On Thursday afternoon, Thomas Lawrence III left West Virginia, by himself. The 65-year-old had owned the red Harley-Davidson Softail motorcycle for a mere three weeks, but he’d ridden bikes all his life, and it felt good to watch the highway unspool beneath the Harley’s wheels.
Plus, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be alone for long. As he eased onto Route 50, he spied another rider and pulled in alongside him, their two bikes roaring eastward. At I-79, Thomas and his newfound companion fell in with a group from Ohio.
At every interchange, more motorcycles joined the motorized peloton, until there were nearly a dozen riders, all of them strangers to Thomas. He stopped for the night at a Holiday Inn Express in Winchester, Va., and arrived in Washington the next day. And now here he was on Friday morning, parked at Arlington National Cemetery, preparing to pay his respects.
“I’ve been here since 10, trying not to get into trouble,” Thomas joked.
Two days earlier, he’d seen something on the “CBS Evening News” about Rolling Thunder, the annual Memorial Day weekend gathering in Washington when thousands upon thousands of bikes stream toward the capital like iron filings pulled by a magnet.
It was something he’d always wanted to do. Now seemed as good a time as any. He asked his wife, Irene, what she thought.
“I think you’re crazy,” she said. “But do it.”
His bike parked, Thomas had taken off his helmet — black, adorned with a golden eagle — and pulled a “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap onto his head. A pair of reading glasses dangled from the collar of his black U.S. Army T-shirt.
Were you drafted into the Army, I asked.
“No,” Thomas said, indignant. “That would have been sacrilegious.”
His family was full of military men. His father, still active at 86, was a Seabee in the Navy in World War II. A few years back, they’d toured D.C. together, his father interested in the World War II memorial, and Thomas looking for the names of his friends from the Vietnam War on the Wall.
Thomas served three tours in Vietnam, starting out driving supplies from the docks at Cam Ranh Bay. The Army had sent him to language school in Taiwan so he could be a liaison with Nung fighters, an ethnic group in Vietnam who fought the Viet Cong across the central highlands. That’s when Thomas was exposed to Agent Orange.
First came the diabetes. Then the heart problems. He had a triple bypass in 2010 — arteries sliced from his legs and stitched into his heart — and a stroke in 2012. Forty-five years after the chemicals settled down upon him, the Agent Orange is taking its toll.
Did you know at the time, I asked, that it was bad for you?
“We all knew,” Thomas said. “If it can kill the plants and kill the trees, what’s it gonna do to us?”
Thomas left the Army after seven years and took a job in a New Jersey zinc mine. Then he became a union electrician, doing commercial work in Upstate New York. He and Irene retired to West Virginia a few years back. He’s been sober for 33 years.
He doesn’t think it’s fair that so many of today’s soldiers had to do three, four or five tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I pointed out that he did three tours in Vietnam. And that he volunteered.
“Okay,” Thomas said. Then: “I liked it. I liked the country. I felt important. I was 19, 20. What do you know when you’re that young?”
What he knew was that he was an American kid with a high school education embedded with a company of foreign soldiers and speaking to them in another language. How could anything compare with that?
Or compare with the day he stepped from a Saigon hotel lobby and watched his sergeant crumple at his side, fatally struck by a burst from a Viet Cong gun. The Tet Offensive had begun.
It was cool in the shade of the parking garage, and every time another group of motorcycles rolled in, Thomas stopped talking and let the sound wash over him. The snarl and pop from all those cubic inches seemed to disrupt the very air around us.
Was this, I sheepishly asked, an appropriate way to commemorate our country’s war dead? Was it proper to bathe this hallowed ground — well, this parking lot near this hallowed ground — in the roar of Harleys?
“How many up in that cemetery wish they could be among us on our motorcycles?” Thomas asked. “We know what we enjoyed when we were their age, the age when they died. We liked loud things.”
Every day, the gravestone-studded hills of Arlington hear taps and the sobs of loved ones. Once a year, they echo to louder sounds that say the same thing: Never forget.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.