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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Finally home...

Wow.

A group of us from the Northwest Iowa American Legion Riders trekked down south of Des Moines last Friday. We met at 6:30 a.m. in the designated parking lot on the south side of Sioux City. Some of us from Sioux City didn't have to leave home until 6:15 to make the rendezvous, but we had a few riders from up north that had to ride nearly an hour in the predawn dark to make the 6:30 meet.

As soon as we thought everyone who was gonna be there was actually there, we took off, rumbling off into the sunrise, leather chaps, leather coats, hats, helmets, gloves keeping the dawn chill at bay. It was a beautiful morning! Usually in Iowa in April the average high temperature is about 64 degrees or so, with mornings in the 40's. But yesterday we started off in the warmth of a 60+ degree morning and the promise of a sunny day.

The eleven of us on the ride settled into a familiar pattern, riding in staggered formation down I-29 with our buddies. Cap'n Doodle was in the lead (he IS our group's Road Captain, after all). A naval veteran of the Vietnam, Gulf War and Iraq/Afghanistan wars, Doodle is more than capable of leading our merry band down the road. His brother Larry, a Vietnam vet himself, was next -- the brothers stick close. The rest of us followed in more or less random order, Tim (Army), Tommy (Marine, Panama) and his two boys T3 (Army, Iraq/Afghanistan) and Travis (in high school yet), George (Army, Vietnam), Brian, Ken (the best dressed biker I've ever met, Navy), Seamus (Marine), and myself (all I did was paperwork in the National Guard; I'm honored the others let me tag along). We've ridden together many times.

After a few miles a person finally gets everything adjusted (I was wearing a helmet; the chin strap was loose, flapping in the wind, whapping me in the face in a very annoying fashion) and starts to relax a bit. Thoughts wander. I'm pretty sure on the first 90-mile stretch we all thought about what the day had in store for us...

The MIAP (Missing in America Project) found the remains of seven Iowa soldiers at a funeral home in Knoxville, IA. This isn't unusual, and the MIAP works pretty hard to alleviate the problem. What happens is that an old vet passes away at a VA hospital with no known next of kin, so they simply cremate his remains, put 'em in a can, and hope someone eventually shows up to claim them. A homeless veteran dies with nothing but his old dog tags. A soldier is killed in action, the contact name on his SGLI (Soldier's Group Life Insurance) died while he was overseas, no known contacts... The remains of these soldiers often sit in funeral homes across the nation for decades. The seven soldiers we were going to honor today were going to be interred at the new VA cemetery in Van Meter, Iowa, just outside Des Moines about 20 miles. Pretty heavy stuff to think about at seven in the morning.

Our first stop was at a gas station on the west side of I-29 at the Missouri Valley exit. We often stop there, they have a good truck stop. Eleven bikes poured in to refuel, eleven leather-clad gentlemen with biker vests covered with military insignia bustled in to get a quick cup of coffee, startling the elderly couple who happened to be waiting at the checkout counter. Someone noticed the old gent had an "Army Veteran" baseball hat on and shook his hand. In ten minutes we were back on the Interstate, looking for the exit to head east on 680.

I thought of my old college roommate, Dad Andersen, and his family as we rolled along. I used to come to Missouri Valley to visit them every now and then but they've moved long since to the deserts of New Mexico. I'd joined the Army National Guard the day after I turned 17, and went to Basic Training while I was still in high school. Between high school and college I went through AIT (Advanced Individual Training), getting back to Iowa right in time for Freshman Orientation. It's a bit, well, disorienting to go from high school to college under the best circumstances, but to go from high school to three months of intense soldiering, THEN to the freedom of college -- it about blew my mind. I remember walking into my dorm room, finding it empty, and leaving my duffel bag on a bed to signify to my as-yet-unmet roommate that I was here. A few hours I came back, my shaved head glistening in the sun, wearing my Army t-shirt, to find a long-haired, slightly scared-looking hippie in my room. He scared me, and I scared him, and we've been friends ever since.

Heading east into the sun on a spring morning is good for the soul. Traffic picked up when 680 merged with I-80 east, but Cap'n Doodle managed to keep the group together as we passed slower-moving semis. I kept watching Tommy and Trav in my rear-view mirror. Tommy was a Marine in the Panama invasion. His older boy, T3, joined the same Guard unit I'd been in 20 years ago, and served in Iraq. Travis is still in high school, but knows what soldiers are like. His dad took him out of school so he could ride along with us to see the ceremony. Tommy, T3 and Travis are pretty tight.

How terrible would it be to die alone? To be so very alone that no one knows what to do with your ashes? Especially after serving your country... The seven soldiers in Knoxville (population somewhere around 7,000, but home to one of the state's VA hospitals) were from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines.

We stopped for gas at Adair. We had to keep in mind that Travis' Harley Sportster has a fairly small tank, so our range was limited to about 90 miles, though he says he routinely gets 110 miles on a tank. We would have stopped anyway; as much as we like riding, it's hard to ride too awfully far without stopping to stretch a bit. "I'm a bit worried about us getting there in time," Cap'n Doodle said to me when the engines were off. "We've still got right at 90 miles to go..." The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR), who organized the motorcycle escort for the ceremony, wanted us there by 11:30. Ten leather-clad gentlemen all piled into the gas station, en masse, to use the facilities. The eleventh leather-clad gentleman discreetly ducked around the corner of the building...

