Reflections on Run For The Wall 1989-2013 (Part I)
By Evo Red
Last year I rode on the 25th Anniversary Run For The Wall (RFTW), the annual cross-country motorcycle ride from California to Washington, D.C. At its heart RFTW is a demonstration to draw attention to the POW-MIA issue from all USA wars. To accommodate its growing number of riders The Run will have three separate routes in 2014. I’ve always ridden the Central Route. Throughout that route a wealth of support is received from (listed by frequency) cities, American Legion Posts, VFW Posts, Harley-Davidson dealerships, civic groups, motorcycle groups, various individuals, casinos, church groups, a motorcycle dealership, a Moose Lodge and a gas station. Rather than being a travelogue what follows is my 24-year introspective of taking part in this heartfelt gesture.
Going “All-the-Way” back in 1989 on the First RFTW transformed my riding attitude into a passion. The catalyst wasn’t so much the run’s POW-MIA focus, though to me as a Vietnam Veteran that was sacrosanct. I was struck rather by the camaraderie found within our group of less-than-20 that rode the full route from San Diego to D.C. Needless to say I became attached to Run For The Wall multiple times riding part way and eight times riding the full route including taking over in 1992 from founder James Gregory to co-coordinate the ride with Rod “Bungee” Coffey.
I hadn’t made the full Run in five years. My last time on the 20th Anniversary Run, I rode in the pack for all but one Navajo Nation side trip to Window Rock. Once back home my aging body lingered for over a month with the ill effects of that trip. This time to smooth things I planned to ride a bit off-schedule away from the pack. In retrospect, I was forced into a similar scenario in 1989 fending for myself while playing catch-up from my Harley Softail’s five breakdowns and no chase vehicle.
During the months leading to The Run I’d been flip-flopping on whether to go or not. At the same time in honor of the 25th Anniversary I was steadfast to update the original “RFTW White Patch” as I had done for the 20th Run. The exemplary artwork of that first patch unquestionably exemplified the spirit of the run. Before placing an order I emailed the RFTW Board with my 2013 design, asked if The Board was interested, waited a month (no response) and then went to production. One hundred 25th Anniversary Whites were made, financed by RFTW founder James Gregory, Terry & Laurie Porter and myself. The 25th Whites were a far cry from my first RFTW Patch attempt, an ad hock effort that resulted in twenty “All-the-Way” patches from a vendor at our Front Royal base camp the last day of The ’89 Run.
Out of nostalgia I dug up my original riding vest, a vest from a time long before the dawn of the 2-Piece RFTW Back Patch. Few within the Original Group have converted to the “new” 2-piece set. Perhaps “the new” conflicts with our pride of being part of the “original old” that had never been an FNG (Funny New Guy)? Stashed in the closet, my vest lacked a few significant emblems: Rainelle, Wentzville, II Field Force Vietnam, Black Gourd Society, St. Louis VA Clinic and such. Those patches were added along with a 2013 White; I even acquiesced to sewing on the large “Run For The Wall” Rocker, the top half of the aforementioned RFTW 2-piece. Once my riding doubts had vanished I added a red & black “All-the-Way 2013” bar.
Often times on RFTW, besides the POW-MIA issue, riders have a secondary motive for making the ride. Mine was to take my “MATES” cap, a gift from some Aussie Vietnam Vets, to The Wall. I wore that cap en route whenever possible. In 2008 twenty Australian Veteran bikers arrived in Los Angeles intent on making the cross-country trek to D.C. Their first day in the USA on the way to Bodfish, CA – for a welcome BBQ hosted by my friend Dave Barr at whose house I’d already arrived – one rider crashed into a rock-faced slope along the Kern River…and was paralyzed. The accident turned an occasion for a memorable once-in-a-lifetime ride into an event of life-altering doubt and sorrow. I had given each of the Aussies a 20th RFTW White Patch and in return received various commemorative items including the MATES ball cap. The cap honored all the wars in which our two countries had served together. I planned to take the cap coast-to-coast as a symbol of the downed Aussie Vet having made the Run.
I knew from my participation on the 5th, 10th, 15th and 20th RFTW that the run had grown into what we had envisioned it could become. Along with that growth, however, its atmosphere had changed to one bound by procedural necessity. The run’s earlier biker/brotherhood feeling was long gone, replaced by a consciousness not unlike that of being a pawn within a massive regimental operation. The mission of RFTW remained steadfast; but, the run had evolved. The Central Route’s designated cadre – placarded, arm-banded, cap-coded, pinned and radio-connected – alone numbered nearly 100.
