From every corner of America, they roared into the capital yesterday, tens of thousands of men and women straddling chrome and leather-fringed motorcycles in a deafening pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In a year when nostalgia for World War II dominated movies and book sales, those who gathered on the Mall as part of the 12th annual Rolling Thunder rally demanded that the nation remember the 58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War and the 2,200 soldiers still missing in action.
"We want the politicians to know we haven't forgotten and we don't want them to forget," said Bob Fernando, a 56-year-old veteran from Indiana who rumbled on his Harley Davidson motorcycle for two days to reach Washington. "This keeps it at the forefront."
Riders assembled at the Pentagon in the morning, and at noon, led by an escort of about 25 police officers on motorcycles with sirens screaming, they rolled over the Memorial Bridge, past the U.S. Capitol, along Constitution Avenue before flooding into a softball field at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The noisy parade stretched for miles, spewing clouds of bluish-gray smoke in its wake.
Named after President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Rolling Thunder" campaign during the war, the massive rally attracted more than 250,000 people, organizers said.
Thousands of motorcycles, all seemingly buffed for the occasion, covered the softball field near the memorial and spilled into the side streets and sidewalks. A man standing in one section of the field, near 21st Street and Constitution Avenue NW, could see his face reflected in a hundred gleaming mirrors and fenders around him. A constant rumble was the soundtrack of the day.
There were prayers by the Christian Motorcyclists Association, songs about forsaken GIs by a rock band, and vendors who sold combat pins and T-shirts with obscene messages about flag burners.
"This is the parade we never got," said Dave Flores, 50, one of seven firefighters from Long Beach, Calif. -- all Vietnam veterans -- who rode 3,200 miles across the United States during 10 days to reach the rally. "It's the homecoming I never got."
Flores and his friends rode in a "missing man" formation in honor of prisoners of war, eventually hooking up along the highways with 200 others headed to Rolling Thunder. Along the way, they stopped at veterans hospitals and memorials and shared late-night suppers where the talk hovered around their war experiences. "Everybody's shed a lot of tears," said Joe Cappel, 57, a retired firefighter from Los Angeles.
Words like "brother" and "buddies" wafted through the warm air near the memorial, as strangers became intimates at the mention of a unit or a place in Vietnam. "It's been an emotional roller coaster," said Steve Williams, 52, one of the Long Beach firefighters, who served as a medic in Vietnam. "Last night, at the Wall, I was starting to reflect, and all my brothers were around me, all of a sudden."
On a flatbed trailer hooked to his maroon van at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Gerald McCullar shifted his weight in a cramped bamboo cage. Dressed in a ragged uniform and wearing a flowing white beard, McCullar was a pretend POW.
"It makes people think and gives them something to take home, more than just a flier," said McCullar, 57, of Illinois, who served in the U.S. military in Germany from 1959 to 1962. He spends most weekends driving himself around the country, to give his silent one-man shows at fairs, festivals and veterans events. "I'll do this as long as it takes. Until I die. It's just where my heart is right now."
Although many riders were Vietnam veterans, others were simply of the Vietnam generation. "Everybody on that wall was my generation," said Sam Kanish, 48, who rode his Ultra Classic green Harley from Pittsburgh and paused on Constitution Avenue to take it all in. "There are still people of my generation who are there, and we have to bring them home."
Kanish, who writes a column for Iron Works, a motorcycle magazine, said Rolling Thunder has become the biggest bike rally in the country -- an extravaganza among the "hog" crowd that has grown from about 2,500 people at the first rally to the hundreds of thousands yesterday.
Mary McKee, 52, of Orlando, is a member of the ladies division of Nam Knights, a motorcycle club that raises money for Vietnam veterans. "We just want to support the veterans and do what we can for them," said McKee, who wore a red, white and blue sequined bustier and a matching sequined baseball cap. From her ears dangled beaded American flag earrings; her nails were painted red, white and blue with a glitter topcoat.
Some at the rally were consumed by the political. But Jerry Wilson came to the capital yesterday driven by the personal.
Wilson, 50, rode his Harley from Illinois accompanied by Dawn, a mutt dressed in a black leather "Rolling Thunder" doggie vest. Together, Wilson and Dawn planned to find the engraved name of Wilson's childhood buddy on the memorial.
"And I'm going to prick my finger and leave a drop of blood on his name," Wilson said, pulling out a small pin from his pocket as tears welled in his eyes. "Just want to leave a little of myself with him."
CAPTION: Spectators greet some of the tens of thousands of motorcyclists as they cross the Memorial Bridge, above, on the way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the 12th annual Rolling Thunder rally in memory of Americans killed in the Vietnam War or still listed as missing in action. At right, two of the bikers return the greeting. The engine on one participant's motorcycle, top, is emblazoned with the message behind the rally, a fixture of Memorial Day weekend each year.
CAPTION: (Photo ran on page A01)Memorial Thunder Rolls Into Town
Participants in the 12th annual Rolling Thunder rally cross Memorial Bridge en route to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Tens of thousands of motorcyclists from across the country turned out on the Mall to demand that the nation remember the 58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War and the 2,200 listed as missing in action.