This post is adapted from my column that first appeared at FederalNewsNetwork.com
Mainly to show support for veterans — I’m not a veteran — I joined the biggest protest parade in Washington, Rolling Thunder 2019. The annual event has been running for more than 30 years, but the founders are getting older and more frustrated with the District of Columbia and the Pentagon. Whether Rolling Thunder 2019 was really the last is uncertain.
Don’t call it a bike rally or a parade — it’s officially a protest ride to keep the Pentagon’s attention on the POW-MIA issue. It has a Vietnam orientation, named for the 3-year bombing campaign, but it draws riders of all ages, veterans from all subsequent wars and conflicts.
I won’t deny that it also seemed like a fun motorcycle thing to do, too. And it was. I’ve watched the event and vowed to be part of it at least once. Many friends told me I’d be sorry. It’s awful waiting in the blazing hot Pentagon parking lot, they said. It’s all stop and go. You’ll burn up your clutch. You’ll keel over from dehydration. One guy to whom I gamely suggested it might be fun to do just once, roared back, “What’s the fun? Not dying?” Golly, it’s not the Tet Offensive, I thought.
I started early Sunday morning, to join a couple thousand other bikers departing from District Harley-Davidson in Gaithersburg. I even ended up parking right next to a friend, Robert, a former Marine and long time State Department employee, on his Road King. We didn’t know the other was a rider.
First. though, I’d packed my bike from a list I’d lovingly worked up. I always use lists for travel. I brought:
- Three bottles of fluid (water, water flavored like ice tea, and water flavored with electrolyte berry stuff), standing upright in a big ZipLoc bag in my left saddlebag
- Regular sunglasses (not my WileyX progressive, transitioning riding goggles)
- Two peanut and jelly sandwiches, a nutrition bar, and an apple.
- Buff for keeping the sun off my scalp (You don’t know Buffs? Look it up)
- SPF 30 sport sunscreen for whatever else might be exposed, principally my nose
- Pen and waterproof small notepad (those are always on my bike)
- Flip flops for when I took my boots off during the long wait at the Pentagon staging area
- Spare T-shirt
- Large microfiber wiping rag
- GoPro and charger, borrowed from my radio station, to be stuck on big gooseneck grip mounted on my left engine guard bar.
- Wallet, cash, iPhone.
Man, I was prepared. It all fit into the two bags native to my Heritage Classic, along with the usual junk in there — seat cover, owner’s manual, big fold-out knife, a few tools, helmet lock, USB cables, and other miscellaneous items. I’d also purchased a nice Harley-Davidson half helmet for this event, given the anticipated heat, the relatively safe conditions — and so people could see my actual face while I was aboard.
I was also mentally prepared for a long day.
After milling around with biker friends and coffee-and-doughnuts, bike-and-rider blessing, reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, rendition of Star Spangled Banner by a county policeman/jazz saxophonist, the District staff marshaled us into a long departing column, two bikes wide. Those going all the way to the Pentagon went first. An employee asked everyone as she marched along the parked bikes, “Pentagon?” I gulped and said, “Yep.”
How cool to ride in two columns on Shady Grove Road, Interstates 370 and 270, the Beltway outer loop and George Washington Parkway, which were closed to cars and police escorted. Even on the highways, people stopped along the way and cheered. They waved from the bridges over the roads.
Entering the Pentagon’s property perimeter, the ride slowed to a stop-and-go crawl, as police and organizers worked to cram umpteen thousand bikes into the Pentagon’s three giant parking lots. Not so bad, I thought. I’d expected the backup to start a mile up the GW Parkway.
Finally, after maneuvering around the Pentagon Force Protection Agency vehicles parked so as to slow the bikes way down, we were ushered into the extreme corner of the second giant Pentagon lot. We were in an odd zone, behind a long row of the decorated ceremonial tractor trucks, and a line of port-a-potties. Thus I started my hours-long wait for the start of the parade out of there. Landscaping for some concrete utility structure there provided shade.
