By Reed Black
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The Wall – is polished black granite and had to be made 500 feet long to accommodate the more than 58,000 names that are engraved on it.
Every year bikers, including veterans of Vietnam and other wars, ride cross country so they can be at the Wall on Memorial Day weekend. By July 4, most are back home.
Just before Land Line went to press with this July issue, one of two large groups of riders that left California on May 14 passed OOIDA headquarters on Interstate 70 in Grain Valley, MO.
Many of us went out to wave and cheer as the long procession of motorcycles rumbled by.
They rode two abreast in the right lane with their headlights on, as cars and trucks passed them on the left.
The bikers call this particular ride the “Run for The Wall.”
At the Oak Grove Petro truck stop down the road, the bikers pulled in for free gas, courtesy of the American Legion, and a free lunch courtesy of local volunteers. The food, fuel, rest stops and, in many areas, police escorts were all carefully planned ahead of time. The planning included breaking the group of more than 300 bikers into platoons of about 40 riders each.
Navy veteran and assistant platoon leader Ralph Ferguson was among those who set the pace on the road for the eight platoons. He had 38 riders in his platoon.
“They ride side by side on highways; on rural roads, we are staggered,” said Ferguson. “I rode last year. This is my second trip.”
He describes the experience as “awesome.”
“It’s overwhelming when you get there. Motorcycles are coming in from everywhere,” Ferguson said.
While Ferguson was marshaling his platoon down the interstates, veterans Dave Talley and Carl Hartz – both of whom are professional truck drivers – used the CBs on their bikes to communicate with the truckers in the other lane. Talley is from Wisconsin. Hartz is a New England resident.
Talley said this year the Run for The Wall organizers asked him to put a team together to keep the riders moving safely around big trucks. When on the road in such large numbers, the group tries to keep the truckers aware of what the bikers are doing and vice versa. Talley said, for example, the bikers are told that if they pass a truck they need to be able to see the top of the truck’s trailer in their rear-view before pulling back over.
“Most of the truckers respect what we are doing,” said Talley. “I drive a truck for a living, so I can tell these guys how to travel the highway with big trucks.”
Talley doesn’t see the ride from California to DC as fun. To him, it’s serious business, meant to raise awareness about POWs and MIAs.
“We have 1,700 people we want back,” he said. “I’d rather be in my Freightliner drivin’ but we want people in uniform to come home. It’s something you gotta do. It’s not a rally, not a party; it’s a mission.”
All sorts of people make the Run for The Wall, not just vets. Wives, friends and at least one veteran’s elderly mother were among this year’s riders.
That mom is Californian Mary Schreiber. She rode on the back of her son’s bike, decked out in her own black leathers and stars and stripes do-rag. She doesn’t hesitate to tell you how old she is.
“I will be 88 in October,” she said.
At first, Schreiber resisted. “Me, ride a motorcycle, are you kidding? But my son said plenty of women did it. ... It sounded pretty good. He took me to a shop to get my helmet, gloves, jacket and anything I would need.”
Schreiber said one big motivation was that this year her son was given the honor of presenting a wreath from the West Coast at The Wall and she didn’t want to miss that.
The bikers rode in platoons, in almost military fashion. Whether a veteran of Vietnam or some other war, each rider had a reason for making the Run for The Wall.
For Gulf War Air Force veteran Jim Dawe, part of it was what he saw of America along the way. Dawe hails from Illinois. This was his second trip to The Wall.
“I like seeing the good of it. The entire run and seeing the people who come out and support the riders,” he said. “Right now there’s so much gloom and doom, it kinda restores the faith in the good of this country.”
Steve Engelbrecht is a veteran from Huntingdon Beach, CA. His Vietnam tour was spent as part of the 5th Marine Regiment Scout Snipers. He’s been part of the Run for The Wall since 1999 and has found the ride to be healing, a process he’d been seeking for years.
“During the Run for The Wall, I had my first meaningful conversations with other vets,” said Engelbrecht.
The war clearly left its mark on Engelbrecht, who confessed that for a while he couldn’t even watch “Gunsmoke” without tears. Less than six months ago, he said he went to Vietnam and stood in Hue City, in the same place he was wounded during the Tet Offensive of 1968. And while he still gets emotional around other vets, making the ride “has helped.”
The bikers left the Petro the same way they arrived, two by two, rank and file, and keepin’ it tight.
Headlights on, flags waving, a rolling army stretching as far as the eye could see, they headed east toward The Wall, that sacred place. LL
Editor’s note: The Run for The Wall is among a number of organized rides that join up in DC each Memorial Day holiday to be part of the parade organized by the corporate nonprofit Rolling Thunder, a veterans advocacy group. In 2008, it was estimated that tens of thousands were on hand for the 21st annual “Ride for Freedom,” a tribute to soldiers lost and fallen. Thousands more participated along the way.