The visual image of “The Pack” is the salient expression of RFTW. The pack is RFTW. That huge motorcycle column – witnessed by all, veterans, family and friends – relays a beyond-doubt message. It’s a “walk-the-walk” demonstration of heartfelt remembrance. In 2013 I rode in Platoon #5 on the Central Route, one of the two 500-rider columns that embarked from Rancho Cucamonga, CA on the 25th Anniversary Run.
The 135-mile ride from my home in Santa Barbara to Rancho Cucamonga was hot enough that at signed-in I wore my vest shirtless. The heat on The Run remained for several days making me wonder if I’d packed too heavy. Two weeks later, on a long day riding north from D.C. to Boston, the wet and cool weather had me wearing damn near everything that I’d brought.
Registration for RFTW was discounted online – for over a decade the Run was free. At staging riders still had to sign-up and be assigned to a platoon. Sign-up took 90 minutes largely due to the inclusion of a “closed for lunch” hour.
The next morning, Day One, the military operation began anew. I stood in a 50-rider queue for 30 minutes waiting to use the head, a line continuously being cut by RFTW cadre. The routine of waiting prompted a reflection to my army time back in the day. The run’s start was a reunion of sorts, my chance to renew friendships with James “Gunny” Gregory, Skipper, Redlite, Snuffy and assorted other long time riders. Pretty much on time, off we went on a warm, good first day to Williams, AZ.
On Day Two, I left the pack at Holbrook, AZ headed for Window Rock in the Navajo Nation. Warriors, including all who had served in the Armed Forces, are revered by The People. For me, bypassing Window Rock was out of the question. Several times I have shared the pack’s experience of genuine welcome within The Nation.
I have an unforgettable memory of one previous run, a run on which we were running two hours late. Our first stop in the Navajo Nation was just off the interstate for a short reception at the Senior Center. At least two dozen Elders were there, seated in the meeting room waiting to welcome us. They had likely been there a couple of hours additionally, arriving early not to miss us. We exchanged mutual thanks, ours for their waiting – theirs for our service. Back on route towards Window Rock we noticed scatterings of people waving at us from just off the roadway. They were intermittently parked or standing on either side of the road throughout our entire path. Once on site our welcome at the memorial involved Code Talkers, Navajo dignitaries, food and pins given to us with the Great Seal of the Navajo Nation. The cold weather of the ride combined with the local wind had caused some of us to shiver as we stood for the festivities. Amid all the commotion I spotted a rider in the crowd standing there wrapped in a Navajo blanket! My chance to lightheartedly rag on him was not missed. The next thing I knew I was wrapped in a quilt! I still have that quilt, treasured and often put to use. The following year I located the quilt giver and gave him an embroidered sweatshirt with my club’s logo. The giving of a blanket is a ceremonial honoring in this case honoring a Veteran. The popularly known Pendleton blanket has been honored by all the nations for years; it is given out to people both Native and non-native as a form of honoring.
At various locations prominent on the grounds were large glass “Donation” jars. Paying something for the food & hospitality we’d received seemed reasonable; but, that was not the case. The money was being collected for us. Not happening! We added to the jars, removed the labels and gave the funds to The People. It was dark when we finally left for Gallup, NM. In spite of the late time, the pack again received its continuous welcome along the way. Waving Navajos were parked off-road at various locations with their vehicles positioned to flood the column in light
A few years later on another RFTW, Gary “Doc” Thompson offered me an opportunity to participate in a Sweat Lodge prayer ceremony in The Nation. Doc, a RFTW old timer and past Vietnam medic, was the person responsible for bringing RFTW to Window Rock On this occasion he was headed into The Nation to a prayer ceremony in order to bless some tobacco-ties that he was taking to D.C. Prior to the Sweat we participated in a nearby Gourd Dance moving rhythmically around the ring to the beat of the ceremonial drum. One of our two dances was in honor of warriors. Experiencing the Sweat Lodge was one of the most heartfelt events of my life. The ceremony is a nondenominational means for saying prayers in the Native American way. Afterwards I was given an eagle feather symbolic of carrying my prayers aloft to the creator. My group-prayers in the Sweat were focused on the 343 FDNY firefighters that had died in the Twin Tower Attack, on September 11, 2001. Within protocol, on September 11, 2002 in the Bronx at station Engine 38 / Ladder 51, I presented the feather to a Native American member of FDNY.