Within minutes we were on the road again. East on I-80 to the outskirts of Des Moines, then merge right onto I-35 south towards Indianola. We dodged and weaved, playing truck-tag, trying to stay as a group as much as we could. I don't know about the others, but I was born on a farm outside a town with a population of 250. City driving, even the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, makes me awfully nervous. I'm MUCH more comfortable on a two-lane country blacktop. But we all managed...

I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd learned of the ceremony months ago. I got an e-mail from Bear, the state PGR guy, but it didn't give much more than a date, time, and location. This being a Friday, I assumed not many people would be able to take time off work to attend... But it being near a larger population center, maybe there would be fifty or sixty bikes there. Hard to tell.

We pulled into Indianola and found a gas station for one last refill before going the last thirty miles to Knoxville. We shed our coats and gloves as the day was warming nicely. I smeared some sungoop on my beak, just to be on the safe side. My Austrian Snickerdoode Dagmar had already sungooped my face before I left, with the warning, "You vatch out for de sun! You burn yourself every time you go ride..." One set of tanks full and another set of tanks emptied, we set off on Highway 92 towards Knoxville. Within three miles I found myself rolling up my long sleeves, thus exposing my tender and fishbelly-pale arms to the sun for the first time in five months. Ah, glorious spring!

We came to a four-way stop where Highway 92 and Highway 5 merge. A group of about a dozen bikes pulled in front of us. "Well, at least we're not the only ones to show up," I thought to myself. We rode past a cemetery just outside Knoxville; I could see (or at least I thought I could) the graves for my aunt, uncle and cousin. It struck me for the first time that while I had family in Knoxville for years, the only times I've ever been in that town were for funerals. And here I was again...

Cap'n Doodle led us into the heart of the little town, but we saw no signs of the funeral home or any other bikes until we saw a few bikes stopped at a gas station. We pulled in. I heard Doodle holler over the rumble of the bikes, and a guy point. We went in the direction of the pointing finger, turned a corner, and oh my...

There were about 400 bikes and roughly 600 people gathered on the yard of the funeral home.

A highway patrolman was directing traffic. He waved us into a side lot across the street from the funeral home. We parked our bikes, I grabbed my camera, and off we went...

As we merged with the group at large, I started to worry a bit about keeping our group together. Cap'n Doodle is in charge while we're riding, but I'm actually the president of our chapter, so the overall safety of the group is my concern. I decided, though, that we're all wearing our big-boy pants, we can all buy gas all by ourselves, and we all know the way home, so if worse comes to worst and we get separated, it's not really all that big a deal. About that time I saw three more of our group -- they must have rode down the night before.

"They want you to sign the guest book," a lady told me, handing me a piece of paper. A program. The front had the seals for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The inside had the words for "Taps," and the names of the soldiers.

Airman Bennie L. Hall, U.S. Air Force, Vietnam Veteran
PVT Batestta Lipuma, U.S. Army, WWII Veteran
PVT Michael Alan Pfeifer, U.S. Army, Vietnam Veteran
Seaman Albert Lee Ramey, U.S. Navy, Korean Veteran
Petty Officer Leroy Thomas Stephens, U.S. Navy, Korean Veteran
CPL Ward Dewey Stockstill, U.S. Marine Corps, Korean Veteran
PFC Kenneth D. Gonsalves, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam Veteran

The lady pointed to the front door of the funeral home. There was a line going all the way to the sidewalk. We made our way to the end of the line... I took pictures while I waited, but it was a short wait - the line moved surprisingly fast. In just a few minutes we were inside. "This is a grand old house," said Spiffy Ken. He's the only biker I know that can wear a black leather vest and a tie at the same time and look completely natural. "Look at the old woodwork."

We signed the book, turned around, and were confronted with seven small boxes and seven regulation U.S. flags, folded to perfection. Each box had a name engraved on a small brass plate on the front.

I didn't take a picture. It didn't seem right.

Back outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, we wandered towards the hearse. It was a small carriage, built large enough to hold a casket, small enough to be pulled by a motorcycle. When I go, this would be a good way to take the final ride...

Just a few minutes later a guy got up and hollered a prayer at us. Someone called the group to attention (it was a sight to see a crowd of about 700 bikers snap to attention), called a salute (veterans saluted, others stood at attention; I was proud to see that young Travis knew exactly what to do, thanks to Papa Tommy), and the remains were brought to the hearse. A call went out to mount up, so off we went to the side lot where our bikes were parked.

One of the local TV stations guessed 700 bikes. I guessed around 550 or so. Someone else figgered about 600. Another guy thought there were more... In any case, that many engines sparking to life at the same time creates quite a roar. It's hard to explain, but we kinda eased our bikes forward into two lines. I was the last of our group in the right line of bikes. We sat in the side lot waiting for all the bikes from the "main" lot to pass. Then we sat waiting for all the bikes from the side street to pass. Then we waited while yet more bikes passed. Then Cap'n Doodle saw a break and pulled into the formation... But the bike in front of me got cut off, so me and one other guy from our group were left sitting, waiting for another break in the stream of bikes so we could merge in with them. We finally got our chance and pulled into the "main body" of bikes. I'd estimate we were about two-thirds back in the pack.

