Listen to the rolling thunder… to the sound of untold numbers of motorcycles on the move, both close and at a distance… listen and you will hear a noise that resonates like a warplane flying low… a constant sort of rumbling roar.
It is also the sound of remembrance.
Each year on the last weekend of May, hundreds of thousands of bikers come to Washington, D.C. for Memorial Day — a time set aside to honor the American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who went off to war and never returned.
It’s become a tradition. For 32 years, the men and women of “Rolling Thunder” — as the demonstration is appropriately called — have made this annual pilgrimage, filling the streets with their motorcycles and their noise in a protest on wheels designed to pay tribute to the fallen and to press for an accounting of the tens of thousands of military personnel — from World War II to the Vietnam conflict— still listed as missing in action.
But this year’s ride in the nation’s capital could be their last.
In late 2018, the organizers of Rolling Thunder announced plans to shift to a network of regional events. They said the logistics and costs of staging a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. had just become too much.
President Trump, who likes to say the bikers are his fans, swore on Twitter that they would be back.
Artie Muller — who heads Rolling Thunder — says “no.”
Word that this could be the final ride led hundreds of thousands of bikers to the staging areas at the Pentagon on Sunday, May 26th — many arriving in the pre-dawn hours for a procession that would begin at noon.
They lined up in orderly rows, cramming as many motorcycles into the vast parking lots as they could. They waited in the heat… they poured water on their sweaty necks… and struck up conversations with bikers nearby.
The military veterans — grey-haired vets from the Vietnam era standing next to younger ones fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan — shared war stories and checked out each other’s bikes: the deep blue Honda… the sleek black Triumph… and big Harley-Davidsons in just about every color of the rainbow.
All were there for that final ride — a ride that for many actually began at their homes in places as far away as Texas and Florida and as close as the suburbs that ring Washington, D.C.
There was the fragile elderly veteran from Maryland who rode with an oxygen machine strapped to his Harley… the middle-aged couple from a small town in Missouri who spent two days on their 20-year-old Honda to reach the start line… and the retired marine from the deep south who told an intricate tale that involved both his run-in with a general and a pair of forgotten shoes.
It was all personal… very personal… and there was a strange but wonderful sense of community.
My husband and I and our simple white Honda bonded with the Delaware vets to our left… the retired Marine two rows away… and two biking buddies from North Carolina, one in a leather vest covered with military patches (a common piece of gear for veterans who join motorcycle clubs).
And at the head of the pack we saw the man everyone just calls “Artie” — the 74-year-old Vietnam veteran who heads Rolling Thunder — standing near his motorcycle and scanning the crowd with his eyes.
“The ride in Washington, D.C. is coming to an end,” he kept repeating to anyone who asked.
“It is a very patriotic event. People come from all over because they believe in it,” Muller added.
He looked a bit worn out from it all — though he was still quick to laugh and his language was as salty as ever.
Did he know of the president’s tweet? Yes, and it was appreciated.
But Artie Muller said it was time for a change… that too many veterans live too far away to take part in a Washington event… and that many of those who had ridden with Rolling Thunder for years were getting too old to trek to the nation’s capital.
“We really want to go nationwide,” he explained, noting that with 90 Rolling Thunder chapters across the country, they could hold more accessible regional Memorial Day demonstrations in the north, east, south and west.
And with that he climbed onto his black Harley with his 11-year-old grandson sitting behind him to lead the final Washington ride.
It was high noon when the procession began and it was three PM before our row of motorcycles made its way out of the Pentagon parking lot closest to Washington. There were probably several hundred thousand bikers behind us.
A few heavy raindrops came down as we revved the engine and made our way across a bridge and into the city, passing by monuments and the U.S. Capitol. Along the way, supporters lined the route. Some waved small flags. Others held up big hand-written signs that said simply: “Thank you.”
It had come to this. An impromptu ride by a few hundred Vietnam War veterans in the 1980’s to call attention to their still unaccounted for comrades-in-arms had evolved into an annual demonstration by roughly half a million men and women on motorcycles united in support of one cause.
It is a cause with a motto long embraced by the U.S. armed forces:
“Leave no man behind.”