This time in 2013 the Window Rock Memorial parking lot, the crowded site of our past festivities, was empty except for a couple of tourist and another four bikers that had strayed from The Run. The resulting vacant stillness seemed to enhance the beauty of the natural, window-cut rock cliff and the solemnity of the Memorial. Meanwhile the Central Route had bypassed The Navajo Nation for Gallup, NM with a parade through town, a celebration at Red Rock Park and a dinner hosted by the city. That Gallup stop was an obvious highpoint; but, I was locked into my memories from past welcomes. Before leaving I stopped at the Administration Office to give the clerk a 25th Anniversary White Patch. The time being right, I ate an early dinner at the nearby motel restaurant whose buffet is infused with Navajo cuisine, including a personal favorite Fry Bread. From there I headed to the Route 66 Casino Hotel on the edge of Albuquerque which was to be the Central Route’s first fuel stop the next day.
The Central Route’s itinerary from Albuquerque to The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fireincluded a detour for Platoon #5. We were sent to Espanola, NM for a ceremony with city officials and local school children at the town’s Veterans Memorial. That side trip afforded me some face time with road guard Mike “Many Bikes” Sekiya, a friend, fellow W&F MC brother and longtime RFTW rider. Earlier when I had doubts of making the run, I chose Mike to distribute my share of White Patches. He first hooked up with RFTW in 1998, rode All-the-Way in 2002 and has logged ten coast-to-coast trips usually serving as a road guard.
It had been five years since I’d been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park at Angel Fire, NM. Each time I’m there I recall meeting Doc Westphall and marveling at what he had accomplished. His thoughts of love for his son had spread out to touch every Vietnam Vet. I have a treasured photo of Doc, myself and my son Joe. As far as I know Joe is one of only two riders of Vietnamese heritage to have ridden All-the-Way on RFTW. The other rider is my wife Huong – wed in Saigon July 4, 1968 – who made the trek to D.C. on the back of my ’86 Softail, “Evo Red”.
The Angel Fire museum, the chapel and the memorial’s hill top location set a somber mood. The indelible tone of the Vietnam War is instilled by the more recent addition of a paused in flight, combat crew manned, Bell HU-1 Huey helicopter. A few days later a similar vintage Huey “restored to duty” would hover above the pack and escort us along a portion of our route.
In 1989 I met Congressional Medal of Honor winner Gary Wentzel who rode astride his Harley dresser with us, an awesome accomplishment considering his multiple combat injuries. In Raton, NM this trip I met CMH recipient John P. Baca who was accompanying the 2013 Run though not on a bike. John received his medal in 1971 from President Nixon. When I handed John a RFTW 25th White Patch he reciprocated in appreciation with one of his own unique patches, a funding means for his service related endeavors.
One of our most memorable receptions in 1989 occurred in Colby, KS. Immediately as we came off the interstate exit the pack was met by women lining the curbs waving American flags. A ceremonial stage was set up; food was supplied; RFTW campaign buttons were given out; and free oil changes were available. Besides that, the Kansas Highway Patrol had escorted us down the Interstate while a small plane shadowed above us trailing a red RUN FOR THE WALL banner. In remembrance of that reception I pulled into Colby off schedule for the night. My intent was to visit the local VFW Post, drop off a White Patch and thank the Vets for their past welcome. My VFW inquires to the hotel desk clerk drew her listless response that the group was pretty much defunct. She looked up the Post’s phone number, called the Hall and handed me the phone. After multiple rings a hesitant voice answered…not what I had expected. The Hall was being used for a wedding reception and no VFW members were present. Change, abrupt when learned anew, is something inevitable for anyone who has ridden long enough to have stretched time between destinations holding fond memories.
On occasion along the route our fuel was paid for by supporters. I was amazed at the number of times this now happened. In the early years free fuel was rare. On several runs those rare free fill-ups came from a single individual, Boots Reimer from Colorado. Boots – tagged for his tall riding boots – supported the run from his heart rather than his affluence. I remember once seeing him in Limon, CO sitting inconspicuously in a booth at a fast food joint while paying the tab for the bikes being fueled outside. Besides riding, Boots was involved in the motorcycle ministry, did suicide counseling and opened his home to feed those less fortunate at Christmastime.
