Last week I went with the American Legion Riders to Onawa, IA to escort The Wall That Heals to South Sioux City, NE. (The Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Memorial.) So, a group of us put on all the leather we could find, got on our motorcycles and off we went through the drizzle down the Interstate. It never got above 50 degrees that day, which is awfully cold when you’re going 70 miles per hour, wet. But we were all dressed properly, and no one complained. Much.
We met the semi-trailer and the rest of the convoy at a rest stop, where we regrouped, got the plan together, then off we went to South Sioux — bikes followed by the semi carrying the wall, followed by more bikes.
I was honored three times that day. Once simply by being with the guys. Once by being one of the few chosen by the Ride Captain to do an interview for the local TV station. And I was honored to be one of seven riders chosen to do the “missing man” formation. (The “missing man” formation is when we ride in a block of eight riders, four rows of two, with one spot left open for the rider who can’t be with us. So, there are seven riders in an eight-man formation. Normally riders will ride in a staggered formation while at highway speeds — the missing man formation is one of the rare times when you’ll see two bikes side-by-side. It’s a bit tricky.)
Once we got to South Sioux, we paused at the outskirts of town to put our flags up (we don’t ride under flag at highway speed simply because the flags will fray in the wind), then we proceeded through town. At the very first turn we made there were people sitting on the corner in their lawn chairs, in the drizzle and cold, waiting to stand up and see the wall come past. At the next intersection was a Legionnaire standing proudly, saluting as we went past.
I truly felt proud to be part of the whole thing. I can’t imagine how the Vietnam Vets in our group felt — and there were a good number of them in the escort. They must have felt some pretty strong emotions.
A few blocks later we saw a line of people along both sides of the street, waving signs. As we got closer, I could see they were school children. Standing quietly, hands over their hearts, some waving hand-drawn signs saying “Thank You” and “U.S.A.,” the children watched the bikes and semis come past.
A few blocks later we went past another school — again, all the children were lined up on both sides of the street.
Six blocks later, more children.
I thought of my buddies, the Vietnam Vets, and wondered how they were feeling. Their generation lost over 58,000 people in Vietnam. My generation was blessed — we lost 148 soldiers in the Gulf War. I consider myself very lucky to NOT know what my father’s generation knows, and what the younger generation is learning today. Both the generation before me and after me suffered casualties in an unpopular war, returning soldiers being shunned by parts of society. But today, a few Vietnam Veterans were riding their motorcycles through town, being saluted by school children.
When we arrived at the park where the Wall was to be placed, we got off our bikes in order to mill aimlessly around the parking lot, stretching our legs. Most everyone was wiping their eyes.
It was quite the experience!
Friday night was a different sort of experience — we went to McKenna’s in Omaha with some friends from Los Angeles for our yearly get-together. I was happy to find out Studebaker John and the Hawks were playing! Good band! It was a good time indeed — good food (though the wings had quite a bit of after-kick), good beer (Fat Tire and Boulevard Wheat on tap), and good friends.
Saturday we got on the bike and went back to South Sioux to actually SEE the wall (all I’d seen on the escort was the truck). Again, it was quite the experience.
Even at half-size, the Wall took up considerable real estate. I’m not sure how long it was, but I imagine the “real” Memorial in Washington, D.C. must be quite impressive. They had several tents and exhibits set up, explaining the war and the memorial itself. If you wanted, they had people there with computers who could look up any name on the wall for you and tell you which panel the name’s on, and what line. With over 58,000 names, there really isn’t any way of finding a name by simply wandering around looking for it…
A few quick facts about the memorial: The Vietnam Memorial was designed by a young lady of Asian descent. The names start with those killed in 1959 in the middle of the monument, and continue to the right in the order of when the individual was killed. When the wall tapers to an end on the right side, the names continue from the left panel and meet up with the beginning, so the last casualty of the war and the first casualty of the war are placed in the middle of the monument, bringing about a sense of unit and closure. Most lines have five names on them, but there are some with six names — they’re still adding names to the monument, people who died of combat-related injuries after the war, and those remains who were listed as prisoners of war who have been identified by DNA.
I always assumed the wall was simply a wall with names inscribed upon it, but it has a distinctive shape — tall in the middle, sloping gently to a point at either end.
Watching people’s reaction to the wall is a lesson in humility and respect. So many people lost so much in the war… It’s hard to imagine.
Sunday found us in Le Mars at the monthly Legion Riders meeting. We’ve been planning a fund raiser for local soldier Joe DeLaschmutt — he went to Iraq with the Army National Guard unit in Le Mars and was sent home with leukemia. He’s had several bone marrow transplants and is waiting to undergo further operations and procedures. His wife and two-year-old son have pretty much been living at the hospital with him, I guess. Insurance is NOT covering the medical bill. So anyway, we’ve decided to put on a Soup and Pie Supper for Joe next Saturday. We’re gonna have an auction afterwards, too, with all proceeds going to Joe’s family. If anyone wants to make a donation, feel free to e-mail me (chris at radloffs dot net) and I’ll make it happen.