Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rolling Thunder, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Jeff Ell

Two hundred and twenty-three. That’s the number of motorcycles I counted in an unbroken line heading north on I-81 last Friday morning.

A train of north bound bikes coupled together in the annual Memorial Day event held to honor the POW’s and MIA’s of the Vietnam War. The rally is called Rolling Thunder, because the sound of all those motorcycles reminds the veterans of the bombing campaign of that name waged between 1965-1968.

One by one, these bikers find their way along narrow roads and graveled dirt tracks to the interstates that flow toward Washington. They meet up with a handful friends, and together throttle up the on ramp to join in a two-wheeled migration in honor of their comrades.

Some come from places where they push automated garage door buttons and coast their shinny bikes down the drive way. Veterans who furtively leave their cul-de-sacs, trying not to disturb their neighbors slumber.

They wear body armor and full helmets with tinted visors. They protect their hearing and chat with their passenger on a wireless communication system.

Others come from places where they pull tarps off their choppers -- those bikes with elongated front ends and long low saddles; with handle bars so high the drivers have to hold their hands above their heads. These veterans rev their motors in the pre-dawn dim to wake up their neighbors in double wide down the road.

They wear embroidered leather vests, and helmets modeled after the ones worn by an enemy in another generation’s war. They and their tattooed passengers let the heavy metal roar ring their ears while their beer and Bar-B-Q handle bars hang over their blue jeans in unashamed exhibition.

As ever larger numbers of bikers link up, their voices turns from solitary thunder to the guttural rumble produced by hundreds of thousands who still remember things they wish they could forget.

Two Hundred and twenty-three of them roared by me a week ago today. That number rattled around in my skull until it pinged off a trivial storing neuron.

Two-hundred and twenty three, I recalled, is the numerical designation of the bullets used in the M-16 rifle; the infantryman’s weapon during the Vietnam war. I shook my head, and went into the house and googled the number.

Sure enough, in improbable numerical irony I had managed to count off not 224 or 222, but 223. The number given to that small high speed round that was fired millions of times during the decade or so that a generation of young men stumbled around in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Rolling Thunder, that’s what they call it, made in America engine exhaust; I stand and listen to the guttural groan that rises from the floor of our valley, up the Shenandoah and all the way to Washington. Where those gray headed veterans will quietly visit a black wall where 58, 267 silvery names are etched in stone.

Jeff Ell lives in Roanoke. He is the author of Ruth Uncensored: The Story You Thought You Knew.


  1. Great Story and well told! Could hear the thunder all way here in Ireland!

  2. Thanks for this, I had 2 brothers serve in that war, and wrote about them on my blog on Memorial Day. They never discussed their experience till last Fall at my daughter's wedding in my kitchen. A friend's son, at the JAG school, stood at rapt attention. I will share this with them.

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