did mention heading west to South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.

I’ll have to think about that one a bit.



Rolling Thunder: Times reporter makes the Memorial Day weekend trip