Memorial Day is a uniquely American Holiday honoring the memory of the men and women who died while serving in our armed forces. It started in 1868, after the Civil War, and has evolved into an important Federal holiday that occurs annually on the last Monday in May. Traditionally, this is the holiday that marks the beginning of the summer vacation season, so, far from being grim and somber, Memorial Day is a happy time. The original meaning tends to get pushed into the background as we celebrate a long weekend with family, because for most Americans in today’s world, Memorial Day is all about backyard barbecues, or road trips, to the lake or the beach or the woods. It’s one of those weekends when all of our highways, especially those leading out of our cities, are jammed with more traffic than they can handle. For those families who have in fact lost a loved one in war, or for those who have been to war themselves and lost comrades, Memorial Day is bittersweet at best, because it is, at its’ core, exactly as it was intended to be, a day to remember, and pay respect to all of the many hundreds of thousands of Americans who have given their lives for this country through the course of our history. Regardless of how we, as individuals, might feel about war, the tragedy and senselessness of it, those who have fallen while in service deserve the humble respect of all of us.

Nowhere is that true meaning of the holiday more apparent than in Washington D.C. Arlington National Cemetery, located in northern Virginia, directly across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital, is the final resting place for more than 400,000 of this country’s veterans, and, as such, it is the ultimate symbol, the ultimate Memorial to the spirit of this holiday. There are always solemn dedications and ceremonies to mark the occasion, but the most visible manifestation of all of the above is anything but solemn. They call it Rolling Thunder, and with good reason: every Memorial Day since 1988, tens of thousands of large, loud motorcycles, most of them Harley Davidsons, most ridden by Veterans of our armed forces, have gathered in the south parking lot of the Pentagon, which is immediately adjacent to Arlington Cemetery. On a signal, they begin firing up those engines, and they start pouring out through the cemetery, across the Memorial Bridge, through the National Mall, past the US Capitol, ending at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Riding two by two, the procession is a constant stream that goes on for hours, and if you’re anywhere nearby, the thunder from those engines will shake you, all the way to your shoes.

The original intent of this parade of motorcycles was to focus attention on the issue of those Americans who were still missing in action at the end of the Vietnam War. There was a widely held, highly controversial belief that at least some of the missing were still being held as prisoners of war by the North Vietnamese, and the organizers of Rolling Thunder wanted to insure that the POW/MIA’s from that conflict were never forgotten. In this, they have succeeded, as the Thunder keeps rolling, every Memorial Day, year after year, through Washington D.C.

Arlington National Cemetery, decorated with flags for Memorial Day

For many, the holiday is quite personal

A sea of motorcycles fills the Pentagon parking lot.

The head of the column crosses the Memorial Bridge from Arlington Cemetery into Washington D.C.

Through the National Mall, past the US Capitol.

There are as many as a million participants and spectators. For most, this is extremely personal.

The procession ends at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where many Vietnam Vets search out the names of comrades who lost their lives in that conflict.

For many of them, this is well beyond personal.

As you celebrate Memorial Day, be it with a road trip or a barbecue, enjoy the time with your families. Enjoy your many blessings, and the freedom we take for granted in this country. And take a moment to reflect, and honor the memory of those who helped to make that freedom a reality.

Rick Quinn