This past Sunday, while riding in Rolling Thunder XXII, a group of us pulled to the side of Constitution Avenue to stop and shake hands with two vets in wheelchairs.
While I waited for my turn in line, a Vietnamese woman about my age came out of the crowd, handed me a flower, kissed me on the cheek and said "thank you" in both English and Vietnamese before disappearing back into the throng.
Her simple gesture touched all of us in that line.
The lump in my throat stayed with me through the rest of the ride and the tears streamed down my face for most of the ride back up Interstate 66 for the return to our hotel.
I returned to Rolling Thunder this year after an 11-year absence. It seemed much longer. When I wrote about that ride in 1998, I never expected to take more than a decade to return. But problems with my knees, hips and ankles kept me off bikes for longer than I wanted and I did not return to riding until last summer.
I wasn’t sure what I would find when 14 of us from the Roanoke Valley chapter of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) left the Cracker Barrel in Troutville, Virginia, on Saturday morning for the five-hour ride to Washington. In 1998, they expected about 200,000 bikes. This year, more than a half million would show up.
By the time we rolled into Manassas to check into our hotel, the National Capital Region was teeming with motorcycles: Not just Harleys but Indians, Victory models, Honda Goldwings, BMWs and a lot of sport bikes.
While Vietnam-era vets trended towards Harleys,many of the vets of Iraq and Afghanistan rode in on Hondas, Suzukis, Yamahas and Kawasakis along with a few Bimotas and Ducatis.
Rolling Thunder is a big tent. The ride founded on a demand for accountability for missing in action and prisoners of war from Vietnam now includes many vets who weren’t born when that long war finally ended.
Like Vietnam four decades ago, America today is divided over an unpopular war. Unlike Vietnam, we did not take sides in an existing civil war. In Iraq, we invaded a country that posed no immediate threat to us and created a civil war that will remain long after we leave, assuming that we eventually will.
And we still face a lingering war in Afghanistan where new President Barack Obama increases the American commitment and faces charges that the Afghan conflict will become his Vietnam.
Which makes me wonder: When a gray-haired rider takes part in Rolling Thunder 62 some 40 years from now, will an Iraqi or Afghan woman come out of the crowd, hand him a flower, kiss him on the cheek and say "thank you?"