- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

On Memorial Day weekend in Washington, parents cheered and their babes waved little American flags at hundreds of bikers. What has happened in three decades to inspire this sea change in attitude toward bikers, a group that once was feared by average Americans?

In an event with the almost-menacing moniker Rolling Thunder, almost half a million motorcyclists rumbled across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, snaked around the Mall and dismounted en masse near the Lincoln Memorial. Most of the bikers were clad in black leather, many sported Visigothian manes and beards and almost all straddled brutish, black Harley-Davidsons or H-D clones.

The bad-boy biker image began decades ago. In Hollister, Calif., on the weekend of July Fourth, 1947, a motorcycle rally became rowdy. Some drunken participants (restless war veterans among them) were arrested, and Life magazine ran a story featuring a staged photograph from Hollister of a belching biker perched on his machine’s footpegs, surrounded by beer bottles. In 1953, Columbia Pictures projected a highly fictionalized and sensationalized version of the event on the silver screen in the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One.”

Until then, American motorcyclists had been tagged as either traffic cops or devotees of a downscale, economical form of transportation. After the Brando film, bikers were marginalized for a quarter of a century. The concurrent rise of vicious West Coast motorcycle gangs lowered public expectations of motorcyclists even more.

Then one biker with a highly developed sense of either irony or dark humor had an epiphany. If one combined large groups of Harley-Davidson motorcycles with community service, he reasoned, one could legitimize biking, even to the point of obtaining the blessing of one’s significant other for weekend sojourns with the guys. Thus was born the concept of Milwaukee Iron-mounted “charity runs.” With the simple act of lashing a teddy bear onto a handlebar, the healing began.

The Rolling Thunder bike run — this year’s was Rolling Thunder XXII — was the brainchild of former Marine Cpl. Ray Manzo of Hoboken, N.J. In the spring of 1987, Cpl. Manzo, visiting Washington, struck up a conversation with fellow vets near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. They chatted about raising public awareness of the POW/MIA cause. Cpl. Manzo advanced the idea of a motorcycle run as a promotional vehicle.

Today, the 22-year-old Rolling Thunder event is among the largest biker gatherings of its kind — its kind, in this case, being military-oriented. Biker vets roll in from all over the country to participate. Included are members of scores of motorcycle-oriented veterans organizations such as Carry the Flame, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association and the American Legion Riders.

The American Legion Riders was founded in 1993, to participate in events that are in tandem with the aims of the American Legion. Among those goals is the betterment of life for military families.

The Legion Riders’ signature event is an annual charity run to raise scholarship money benefiting children of warriors lost since Sept. 11, 2001. The so-called “Legacy Run” coincides with the American Legion’s annual convention, when hundreds of bikers from the Legion’s Indianapolis headquarters converge a few days later at the convention venue.

Last year, the riders journeyed from the cool, green pastures of central Indiana to the searing streets of Phoenix. Legion Riders arrived sun-baked but with half a million dollars of scholarship money in hand. More than $3 million has been raised since the Legacy Run’s inception three years ago. This year, the Legion’s annual convention is in Louisville, Ky., a two-hour ride from Indianapolis.

These bikers will be taking a circuitous, 1,200-mile trip through portions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia - and no one will be frightened.

• Craig Roberts is a former naval aviator and the media relations manager of the American Legion.

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