The next morning I rode ahead to Oakley, KS to join the pack at the day’s first fuel stop. Having arrived 45 minutes early, I rode across the street to a diner for a coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. About half an hour later when I noticed the Fuel & Staging Crews had things pretty much set up, I crossed back to the parking lot to get into my Platoon #5 slot. I rode sans helmet – Kansas has no helmet law – astride my Harley crossing the road and maneuvering through the lot. An infuriated senior road captain screeched, “Put your helmet on!”
“Wear my helmet to go 150 feet in a parking lot? Okay… I understand how it is. I was the Run Coordinator once.”
Change again. I recall when the whole pack pulled over to the side of the interstate at the Nevada/Arizona Stateline to allow riders to exercise their helmet freedom of choice.
From time to time along the route I got together with Manny, a fellow Vietnam Vet from California. I’m a retired firefighter; he’s a retired highway patrol officer. Manny was cadre, the Platoon #4 Leader. I handed him a White Patch. He gave me a couple of his handmade beaded tassel cords; one honored RFTW and the other featuring the Vietnam Service Colors. The RFTW cord quickly replaced a recently broken zipper pull on my aging leather jacket.
So far with the days having been hot, rider’s dread of wet weather was minimal. That changed when we were caught in a downpour outside of Junction City, KS. I got thoroughly soaked…everything in my pockets, in my wallet and all that I was wearing including my thick leather jacket now waterlogged to double its weight. Luckily The Church of The Nazarene in Junction City was our day’s end. The church building was an immense industrial-like structure with long interconnecting hallways linking assembly rooms, offices, a large kitchen and the dining area. My personal welcome there came from a Kansas guy I’d been looking for, a longtime friend, a burley, bushy bearded, extremely likable biker named Frank. For the past 22 years Frank had met RFTW in his home state, notably setting up a special RFTW toll free lane onto the Kansas turnpike. We hugged; he got soaked; I handed him a White Patch. Inside the church-proper during at the pre dinner ceremony Frank strode onto the stage no less than five times to receive RFTW gratitude plaques for various organizations that he represented. As we exited the building each rider was handed a Junction City RFTW 25th Anniversary T-shirt.
As the miles continued to pile up I was keeping a close eye on my Wide Glide’s odometer waiting for it to read 156,000. That number hit just before our fuel stop at the Topeka Service Center. Once there I coerced a rider into taking a picture of me on my Harley with my hands at 2 fingers and 5 fingers. At first guess one might think the “2 & 5” were meant to signify “RFTW 25”. Actually the “2” was for the two bikes that I’d ridden on the Run, the “5” for thefivehundred thousand miles they now totaled: my ’86 Softail (344,000 miles) and my ’03 Wide Glide (156,000 miles).
Oneach Run there seems to be one commemorative t-shirt that stands out; often it’s the one from the artist in Gallup, NM. This year the shirt from VVA Chapter 243 in Concordia, MO caught my eye. The front was emblazed with a huge color graphic of the Vietnam Service Ribbon meshed with a bold, black “RFTW”. That simple but poignant logo was coupled below with a black silhouette of a Huey underscored with “25 years of riding for those who can’t”. Our Concordia welcome included lunch in the park, remembrance bracelets, packs of cookies for the road and various vendor booths.
Paranoia had spread through the pack from our Junction City soaking. At the slightest sign, or possibility of distant clouds rain, suits were donned. In our platoon one assiduous FNG had pretty much morphed his rain gear into a second skin. Motivated by an age old biker maxim and with total seriousness, I held out my hand, “Thanks man!”
He shook my hand; but, his face reflected a tentative question.
“As long as your suit’s on, no way will it rain,” I quipped. We both laughed. It was a joke; but, it did stay dry for the rest of the trip.
Our stop at VFW Post 5327 in Wentzville, MO – the hometown of the 1st Vietnam War Memorial in the USA – was another site of a longstanding welcome. I stayed for the reception ceremony but left prior to our sit down dinner in the Hall. My plan was to ride to St. Louis in order to be there ahead of the pack to snap a photo of RFTW rolling into the Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital. Before leaving town amid a now darkening drizzle, I rode over to pay my respects to “the column with an eagle atop”, the simple First Memorial. While feeling honored by the memorial, its Wentzville Fire Station backdrop dimmed my mood. I was proud when the Wentzville Firefighters had formed a chapter of W&F MC, the international firefighter/Harley-rider club that I founded; but, that chapter was now void. I was surprised to see in the station among the rigs a pink fire engine! The color was likely in support of the fight against breast cancer.
