Dawn. Ed, Vietnam vet and outlaw motorcycle club officer, speeds toward the traffic light and I slide a few inches further back on the seat. His Harley doesn’t have a backrest. I’m an unplanned ride whose name he didn’t know twenty-four hours before. But when I approached him on the Mall, explained that my father had been a vet and passed few memories on to me, and that I wanted to experience Rolling Thunder, he didn’t say no. Ed is a nice man. Three other vets said no before him. Only one even offered me a consolation prize: a stick of beef jerky.
Ed shifts into second gear as the light turns red. I’m still sliding. He blows through the intersection and I slip some more. That’s when I learn to clamp my legs against his and hope for the best.
Rolling Thunder comes to DC Memorial Day weekends. Approximately 600,000 bikers ride from the Pentagon across the Memorial Bridge, past the White House and to the Capitol. Most are veterans or supporters of the cause: bringing home all POWs and MIA soldiers. Attending often involves cross-country rides and sponsorship for veterans unable to cover travel expenses. For these veterans, it’s everything. For District residents, it’s a parade, if they’re in a good mood. A deafening nightmare, otherwise.
“You mean Rolling Blubber,” one twenty-something says when I tell him I’m going.
“Avoid the Mall at all cost,” a friend tells me. “Noise pollution off the charts.”
“It’s a parade, right?” My coworker points to a Memorial Day holiday reminder in the office. “In memory of the soldiers who died?”
Herein lies the gap between what locals believe and what the veterans know: Rolling Thunder is a protest ride.
“They (locals) think it’s a ‘parade.’” Ed tells me that morning. He makes quotation marks in the air and rolls his eyes.
My father, a World War II vet, got a parade when he came home. When Ed and many Vietnam vets returned, they got spat on. Several times. They have not biked this far for a parade. They want their cause recognized.
6:15 a.m., the Pentagon parking lot. Bikers are directed toward lanes in the order they’ll later leave for their protest ride. A man pushes a cart past us. It’s piled high with pretzels. “Fresh and hot! Just five dollars!”
“Making money off the cause,” Ed says. “It’s wrong.”
“People have to eat something,” I offer, somewhat timidly. I met Ed on the Mall the day before. In the brief time I’ve spent in his presence, I’ve witnessed a hair-trigger temper. We left a scared desk clerk back at his hotel. I doubt the man will ever forget to make coffee again, if he even returns to work. I don’t want to cause of another upset. “Maybe not pretzels butâ€¦”
“It’s fine to sell food, honey.” Ed will call me “honey” and “sweetie” more times in one day than everyone else has in a decade. “But why overcharge these folks? These are veterans.”
Veterans, supporters who’ve lost loved ones to war and bikers seeking a group ride. Everyone’s got a story and a stash of cigarettes. Over the next six hours, the unlikely dynamic duo, known as Ed and Holly, will collect their stories. We will complain endlessly about the pretzel vendor. We will become friends.
A woman I’ll call June sits in the shade with her second husband. He naps while she works her Blackberry. June’s cousin and brother fought in Vietnam.
“My cousin’s squad was to parachute into an area they thought was safe. They were shot at the moment they jumped from the plane. Only half landed alive. My cousin wasn’t one of them.” She shrugs. Her husband lifts his head and catches her eye. “My brother’s leg was shattered. They brought him home on a stretcher. When they carried him off the plane, people threw garbage.”
“People spit on me,” Ed says. “They spit on all of us.”
June’s husband lifts his head again. Other men look our way. All nod.
A boy hands us stickers decorated with photos of boys no older than him. One sticker: “SSG Matt Maupin. Captured in Iraq 09 April 2004. Recovered 21 March 2008. We brought him home.” The other: “PFC Bowe Bergdahl. Captured in Afghanistan 6/30/09. Please help find me.”
Ed pulls out a cigar and taps Bergdahl’s picture with the tip. “That one’s going to stay with me.” He focuses on the cigar as he lights it. He doesn’t look up for a while. I suggest we go check out the bikes and get some air. He’s quick to set aside the cigar and follow me into the sunlight.
Ed’s story comes in bursts, between descriptions of his twenty bikes and his four kids. He enlisted when he was 17. He doubted his name would ever be called in the draft and he wanted to fight. He served as a sniper, re-upping for a total of four years. In the last year, he was captured and sent to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. Dental drills reduced some teeth to nubs. Bamboo shoots were shoved underneath his fingernails. Tortures designed especially for snipers like Ed.
