An Iron Procession of Honor

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

Here came the noise, the gut-shaking roar of Rolling Thunder, motorcycles by the hundreds upon hundreds throttling along Constitution Avenue NW past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday as thousands more bikers lining the street cheered and revved their engines on a cloudless, summery afternoon.

Like the Fourth of July fireworks on the Mall, like the lightings of the National Christmas Tree and Menorah, the deafening growl of Harley-Davidsons on Memorial Day weekend has become a holiday tradition in Washington -- a gathering to honor the nation's veterans and, at the same time, celebrate an attitude of nonconformity.

This year's 21st annual Rolling Thunder rally, like all the others, was a festival of leather, denim and the Stars and Stripes.

"It has a deep meaning for me," said Jerry Irwin, who was an Army paratrooper in the 1950s. He's in his 70s now and came from Wilmington, Del., on his Harley Classic. "I sky-dived for 45 years, and I knew eight members of the Army parachute team who died in Vietnam. Losing men like that -- that's why I'm here. I think that's why all of us are here."

There were a few Hondas, a few Suzukis, but most of those at the rally rode polished Harleys: Sportsters and Softails, Fat Bobs and Low Riders, Electra Glides and Road Kings. Many wore vests and T-shirts bedecked with patriotic pins, their club names emblazoned on the backs: The Freebirds and the Avengers, the Buffalo Soldiers and the Enforcers, the Boozefighters and the Legion Riders.

"You've got over 2,000 guys still missing in Vietnam," said Michael T. Breighner, 60, the national master sergeant-at-arms of Veterans of the Vietnam War. He came from York, Pa., with his wife, Cathy. "What this event does is let the government know that we're not going to give up on the POW/MIA issue until we get as much accountability as possible."

About 12:30 p.m., shortly after arriving at the White House on Marine One from Camp David, President Bush greeted Rolling Thunder's founder and executive director, Artie Muller, on the South Lawn. Muller, in a black beret and leather vest, had rumbled onto the White House grounds on a Harley with several other bikers -- four of them administration officials.

Bush clasped Muller's hand, and the two joined in a back-slapping hug.

Calling the rally "a magnificent sight," Bush told a gathering on the lawn that "it's been a pleasure of my presidency to get to know the leaders of Rolling Thunder."

The gathering included White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, a well-known Harley enthusiast, clad in a black shirt and jeans, and Edward P. Lazear, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, sporting a leather Harley vest and a black bandanna around his head. They were joined by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer. All had arrived on Harleys. "We just choppered in, Artie, and saw your brothers and sisters cranking up their machines and driving through the nation's capital," the president said. "Many of them have got the flag on the back. And I am just so honored to welcome you back."

He added, "Our troops appreciate you, our veterans appreciate you and your president appreciates you." As Bush spoke, the iron procession roared along Constitution, wave upon wave of motorcyclists (and one leather-clad biker on a pea-green moped). Beside the thoroughfare, where Harleys were parked side by side for blocks, the crowd was a sea of bushy goatees and gray ponytails, heavy black boots and wraparound shades, barrel chests and tattooed arms.

Among some of their tamer helmet stickers:

"Yikes! I'm grown up!" "Promote Wildlife. Throw a party."

"Just be glad I'm not your kid."

Larry Lewis, 63, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War who rode in from Durham, N.C., raised his voice over the din.

"Respect," he said, and gestured toward the memorial across the street. "We're here to pay respect to the names on that wall. I was there. I know what it was like. And it means a lot to me, seeing all these people come here to honor that."

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