In preparation for my photo-shoot and to avoid any conflicts with the hospital personnel or RFTW cadre I planned to find an alternate entrance into Jefferson Barracks. At my nearby hotel – surprisingly rated best of all 1,500 Hampton Inns – the staff suggested the only alternate approach might be “through the cemetery”. Thinking of the multiple times I’d visited the hospital, “What cemetery?” The Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery ranks second in size only to Arlington National! Later when I quizzed a few Central Route riders, they too were oblivious to the cemetery’s existence. I entered the cemetery grounds and putted down its narrow paved roads winding through the green hills, hills endlessly dotted with white headstones, searching for a back way into the hospital. It took a while but I found a rear gate into the complex. I parked out of the way on some high ground looking out towards the main entrance road. To pass the time I struck up a conversation with a maintenance guy working one of the RFTW road blocks. My mention of the cemetery brought forth his admiration for the unending effort of the cemetery gardeners that weed-whacked around every headstone and got down on their knees to remove and replace each flower adornment. My meticulously planned photo opt was a bust. What I had envisioned was a full shot of the approaching 500-bike pack. What I got was a mere 50-rider sliver. Instead of facing another cadre dust-up by trying to worm my way back into the pack I opted to ride on ahead for the day. That would be my last off schedule detour; from then on I stayed in the pack.
I had brought along a dated T-shirt from an early RFTW stop in Mt. Vernon, IL at “Big Wheeler” the next stop after Jackson Barracks. My plan was to surprise someone with the shirt. As I exited the interstate it became obvious the Big Wheeler Truck Stop had vanished. Instead, the parking lot at Dale’s Harley-Davidson had become the Run’s new Mt. Vernon stop. I rode up, dismounted and began my search for the person who had been at Mt. Vernon the longest supporting the Run. Answer, “Jean, she’s over there.”
I found Jean at a serving table bent over an aluminum tub, hands encased in disposable gloves mixing a huge vat of pulled-pork, prepping to feed the riders. She had been at the Mt. Vernon stop on every run of the full 25. Jean was surprised by the shirt but was wrought with emotion when I handed her a 25th Anniversary White Patch.
She inquired about Smoke Murphy. Smoky was still riding cross-country to The Wall in his 80s. She was sad to hear from me that he had recently died. “He was a very nice man; rode to The Wall each year for his brother”, she sighed.
That evening in the lobby of our Corydon, Indiana hotel I had two additional patches sewn onto my vest: an In-Memory-Of Smoke Murphy – given to me at the run’s start by Skipper – and the previously mentioned John P. Baca patch. The hotel lobby was all but empty with only two of us there in need of sewing. The other guy, ahead of me, was resolutely watching and directing the by-hand emergency repair of his age-split vest. When my turn came the seamstress made quick work of my two patches but had to redo the off-kilter sewn Baca patch. No charge. I tipped her nonetheless with a new $2 bill. The bill drew a surprised look, a comment and a smile. At one time passing out $2 bills was a RFTW custom. The bills created with locals a money trail of the pack’s passing. When I got home of the fifty deuces I’d brought along only one remained.
One RFTW compassionate change for the better is the inclusion of visits to hospitalized vets at places such as Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis and Robley Rex in Louisville, Ky.I’m comfortable riding in a pack. It didn’t seem like any big deal when the Platoon Leader asked me to ride the leg to the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in place of the Assistant Platoon Leader. I’ve probably done 50,000 miles of group-riding most of which was ridden side-by-side. My longest pack experience was setting-up and leading a 9,000-mile tour around the USA. As expected my position was at the leader’s right. Long story short, I did a shitty job. My hand signals were off. I was having trouble peripherally picking up the Platoon Leader’s signals and I didn’t want to preempt his with my own. The worst came when I basically spaced-out. In hind sight, I blame my spacing on being awe struck in the moment reflecting on the dream of our 1989 pack becoming a reality. As we neared the Medical Center the Platoon Leader gave the “ride staggered” signal. He said I didn’t; but, I think I spurred this formation change. No mishaps occurred, surely there was some confusion but no one much noticed. Nevertheless, my riding ego got rightly squashed, squashed enough that I’m pretty much done with leading packs.
Read part 2 of this reflection here.