The asphalt in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. shook for nearly two hours yesterday afternoon as a thick stream of motorcycles roared through town in memory of Vietnam POWs and MIAs.
The riders, mostly middle-aged, tattooed men in jeans and T-shirts with beards, mustaches and bandannas, met at the Pentagon parking lot at noon and rode through the District, winding around the Capitol and past the White House to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
They were here to urge government officials to remember the prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action who they believe are still alive in Southeast Asia. The government officially lists 2,266 Americans as missing in action in the Vietnam War.
"This is a salute to the ones who are still missing and to the ones who never made it back. We're here to make sure our guys aren't forgotten," said Vernon Fayers, 50, of Mechanicsville, Md., an artilleryman in 1965 and 1966.
The thousands of bikers who barreled into town for the Memorial Day weekend were representing every state and coming from as far as Australia for the "Ride to the Wall 1994."
"I'm not going to send a letter that will be filed away somewhere. I came here to ride through in person," said Jim Boyd, 46, who rode eight hours Friday from his home in Auburn Center, Ohio. Mr. Boyd served as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
Yesterday's ride marked the seventh year that thousands of motorcycles have weaved through D.C. streets for "Rolling Thunder," a ride sure to grab the attention of museum-going tourists and any area resident who came across the riders as they scattered through the city to head home.
Gas stations and fast-food parking lots along New York Avenue yesterday were filled with motorcycles and people lined up and waiting to refuel their bikes or their bodies.
Many took vacation time from work to participate in the event, which organizers said drew people from an array of jobs, including police officers, truck drivers, doctors, map makers and computer whizzes.
Girlfriends and wives sat on the back of the motorcycles - most of them Harley-Davidsons - with their arms wrapped around the driver and American flags on the bike whipping in the wind behind them.
Rolling Thunder has become an annual ritual for many. For some, yesterday was their first such ride. No one interviewed said it would be his last.
"I'll be back," said Danny McGinnis, 47, who rode in with Mr. Boyd. Mr. McGinnis brought a veteran friend who he believed needed to visit the memorial to shed years of pent-up pain.
It was a day to come together and leave "attitudes" at home, said bikers of the tensions between motorcycle clubs.
As they were united yesterday in their efforts for POWs and MIAs, they also were brought together by their bikes.
"It's freedom," said Terry Engle, 36, of Cumberland, Md.
"There is a high risk factor in riding, and it's a continuation of that whole feeling generated in war. The risk factor is extremely exhilarating," Mr. Boyd said.
As the day ended and the moon beamed above the memorial, most bikers had left in search of entertain-ment for the evening. But many still stood next to the memorial, weeping.