An estimate of 350,000 people participate in Rolling Thunder annually. Photo by Marty Justis

Final day of how we roll

Sunday, May 29.

Early wake-up today. We're rolling at 0630: east on Arlington Blvd then south on US 110. As we near the Pentagon, rider groups of varying size are all around. Right now we're the largest band of riders on the road - it feels good.

We bear left at signs marked "Pentagon." Our Riders are looking smart, port and starboard, fore and aft. The Pentagon parking lot comes into view and it's clear that I've missed my estimate. There is a mere 5,000 or so motorcycles, not the 10,000 I expected, already on the lot. But it's only just after 0700 and the lot is filling up quickly.

My bike is the 45th in one row of 90 motorcycles; row 30-something. There are another 50-plus rows on down the lot and still a good amount of the lot remains open.

Everyone is friendly and we talk freely with one another. A simple smile and a hello is all that's necessary to start a conversation between people who we've never met but have a great deal in common. Motorcycles, of course, being a common denominator.

Three riders pull up and park in the row beside mine. A man on a 1200-cc Honda now next to me smiles and nods a hello as he swings his leg back from the saddle. He is obviously of Asian descent. I ask, "where you from?" He answers, "Richmond, VA . . . But I am Vietnamese...I was born there." I introduce myself and as he reaches to shake my hand, in a most sincere voice he says, "Thank you." I know exactly what he means, and I'm quick to note that "I wasn't 'in country'." That seems not to matter to him. He is still appreciative, and we continue to talk.

He tells me stories from his childhood, of living life in the communist regime. He notes that he came to America in the 1980s. He was, he says, "one of the boat-people." He talks of restricted living within a one-and-a-half-kilometer square area of his small town in the south of Vietnam, that no one dared step beyond after dark. He tells of neighbors executed by Vietnamese officials. It's clear by the emotion in his voice; it was a terrible life for a child of seven or so years at the time. He's been in the U.S. for nearly 30 years now. It's clear, too, his appreciation for our country and his admiration for those of our forces who served - and died - in Vietnam.

The Pentagon lot is filling up - at least the lot we're on. Other lots around the Pentagon are filling as well. It's 1000 hours.

Like the people who drive them, bikes here are as varied as their riders. They are of every known make and some much lesser known, like the Ridley motorcycle, a couple rows over. Google them and you'll learn that the Ridley is "America's Automatic (transmission) Motorcycle."

Interestingly, even with this great mix of makes, models and sizes, almost all of the motorcycles have one thing in common - the American flag. Nearly every bike displays one. They run the gamut in size, from 12 by 18 inches to 3 by 5 feet and proudly displayed from 6-foot staffs specially designed for use on motorcycles. Flag decals on windshields, flag patches on vests, flag pins on shirts and hats. It's definitely an all-American-flag day.

Moving around the parking area I'm amazed at the number of people I recognize from previous years, including a few retired Legion headquarters employees: former Washington office Exec Director John Sommer and PNC Bob Spanogle. Retirement has been good to them both, despite their plaint at being "on a fixed income." Bob's grandson, Tristan, is riding the back seat on grandpa's bike. Bob says he's a pretty sharp navigator. Tristan says he'd rather drive.

Sitting and waiting for the event to get under way allowed time to visit with Nick Scott and his wife Shana from St. Mary's, Ohio. Nick's an OEF/OIF Air Force veteran and a member of American Legion Post 178 near their town.

Like many others, Nick was invited, or maybe "challenged," by friends to try it. Rolling Thunder 2009 was his first one - the first long ride for the newlywed couple. Reflecting on the event, Nick offers that he hopes Rolling Thunder continues. "It needs to," he says, "so that we don't ever forget." Thinking back on his previous forays to Rolling Thunder, he has been struck by the flags, the crowds along the way, and the interest of the local people - not riders - in this "demonstration" known as Rolling Thunder. He says it's astounding to see so many who are so dedicated to the same cause. It is. They are.

It's 1100. The tempo is picking up. Lines once long at concession stands are thinning and many riders are putting the finishing touches on their machines. There's a lot of chrome glistening this morning.It's 1155 hours. Someone stands in the center of this huge parking lot and begins a trumpet solo. It's the Star Spangled Banner. Within seconds, the lot is quiet, thousands and thousands of people have turned their attentions to the sound of the music. Everyone is at attention and saluting. Everyone is paying tribute to the flag, to the nation, and to the men and women who helped make this day possible . . . but are not here with us to share the moment.

Then, from off in the distance, there's a whine of jet engines. In formation, four fighter jets pass low overhead and Rolling Thunder XXIV is under way.

The first motorcycles pull out at 12 noon sharp. They leave the lot, two lines together. Nearly 200 bikes at a time wind their way off the lot, up a ramp and head toward the Arlington Bridge. Our row is moving at 1240, across the Arlington Bridge, left turn at the Lincoln Memorial, on our way to Constitution Avenue. There, at the intersection, in dress blue uniform is a United States Marine. He's been holding a salute for every rider that passed him since the first. He will stay until the last motorcycle goes by.

Riders return the salute and guide their bikes east along Constitution Avenue, nearly to the U.S. Capitol. Thousands and thousands of people line the streets with waves and cheers. Cameras are everywhere. Children motion to riders with a pretend twist of the throttle and the riders answer with the real thing. High fives are exchanged by some of the riders with those in the crowds. Hand-held signs offer "Thanks to America's Veterans."

Another right-hand turn and we are headed west. The "demonstration" is nearly half over for the part our group has played in it. We move past the Air and Space Museum and other government buildings and into a park area where many riders are congregating in preparation for speeches, testimony on the plight of MIAs and POWs, and entertainment for those who will make the most of today's happenings.

Our group won't be part of that this year. It's time to head west on our trip back home. Pretty soon we are moving as a group once again along US Route 66. It's just after 1:00 p.m., but it will be several hours before the Pentagon parking lots are empty once again. For us, however, Rolling Thunder 2011 is done. It will be filed with the rides of the past, each of which has some special times, some special people and some very special memories.

In this journal over the last few days, I've tried to convey a little bit of what Legion Riders are about, a bit about the motorcycling "family" in general, as well as the meaning and the importance of the event known as Rolling Thunder. There is so much more to each of those things that just can't be conveyed in writing. You really have to experience it for yourself.

If you're a Legion Rider - and there were many here this year - give consideration to bringing your Chapter to next year's event here in the nation's capital. It's free. There is no registration; no paperwork. You just show up. It's that easy.

And if you decide to come, ride safe!

Click here to read day 1Click here to read day 2Click here to day 3