These are the weeks the thunder rolls.
The twenty-second annual Run For The Wall pulls out of the parking lot of the Victoria Gardens Mall in Rancho Cucamonga, California this Wednesday, May 19th. From there the riders follow one of two routes.
What is called the central route stops in Williams, Arizona; Gallup and Angel Fire, New Mexico; Goodland and Junction City, Kansas; Wentzville, Missouri; Corydon, Indiana and Lewisburg, West Virginia before pausing in Arlington on May 30th. The southern route passes through Phoenix; Las Cruces; Odessa and Weatherford, Texas; Monroe, Louisiana; Meridian, Mississippi; Chattanooga; and Wytheville and Roanoke, Virginia.
You can join the ride anywhere along the way. You will wind up in the Pentagon parking lot and from there you will ride to the Washington Mall at noon and park and listen to some music and some speakers. The ride from the Pentagon to the general vicinity of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is officially called Rolling Thunder.
A Little History
This year the speakers will include a retired Air Force General named Richard B. Myers and a man named Artie Muller who runs this annual event. The music will be made by Nancy Sinatra, a singer named Gordon Painter and the Loch Rannoch Pipe & Drum Band. It used to be a little edgier.
Nobody seemed to like The Wall very much when it was dedicated in 1982. Most of the country did not think Vietnam Veterans deserved a memorial. Most Vietnam Veterans thought The Wall was kind of understated. But, the thing grew on Veterans and in 1987 three guys named Ray Manzo, John Holland and Walt Sides rode their motorcycles there on Memorial Day. The next year The Wall was vandalized so the three men returned with some friends. Artie Mueller and the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club helped organize the event. Two thousand bikers showed up and the Park Police arrested some of them for demonstrating without a permit.
Mueller, soon fell out with the VNVMC but he made Rolling Thunder his life’s work. Rolling Thunder is now a non-profit corporation that lobbies and advocates on behalf of veterans of all wars.
George W. Bush was a very visible supporter of the event. Bush actively avoided Vietnam. And, he never did understand that The Patriot Guard Riders was an entirely different organization but he was sympathetic to the idea of Rolling Thunder. He liked to be photographed every year with Mueller in the Rosa Garden. And he liked costumes so two years ago Mueller gave Bush a Rolling Thunder cut.
Now The Backlash
That was the year a back lash against Rolling Thunder emerged. The Gelded Age’s most beloved humorist, Garrison Keillor, was infuriated by the 2008 parade.
“A patriotic bike rally is sort of like a patriotic toilet-papering or patriotic graffiti,” Keillor wrote. “Somehow a person associates Memorial Day with long moments of silence when you summon up mental images of men huddled together on LSTs and pilots revving up B-24s and infantrymen crouched behind piles of rubble steeling themselves for the next push,” he explained. “You don’t quite see the connection between that and these fat men with ponytails on Harleys.”
“If anyone cared about the war dead,” Keillor continued, “they could go read David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War or Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944, to May 7, 1945 or any of a hundred other books, and they would get a vision of what it was like to face death for your country, but the bikers riding in formation are more interested in being seen than in learning anything. They are grown men playing soldier, making a great hullaballoo without exposing themselves to danger, other than getting drunk and falling off a bike.”
Keillor also actively avoided service in Vietnam.
Last year President Obama skipped the media opportunity with Mueller. A White House spokesman later explained that Obama had “brief but cordial” private meeting with representatives of the event.