After the war, Ed’s aggression and anger found release in an outlaw motorcycle club. Ed doesn’t want to tell me to which club—Hell’s Angels, Outlaws or another—he belongs. After hearing so much about their activities, I’m very comfortable not knowing. But what I do know is that they gave Ed a sense of brotherhood needed after the war, and that it bound him closely to the club. For over twenty years, he moved around and did whatever the club needed. In the late 90s, a local church and a new love helped him see life in a different way.
He first planned this visit in 2000. It’s taken him ten years and the strong-arming of friends to actually make the trip, to face the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, aka the Wall. He shows me the badge he got upon checking in for Rolling Thunder: FNG. Fucking New Guy. First-timers turn their badges upside down after visiting the Wall, but Ed was too overcome with emotion to do it himself. One of his few traveling companions not crying turned it for him. Nine bikers rode with Ed for this first trip. He intends to lead sixty to DC in 2011.
10:30 a.m. I’ve acquired a caffeine buzz, a sunburn and the bad-ass biker-ness to push Ed’s buttons. I point out a wimpy bike even I’d be ashamed to ride. If I rode. I fake admiration, studying it as if it’s the Cadillac of motorcycles.
“Ed, tell me about Yamahas. How are they different from Harleys?”
“Seriously?” After schooling me on the HOG (Harley Owners Group) and the goodness that is Harley-Davidson, he can’t help but frown. “Why?”
“Is there a YOG club?” I ask. His face clouds over. I run a hand along the Yamaha’s handlebars. “They’re not bad-looking bikes. Almost sexy.”
He starts to say something, pauses and starts again. “I don’t have anything against Yamaha owners. I know a few. They’re okay people. Good people. But there’s a difference between a Harley and a Yamaha.”
“What? Engine torque? Compression system?” I call. He’s putting space between himself and the Yamaha. Fast.
“Honey, they’re just different,” he says over his shoulder.
11:30 a.m. and my farmer’s tan is tomato red. Time for more SPF 30 sunscreen mist. Ed regards the mist with something akin to disgust. He ducks to avoid coming into contact with it.
I offer the can. “You need to protect your scalp. Skin cancer and all.”
“If lung cancer couldn’t kill me, skin cancer doesn’t stand a chance.”
He walks ahead as I put the can away. When I look up, he’s tying a red bandana around his bald head. He tucks the loose ends. Every inch of scalp is covered.
“I thought you—”
“My bandana is a statement. Not sunscreen,” he tells me. And walks away. “Don’t get smart.”
“I’m just fucking with you,” I call after him.
“Don’t get smart.”
12:10 p.m. The bikes are pulling out. People are looking for friends, trying to coordinate. The cell phone of an Army vet beside us rings.
“What’s that?” he asks the caller. “You’re nearby? Sure you can come over. I’m by the burger stand. Look for the purple bandanna, black vest, and red Yamaha.”
He hangs up and grins at us. He’s standing five feet from a Ben & Jerry’s stand, is wearing a green shirt and no bandanna. He’s riding a jet black Harley. “Fuck it,” he says. “He’s a Marine.”
So is Ed. But he laughs along. He also never looks the man’s way again. At least he doesn’t explode the way he did seven hours before at his hotel.
1:15 p.m. and we’re crossing the Memorial Bridge. Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” plays. I’m clinging to Ed’s waist for dear life.
People wave flags. Kids jump up and down. For them, it’s a great parade. Ed lifts my hand, a reminder to wave. But he doesn’t wave at many “parade” attendees himself.
The crowd thickens as we approach the White House. When we reach the edge of the lawn, I realize Ed’s not looking. He’s never been to Washington before. He came for this protest ride. Not to play tourist.
“To your left,” I shout over the horns and the opening lines of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Ed turns. He looks a long time. Way too long for the driver of any moving vehicle. “That’s pretty cool,” he finally says.
I was expecting more colorful words from the man who endured torture, returned to spitting crowds and wrestled with PTSD for more than thirty years. He keeps staring at the White House.
“Eyes on the road,” I want to shout. He takes a hand off the handlebars to wave at the crowd. “Please don’t crash us,” I say too softly for him to hear.
Ed lifts his hand higher to wave at a boy standing back from the curb. The boy knows Ed is waving at him and he smiles. Just like people in parades do. Just like vets who’ve ridden 3,000 miles might if they can start loving the celebration they never dreamed Rolling Thunder could be. I brace myself with my legs, raise both hands and wave alongside my new friend.