If you love people watching, the staging area of Rolling Thunder is the place to be. I wandered past the trucks, through the rest of the lot and adjacent one. Only after stepping away from my parked bike did I discern the extent of Rolling Thunder. Acres and acres of asphalt, covered with closely-parked bikes of every imaginable description. And the people who rode them in. Veterans, spouses, kids and just plain riders like me of every age mill about, chatting, comparing motorcycles. I photographed three Vietnam-era guys sitting on a shady curb, watching the controlled chaos on the street in front them them. “Bear”, “Digger”, and “Rawhide” were part of the Cartersville, Georgia, chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. Like many others, their leather vests were decorated with dozens of patches from rides and military units.
How rarely, I thought, do civvies like me get to talk to vets who are total strangers. Motorcycling produces common bonds. That, plus the festival atmosphere of the staging area, everyone lamenting the heat in good humor, made for easy human interaction.
The day was indeed hot and humid, even with occasional passing clouds. Mercifully, the Christian Motorcycle Association had stations handing out cups of cold water and refilling people’s water bottles. They even had guys walking around with trays, handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as if to augment my own. I chatted with one of its chapter presidents, who seemed surprised that I offered a donation.
“Will you take a donation from a Jewish biker?” I asked. “Hey, we’re all God-fearing,” he answered, and I couldn’t disagree.
When Rolling Thunder itself finally started, I and a few other guys parked near me, slipped out of our parking lot and onto the main road, just behind a departing column. We were out of the lot by about 12:30. (Later I spoke with another guy who’d been with the District H-D group. He didn’t get out of the lot ’til 3. I was home by 2:30!)
For the parade route, I broke my own rule of always wearing a jacket, having stowed my heavy denim riding shirt while waiting to get into the Pentagon grounds initially. Someone had yelled, “How can you stand that jacket?” in reference to the building heat. So I rode bare-armed in my patchless leather vest. (All my patches are on my denim vest.) As the exit lines converged into two columns, I let a woman from St. Louis about my age on a denim-black Street Glide slip in ahead of me. I followed her the rest of the route. She did a lot of waving to the crowd. Most of the riders are men; she handled her big bike with no problem.
At one point early on, I rode right by the famous Saluting Marine, our eyes meeting briefly. I thought, I should be saluting you. I wanted to, but the line was moving slowly and I couldn’t really let go of the clutch or the throttle at that moment.
Soon I was on the main parade route crossing Memorial Bridge. People cheered and waved flags along the route. Riders were breezing along by the time we hit Constitution Avenue, turned right across the Mall near the Capitol, and back down Independence Avenue. As I did on the Beltway, I thought, Tom, this is the way to zoom down Constitution Avenue!
After departing the parade route where it comes near Rock Creek Parkway outbound, I headed towards the Whitehurst Freeway. I missed the exit in that always-confusing tangle of E Street, Route 66 and the Whitehurst near the Kennedy Center. I steered around a drunk out on one of the ramps, running up to motorcycles and trying to slap hands. Just what I need, I thought, getting pulled off my bike by this schnook on a busy can-of-worms. Ending up on E Street, I turned into a stuck 23rd Street NW. After dealing with annoying cars, I reached the ramp back down and away and found the Whitehurst. In D.C. I’m never totally lost.
I accelerated up the Whitehurst to Canal Road back home to Montgomery County, where the shade felt cool and the sweat evaporated. Some guy on a big bike with a garish, girly paint job and a nearly-naked young woman perched on the pillion zoomed by and cut in front of only to exit at one of the Beltway ramps. Go, idiot, I thought. No Beltway for me if I don’t need it. I continued on Canal, to MacArthur, twisties up to River Road, then home.
I was thrilled to have participated in the Rolling Thunder spectacle and I hope there’s another. In truth I enjoyed the festival that is the Pentgaton staging area. Not sure it’s an every-year deal. But if I ever do it again, I’ll bring a novel and the newspaper. It’d be nice to be lucky again and sneak out with the early departures.
Rolling Thunder has always been a dramatic way to honor our war dead, our missing in action, and our still-living vets. I hope it rolls on in 2020.