The meaning of Memorial Day
A 2,200 MILE MOTORCYCLE JOURNEY CREATED A LASTING LESSON
Nearly one million motorcyclists from across the United States and Canada polish their chrome, don their biker gear and set out for a grueling journey to bring the thunder to D.C. – a journey that for many proves life changing. I met then Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, MO. president Terry “Tiny” Willey – a Navy Seabee– at a dedication of a Missing Man table, a symbolic representation of all the veterans who would be missing at gatherings of family and friends. We discussed the annual Rolling Thunder Ride to the Wall. I wanted to go. Willey’s wife Gail started a new job and would have to miss-out on the ride in 2015. A seat was available. I was invited.
That conversation with my parents did not go well: “Mom, Dad – I’m going to be gone for a while because I’m jumping on the back of a motorcycle and traveling 2,200 miles with people I don’t really know well.” Gail let me borrow her rain gear and I joined seven women and eleven men – including three Vietnam veterans. Three trikes and eight motorcycles made the journey through two days of steady rain – a minute fraction of the force that was about to descend upon D.C. – a thunder of pain and purpose. They demonstrate so that the windows of D.C. will shake from the roar of their engines – a reminder to government representatives of their responsibility to soldiers. Three million visitors each year travel to a black scar which extends across a tiny piece of Washington, D.C. – the Vietnam Memorial Wall – the same wall which was met with contention when initially suggested and didn’t receive any real political attention until long after it had been established. No high ranking or even mid-level government officials were present for its dedication.
Designers of the war memorials in D.C. had them made with polished granite, so that when people look at the names on the walls, they also see reflections of themselves. My late father was an Army Corpsman during Vietnam and functioned largely under a status that kept him thinking he would be shipped out any day. Apprehension was reflected in letters he would write to my mother. It was a likelihood that left my grandfather speaking a brutal truth: if he goes – “He’s a goner,” meaning he was unlikely to come home alive. My dad fortunately served in Baltimore for the duration. Still, it was close. I found myself thinking that his name could have been on that wall and I would not have existed. The Vietnam Memorial Wall presents names in chronological order of death. Flowers and mementos, letters from loved ones, family pictures; military photos of dashing young men and women in dress uniforms – not yet hardened by war, not yet dead. Pictures of men in the jungle with haunted eyes. These are left beside the wall by family and friends with hope that somewhere, somehow, their loved one will know that they are missed and being honored.
It was a grueling trek wrought with human and mechanical difficulty. “Do you remember how many breakdowns we had? We formed a small, cohesive unit with a military heading on it. Just like any unit, there’s always one or two pr––s in it. But – other than them – everyone was working together to get things done,” Ray Downing, a member of the chapter who was on the Pathfinder team in Vietnam said. Downing was one of three Vietnam veterans to make the journey with Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 Missouri. “Crazy Cajun” Ronnie Davis was drafted and rose through the ranks to become a Sergeant in the 173rd Airborne Division. He was the one who most needed the journey.
Davis approached the wall with apprehension – knowing that he would be confronted with being the only survivor from his platoon. “I can’t do it. I can’t go up there,” he said. Members of Rolling Thunder put their hands upon beneath his arms and on his back for support. When he found them – the names of his friends – his men, he fell prostrate and was suddenly back in the jungle, struggling with his own injuries and the horror of rampant death around him – an ambush. “There's blood! Blood everywhere! The blood of my brothers,” he cries. “I should be dead with them!” He took two rounds and watched helplessly as every man from his platoon died. His fellow members of Rolling Thunder hug him, support him, salute the fallen and cry with him.
After walking away from the Wall, Davis feels compelled to leave something for his fallen brothers. He removes his patch from his vest and asks Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 MO. president, Terry Willey, to place it at the wall. “I can’t go back down there,” he said while sadly shaking his head. “I’ve had all I can handle.” Willey gave him a bear hug and replied, “It will be my honor, brother.” Davis was brutally honest in a later conversation: “I tried to die with them, but I just wasn’t good enough.” The just under 500-footlong Vietnam Memorial Wall, composed of two sections, has become a kind of Mecca for war-shattered men. They seek closure. They seek to leave their demons at the foot of that Wall to haunt the Memorial Mall, the Plaza, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Pentagon and the White House: to warn visitors and politicians of the human cost of war.
For as poignant as it is, historically, Memorial Day in D.C. is a busy and joyful affair. Patriotism and optimism run high. Red, white and blue can be found in every corner – flag shirts and smiles are adorning children. Homemade signs in children’s script saying, “Thank you, heroes,” “God Bless America!” line the streets and the procession of motorcycles is met with cheering. A Marine stands at full attention for eight hours – rigid and uncomfortable – battling the pain in his injured wrist to show respect for these men and women who made pilgrimage. Some of the battle-hardened men in black leather hide tears with their sunglasses; some smile and wave and others – like Davis – are in shock because this is the first glimpse of appreciation they have ever really encountered. “He's a different person,” Willey said of Davis's transformation.
Davis said it was a journey he will harbor in his heart and mind forever. “Never in my wildest dream would I ever believe the changes it made in me. I can say this – those guys are my brothers in blood. They helped me through a task that I was not man enough to do by myself,” Davis said. Peace be with the fallen. Peace be with all the families who have lost someone, and all the veterans who lost a part of themselves. Thank you to everyone who participated in teaching me the real meaning of Memorial Day