There's a reason why motorcycles are called "crotch rockets."
They exude power. They exude manhood. They are too loud to ignore. They are the perfect vehicle for making a man (or a woman) feel larger than himself.
They go faster than any car you are likely to see on an American road, and they go places no car can go. A man on a bike can beat you at your own game. He is better than you. He is a force to be reckoned with.
Because of their size, and the way they handle, a bike becomes an extension of an individual in a way no four-wheeled vehicle can. You ride a bike not with your arms but with your body. You fit into place in a way you don't with a car.
In a car, you can move around on your chair, play with the radio, sip your slurpee. On a motorcycle, at ninety miles an hour, you are locked in like Iron Man into his suit. You move, it moves. There is no sipping your slurpee. There is this moment, this union, this experience, and nothing else.
It's like being on patrol. Every step takes you somewhere you haven't been. Or if you had been there, it is different every time. Every sense is alert. You can see the trees, and the sky, and hear the birds. You are one hundred percent there. You have to be. Because a wrong step, or a sudden surprise, can end everything.
It's something you can only recognize if you've actually done it. Words like mine can describe can give you feel for it. But you don't know it unless you've done it. And the people who know it are related to you, because they can understand that moment in a way that others can't. They are your family. They are your unit.
I was thinking last night about Rolling Thunder, whose annual ride to Washington has been a Memorial Day tradition since 1988. And why, in the mind of a certain generation, motorcycles and Vietnam Veterans go together. In fact, I tried to Google it. And while there is a lot out there about the history of the group, and how Ray Manzo and and Artie Muller got it going, there was nothing out there about why the motorcycles strike a chord - except of course for the noise.
The other day I wrote about cowboys and MMA fighters as an expression of manly might. They are very different things.
MMA fighters are all about shock and awe. They go in "BANG," determined to overwhelm their opponent, paralyze him with fear, overcome his will to fight before he even gets started.
A cowboy is all about understatement. The gun is there. You know it's there. You can see it. You mess with him, he'll kill you matter of fact, but he'd rather not have to do that. What makes him strong is merely that you know him, and that you know that he is there.
From 1965 to 1968, the US government conducted an aerial bombardment campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder, a steady, escalating campaign of assault against carefully selected North Vietnamese targets, intended to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam, to destroy North Vietnam's transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses, and to stem the flow of men and material into South Vietnam.
It failed to win the war, but for many veterans, it was the war. It involved the largest use of American military resources and manpower until Iraq, and determined, in many ways, the placement and actions of ground troops as well.
The term resonated with Veterans better than any other. And the image, of a slowly growing noise you can't ignore, resonated too.
Men on motorcycles say: "we are here." And a few thousand men on motorcycles say that with a noise nobody can ignore. In 1988, there were 2500. In 2000, there were 250, 000. In 2008, half a million. And today, the number is closer to double that amount.
Their purpose, of course, is to call attention to the ones who aren't there. The colleagues missing in action, or still in North Vietnam. To say, with the noise of a million motors, "they exist."
They've been pretty good at doing that. Raising awareness. Sponsoring search and recovery trips. Lobbying for legislation to change the way Congress and the military deal with MIAs, and helping veterans of the current conflict deal with the issues surrounding their own return or injuries.
This Memorial Day, see them.
Better yet, write to your representative in Congress, and ask him or her to listen to them.