For Artie Muller, the 73-year-old organizer of Washington’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally, the annual rumbling, roaring meetup of leather-vested veterans has always been both a boost for the heart and a pain in the neck.
Except he didn’t say “neck,” and, in any case, he’s not going to put up with it anymore. After 31 straight years, Muller announced this week that May’s Rolling Thunder will be the last. He blamed a generational shift in riders, falling revenue and, mostly, years of pent-up annoyance at the Pentagon-driven bureaucratic hassle. (He didn’t say “hassle.”)
“I’m tired,” the former infantry sergeant and Vietnam veteran said Friday, lacing his words with profanities, from the longtime headquarters of Rolling Thunder, a spare room off the basement of his tidy house in Neshanic, N.J. “Every time you . . . turn around, it’s something else they want you to do. Why can’t they just leave us the hell alone?”
The iconic monument-shaking jamboree started in the late 1980s as a Harley howl of support for unaccounted-for POWs and morphed into a general two-wheeled parade for veterans. Each Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of thousands of riders have gathered in Pentagon parking lots, mounted up and ridden four abreast across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to a stage near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For many, it was a time of tearful pilgrimages to the Wall.
But as the beards have grown grayer, the ritual has changed in both tone and economics, said Muller, the nonprofit organization’s executive director. All those permits and porta-potties cost up to $200,000, much of which has traditionally come from the sale of vest pins and patches that commemorate each year’s gathering. At the 2018 ride, the group sold only 50 percent of its inventory.
“It hurts to go home with half of your stuff,” Muller said. “A lot of these millennials that ride with us don’t know what they’re for and they don’t buy [anything].”
Joe Bean, the group’s president, said he began to notice a softening in the size and intensity of the crowd about five years ago. He and Muller have occasionally discussed shutting down the D.C. event in that time but have been reluctant to pull the plug on a tradition that many attendees tell them is a highlight of their year. (Muller, who suffers from debilitating nerve pain that he attributes to Agent Orange exposure, wears bristling metal spikes on his riding jacket to keep appreciative vets from slapping him on the shoulders).
“It’s been coming for a couple of years,” said Bean, who is set to retire in the spring as the chief custodian of a Pennsylvania school district. “I think some of the younger generation just see it as a chance to ride down Constitution Avenue and not get yelled at.”
Bean and Muller say they intend to replace the gigantic D.C. gatherings with smaller Memorial Day rides around the country. Rolling Thunder, which also provides small-scale charitable support to veterans in need, has more than 90 local chapters. Bean said. Following the final gathering on the Potomac in 2019, events are already planned for 2020 in Tennessee, New Jersey and Ohio.
The group finally decided to end the Washington one after what Bean describes as “unreal” arguments with Pentagon police at the most recent Rolling Thunder. He and Muller describe conflicts over traffic and parking and access that have grown year by year. A partnership that started with the first Rolling Thunder in 1987 — when some 3,000 riders rolled in after seeing an ad in Outlaw Biker magazine — has grown more complicated as the gathering grew massive and security demands swelled in the wake of 9/11. Bean said the Pentagon allows less and charges more, up to $50,000 for a morning’s use of its parking lots.
The Defense Department declined to address the group’s specific complaints but committed to playing a role at least one more time. “The Pentagon is prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride as we have for the last 31 years,” spokeswoman Sue Gaugh told The Washington Post on Thursday.
As the Thunder begins to fade, it leaves behind a legacy of more than just a yearly weekend of two-wheeled brotherhood. The group was instrumental in planting the black POW flag in government buildings around the country and the creation of a POW/MIA postage stamp. In the early 1990s, it helped pass the Missing Service Personnel Act, which prohibits the Pentagon from declaring a service member killed in action without substantial evidence. Now, it is pushing to mandate that the POW flag fly over the White House and the Capitol every day.
Muller, who speaks as caustically about politicians as he does every other subject, has met with presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. Donald Trump addressed the rally as a candidate in 2016. The group has counted a number of vocal supporters on Capitol Hill. One of his strongest Senate allies, Muller said, is Elizabeth Warren, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts.
“She’s been very good to us,” he said.
He and Bean hope that the dispersal of Rolling Thunder events across the country will translate into more national influence as the rallies get more attention from local media and elected officials. But they know that next Memorial Day will mark the passing a long and loud tradition in the nation’s capital.
“I feel bad for the veterans and for the hotels and restaurants and everybody else,” Bean said. “That’s who it is going to hurt.”
Muller said he will spend more time building model train layouts with his grandson and working on local chapter rallies. As for saying goodbye to Washington, he said, that is just a real shame.
(But he didn’t say “real.”)