By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
Shortly after noon yesterday, Paul Stancliff, 65, with his bad heart, gimpy arm and bum right leg, anchored himself and his tall, homemade flagpole at the east end of the Memorial Bridge near the mammoth bronze statues of Valor and Sacrifice.
At the other end of the bridge, the headlights of an army of motorcycles had just come into view, the first of the tattooed, leather-clad nation that descends on Washington in the annual Memorial Day weekend ritual called Rolling Thunder.
And Stancliff, despite the stroke he had last year and the heart attack he had six years before that, was determined to greet them first: a grizzled sentinel in an old Navy ball cap, his American flag and POW-MIA standard whipping from the flagpole in the wind off the river.
For hours yesterday, tens of thousands of bikers poured over the bridge into Washington in the 22nd annual tribute to veterans that has become a festival of remembrance and an eye-popping, ear-shattering cultural event.
They thundered past the Lincoln Memorial, where spectators watched from the steps, headed east on Constitution Avenue, past the Capitol, and then west along Independence Avenue.
It was a spectacle of flags and chrome, denim and bandannas, sweaty handshakes and free Bibles, sunburned arms and cigar smoke, and the thick fragrance of engine exhaust fumes.
Many participants and spectators seemed too young to have been veterans of the Vietnam War, which inspired the first Rolling Thunder rally. The name comes from that of a bombing campaign over North Vietnam in 1965, according to rally organizers.
And some of the veterans expressed dismay over the celebratory nature of the event.
"The problem with this event is there are so many people that come here and don't understand the real meaning of Memorial Day," said a Vietnam veteran who had ridden to the rally from Harrisburg, Pa. He identified himself only as Master Chief. "Ask a child." he said. "Ask a teenager. Ask an adult. And they'll tell you it's one of the holidays [they] got off."
"This is a very sacred thing to us, for a lot of reasons," he said, as he packed up his motorcycle for the ride home. "A very sacred thing."
Others savored the day.
Navy veteran Elton Ensor, 84, of Warfordsburg, Pa., whose arms were tattooed from his service in three wars, sat with his wife, Tonya, 47, smoking a cigar. As the parade roared past on Constitution Avenue, he said, "It's Christmas for me."
Ensor, who said he was a former Navy frogman and SEAL, had a thin moustache and wore a tattered green beret at a jaunty angle. His military-style vest was festooned with buttons and medals, and he sported three earrings.
"I'm so proud to be his wife," Tonya Ensor said. "Because I see how people come up and hug him and shake his hand and tell him how much they appreciate him.
"For me to see how happy that makes him feel makes me feel good," she said.
Back at the bridge, Stancliff, of Mercersburg, Pa., stood unsteadily in the hot sun, clutching his flagpole as the legions of motorcycles passed.
The bikers saluted his flags, gave him thumbs up, flashed him the two-fingered peace sign, honked their horns. A woman tossed him a small bouquet of white daisies that landed near his feet. Stancliff, a Navy veteran, waved and saluted back, and looked pleased.
"I enjoy the fact that everybody else enjoys it," he said. But this was not about him, he said. It was about the veterans and the missing in action of all wars.
A half-hour passed, then 45 minutes. His ponytail grew damp with sweat. He wiped his hands on a towel in the back pocket of his jeans, and he looked even more wobbly. His darned right leg, he said, had been uncooperative since the stroke. His right arm, too.
He stayed at his post, though, waving and saluting. His wife passed on her motorcycle, but he missed her.
Finally, after about an hour, he had to give up. "I'm whipped," he said, as he stepped up on the sidewalk and began disassembling the flag pole.
On the bridge, the rally went on.
The daisies already had been run over by a policeman on a motorcycle.