Sunday, May 29, 2016

REMINISCING: Memorial Day in Washington DC

This week’s column is dedicated to the men and women of our nation’s military who never came home. As we “celebrate” the start of summer this Memorial Day, let’s keep those people and their families in our thoughts.

I skipped my college graduation from Niagara County Community College. Why, you ask? Well, I decided that I wanted to do something different, something that felt more inspirational than a graduation ceremony. That’s not to say that college graduation isn’t inspirational. It’s just that the opportunity that I had seemed that much more meaningful.
Our group at the Wall in 1994.

Each year on Memorial Day weekend, Rolling Thunder takes place in Washington, DC. Also dubbed the “Ride to the Wall,” this event is held to bring forth attention to the plight of POWs and MIAs from all US wars. For the Sunday before Memorial Day, hundreds of thousands of bikers descend on the nation’s capital.

My dad decided that he and a group of his friends were going to attend in 1994. I wanted to go, but being me, I was afraid to ask my dad. So, in the age-old plan of all insecure kids, I went through my mother to get included on the trip. I was able to go and I went each year through 2003. Because of the impending birth of the twins in 2004 (who came a month early, by the way), I was not able to make the trip. I haven’t been back since.

The trip to Maryland was the longest I had ever been on a motorcycle. I’d been around town a little bit, but nothing like the trip we were taking. Growing up, my dad went on several motorcycle trips. I always wondered what they were like, and the DC trip was a full baptism.

We did not take part in the bike parade from the Pentagon to the Wall. However, we did watch most of it. We parked on Constitution Avenue, on the front lawn of the Federal Reserve Building. It became our traditional parking spot each year we went downtown. From there, we were directly across the street from the National Mall and the Wall. We were at the focal point of the events.

My dad at one of the Vietnam memorials on the Mall, 1994
My cousin, Matt (you’ve met him previously in last weekend’s Reminiscing) and I decided that we could explore. While over the ensuing years we would visit many places along the Mall, we stuck pretty close to home during our first visit.

My first visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall still evokes an emotional response in me 22 years later. As you first get to the top of the path where the Wall starts only a few inches out of the ground, the sounds of all the motorcycles in the parade rumble through the air. It is a cacophony of sound. However, as you descend the path toward the center of the memorial, the sounds of the city around you disappear until it is nearly silent.

There is solemnity in silence. Amid hushed prayers and guarded sniffles, the weight of what is before you rests heavy. There are 58,000 names etched into the black, gabbro panels. 58,000 people died in that conflict and their names are in your face. Reading history books or watching old snippets of newscasts do not prepare you for the reality of the number of men and women (there are 8 women memorialized) killed in the service of our country.

Over the years, we made it to most of the other memorials on the Mall. We went to the Washington Monument, but passed on waiting in those interminable lines to go to the top. We went to the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. There was a lot of walking involved, but it was well worth it. We even walked to Arlington Cemetery to the Tomb of the Unknowns for the Changing of the Guard. Several of the Smithsonian buildings made it into our travels. We definitely got around when we were down there.

Our group has grown, this time in Bethesda at one of
our lunch stops.
One time that we went to Washington, we met up with a guy who was in Vietnam with my dad. We took off on our own to meet up with him at his home. I wasn’t sure what to expect, considering my dad never spoke very much about his time in the military. All I can say is that I learned more in those few short hours than I had in all my other times talking to my dad, combined.

At least one time while we were in Washington, we made a side trip to Gettysburg. We took a short tour of Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and some of the battlefield. As a history buff (I wasn’t an historian yet), I gave the guys in our group a bit of history about the Civil War and the battle in the Pennsylvania countryside.

My dad didn’t always want to go into downtown Washington, so sometimes we took side trips to other areas nearby. One of the places we went to was to Antietam National Battlefield. We went early in the morning because the weather was supposed to be rather hot. We were at the Visitor’s Center just as it opened for the day. As part of our touring of the battlefield, we walked along the Sunken Road. At that early part of the day, mist still rolled along the ground. Walking along the road where 5,600 Americans were killed or wounded, that mist curled over the edge of the road and into the roadway It was very surreal. I could almost imagine the soldiers hiding in those ground clouds.

Aside from the camaraderie that came from going on the trip with a bunch of the guys, the most interesting part of my visits to Washington actually was in VIrginia at Arlington Cemetery. We went up to the Tomb of the Unknowns at the Changing of the Guard. The only sounds are the whispers of the people paying their respects and the clicking of the heels of the guards as they walk twenty-one steps. At the tomb rest the remains of service members from World War I, World War II, and Korea. These soldiers honor the sacrifices that were made in the name of our country, each day, through rain, sleet, snow, and hurricanes.

I learned a lot while on those trips to Washington. It was a bonding experience with my dad. I made friends with some of the other guys who went with us on the trips. I also learned a whole new respect for all those men and women who served our country. So, this Memorial Day, remember that it’s not just about getting together with family and friends over some beers and dogs. It’s about remembering those who never came home.

Next Week: A little more on our Washington trips.

Craig Bacon honors all those who have served, continue to serve, or will serve, along with all their families.