The reason for Memorial Day is to remember the brave men and women who laid down their lives for our country — not barbecues, not appliance and furniture sales, not sporting events.
This year, a group of motorcyclists is heading for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as part of an ad hoc event called the Remember Our Fallen Ride, organized by Barry Bateman of Colorado Springs.
Because of the pandemic, the traditional Run For The Wall from Ontario, CA, to Washington, D.C. was canceled both last year and this year.
I hasten to note that although the Remember Our Fallen Ride pretty much follows the same routes, it is entirely unrelated to Run For The Wall.
That ride and other similar events had their genesis in an effort to compensate Vietnam veterans for the despicable way they were treated when they returned from the unpopular war in Southeast Asia and also to make sure that the 58,148 who fell in battle are not forgotten.
Some participants ride the whole way across the country, but others were welcome to join in and ride just a segment.
That’s what I did, riding from Denver to Eagle Nest, N.M., on Friday (May 21) to join more than 70 bikers arriving from California and points in between to gather at the Vietnam Memorial at Angel Fire, N.M.
There, after a brief prayer and memorial service was held, we headed back to Eagle Nest for a fajita dinner hosted by the Laguna Vista Lodge’s Saloon. I met a lot of fellow riders and learned some of the lore of previous memorial motorcycle rides. Among those making the ride was Eamon Tansey of Loveland, an Australian veteran of Vietnam whom I know from Run For The Wall meetings in Colorado.
It’s worth noting that road discipline is absolutely necessary on these rides, with participants usually riding two abreast and very close to the motorcycles in front of them. Otherwise, the entourage would stretch hundreds of yards. As it is, this contingent was divided into three “platoons” — the first two for regular motorcycles and the third for three-wheelers.
As a newbie, I was assigned in the 2nd Platoon. At first that style of riding was a bit scary, but you soon get used to it.
Along the way, we rode in parades in Eagle Nest and Raton before heading to Pueblo, where we broke for a hamburger lunch hosted by American Legion Post 2 followed by a spin through town. Kids and adults waved to us along the way; ditto during the parade through Fountain.
We encountered some really high winds on the way to Limon – so strong that my tank bag, fastened by four magnets, came loose (twice!) forcing me to pull to the side of the road. By the time the tank bag was stashed away in my luggage, the entourage had sped by and I never did catch up with them. So I missed the parade through Limon.
What I didn’t miss was the horrendous storm that hit after checking in to the Holiday Inn Express.
We were on our own for dinner, but many riders headed for Oscar’s Bar & Grille just the other side of Highway 24. Everybody’s cellphone buzzed with a tornado warning, but there was no “safe” shelter, so we fatalistically sat it out. Soon, the rain came in huge sheets that blocked the view from the windows. Then came a hail storm!
But for me, the most memorable part of the ride was meeting Jed Gilman, a Gilpin County resident who has a very personal reason for riding to Washington: His brother, Army Pfc. Frederick E. Gilman, is listed on Panel 12W, Line 6, of the Wall. He was one of 11 siblings in a farm family from Warrensburg, Ill. Frederick was 20 years old when he was killed in action on March 16, 1970.
Sadly, Frederick was too typical of the fallen in Vietnam: 64.7% of the Army troops and 82.8% of the Marines killed were between the ages of 17 and 21. That war foreclosed their futures – denying them the joys of marriage and children, civilian careers, home ownership, and being respected participants of their communities.
Jed gave me a black rubber wristband with Frederick’s name, date of death, and the location of his name on the Wall. I’ll keep it on my wrist until it wears out but will not forget this young man I never met.
And remembering the fallen is the whole purpose of memorial motorcycle rides.
Peter G. Chronis is a retired Denver newspaper writer.