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Rolling Thunder and the Marines

We are walking our brunch off, taking a meandering path to the Metro, when we are among the motorcyclists again.  I had seen them all over the city the last few days, in town for Memorial Day festivities.  In the crowd of leather and orange t-shirts and tattoos, I stick out in my bright blue summer dress and braided pigtails.  My sister, who has been to Sturgis and is more versed in their culture, schools me.

“That guy’s patch means he killed someone.”

“How do you know?”

“I looked it up after watching Sons of Anarchy.”

We notice that the street is blocked off, and it becomes clear the masses are waiting for something to come down it.  We are looking for an opening in the barriers and, when we find one, dart across just ahead of what turns out to be a police escort – followed by hundreds of thousands of bikers: the Rolling Thunder.

We make our way to the Lincoln Memorial, in search of shade and quiet.  Instead, we find ever more tourists and, from the side of the memorial, a view of the street below in which three Marines are standing at attention at intervals along the median as the bikers ride by.  Curious, we stand and watch.

A man near begins to talk to us about how the Marines will stand there the entirety of the hours-long rally, at attention as the bikers pass.  He tells us that “Rolling Thunder” is the name of an Operation in Vietnam and does not come from the sound of the motorcycles’ engines, as many think.  He tell us that, in his uniform, he was spit upon when he returned from Vietnam.

We decide to stay, and we sit.  In the shade, with the cool marble of the memorial against my legs and back, I am comfortable.  My dress is about as thin as it could decently be and is covering only what really needs to be covered.  In the mid-day sun, the Marines are in dress uniform.  People around us comment: how hot they must be!  Occasionally, members of the crowd – some obvious Rolling Thunder members, others not – approach and give the Marines water, which they drink while maintaining their salutes, and put what appear to be ice cubes down their backs and under their caps.  People throw flowers at their feet.

Over time, we notice the Marines softly shaking their arms out when there is a break in the procession.  The elbow of the one in front droops slightly during long stretches.

Bits of information float to us from other conversations: the one in front has been doing this for years, the lone Marine standing at attention for hours on a blistering day.

After some time, we leave and walk across the bridge to the cemetery.  The bikers ride past, honking and waving as the bridge walkers wave U.S. flags and cheer back.  We pass another man in uniform, on the other side of the motorcycle line, standing at attention in the blistering sun.  This man is seventy years old, at least.

The crowd is thinner here, more dispersed, and we don’t, in the short time it takes to pass, see anyone giving him water or putting ice cubes down his back.  But I hope some did.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very touching read. The first Rolling Thunder demonstrated during the 1988 Memorial Weekend and they have vowed to continued riding until ALL THE POW/MIAs are accounted for. If you can’t ride — bearing witness is the next best thing so “We will not forget”.

    May 28, 2012

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