We poured down the street onto the main drag, police blocking all the intersections for us. Within just a few minutes we'd left the downtown area of the small town and were passing the grounds of the VA hospital. Groups of people lined the way, some saluting, some standing somberly, some simply watching the spectacle. Schoolchildren lined one side of the road as we left the town, Boy Scouts and Legionnaires on the other side, American flags waving in the breeze.

The group made it's way the 50 or 60 miles to the VA cemetery in Van Meter. As far ahead and behind as I could see was a double line of motorcycles. At every intersection people were gathered, standing solemnly. Most small towns had their fire departments line the trucks up, flags waving off the ladders. The highway patrol and local police cooperated to block intersections for our group.

It was a bit problematic to get two miles' of motorcycles to merge from Interstate to Interstate, and I did see a few close calls -- including one time when a group of bikes in front of me slammed on their brakes unexpectedly whilst I was watching my mirror trying to merge. I hit my brakes and found myself in a minor skid. Thankfully I didn't go down, and didn't hit anyone in front of me...

When we flowed through Van Meter people were lined up on both sides of the streets, flags waving in the breeze. Through town and up the hill to the cemetery... Turns out they weren't expecting so many people. (One guy told me they were expecting maybe half a dozen bikes.) They didn't have parking prepared, so half the bikes filled the parking lot, and the rest of us just lined our bikes up three across in the road and parked.

I hopped off the bike soon as the kick stand was down, got my camera out, grabbed my phone, and off we went down the hill to the site where the ceremony was to be held. We got about fifteen feet any my phone rang -- it was my Vunderful Viennese Vife, Dagmar. "Hunny, I just got a call from our debit card people," she said. "Dey tink someone stole our debit card because there vere two small transactions down by Des Moines..." Well, duh. That's me. She continued, "You need to call a number und talk to a man." As we talked about this, I was walking down the flagline, heading towards the ceremony. I passed several friends from another chapter standing in the avenue of flags -- I wanted to talk to them but didn't have time. Credit card people scare me... But the scene of hundreds of bikers lining both sides of the path with flags was breathtaking.

We found the rest of our group and commenced to standin' around for a while, waiting for something to happen. There were so many people that we couldn't see what, if anything, was happening up front, but we assumed we'd know when something exciting happened. Sure enough, after a few moments a glorious cacophony broke out somewhere northwest of us. I jostled my way up to the front to get a peek...

Many military funerals will have a piper. This is the first time I've seen a whole squad of 'em!

It looked like they had four pipers, four drummers, and a guy calling the shots, all in kilts, leading the procession down the avenue of flags. Behind them were fourteen soldiers, two for each of the seven men we were honoring. One soldier held an American flag, the other a small box containing the ashes. Behind them were bikers with flags. The procession made it's way slowly through the crowd along the avenue of flags towards the building where they were holding the ceremony.

Sadly, that's all I could see. They didn't think there were going to be so many people there, so they didn't have a PA system or anything... So the entire ceremony consisted of an Admiral speaking to a small group of about fifteen people inside the building, with a squad of pipers standing silently outside. Beside them were the soldiers. Behind them were a line of Marines. Surrounding that small group were around nine hundred or or a thousand bikers, most holding American flags.

No one knew what was going on inside the building, but we all stood quietly in the spring sun, facing the building, for about forty-five minutes. I quietly roamed around the outskirts of the group, taking photos. I saw a lot of American Legion Rider patches on the back of the biker vests, along with CMA (Christian Motorcycle Association), AmVets, Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, and about ten other groups. I ducked behind a tour bus and called the credit card people and cleared that problem up, then rejoined my group.



Eventually things seemed to wind down. There must have been a signal up front somewhere, everyone came to attention and saluted, then we all just sort of filtered away...

Our group was supposed to all meet at the entrance of the cemetery so we could start the trip home together, but by the time I'd found my motorcycle again the main part of the group had already called me, "We're able to get out -- we'll meet you at Adair." Okay, that sucks... Me and my buddy were blocked in by other bikes and couldn't get out. We stood around for about half an hour by our bikes waiting for the hundreds of people in front of us to get their bikes out of the way. Eventually we did find our way back out of the cemetery and out to the Interstate. Westward we went, hoping to hook up with the rest of the group at Adair (one of the towns just up the road a piece).

About five miles up the Interstate I saw a lone biker sitting on the side of an off-ramp. I pulled off to see if he was okay -- turns out that of the 700 bikes that were there, this particular guy was one of our group. "Where is everyone?" he hollered at me. "Adair," I hollered back. "Okay, let's go." So the three of us swooped back up onto the Interstate.

As we had been standing at the ceremony I noticed that the wind was picking up. Wind is one of the nasty enemies of motorcyclists. It's downright difficult to ride a bike if there's a crosswind, and this felt like it was getting up into the 35 mph range. We slowed down a bit, and at the next town I pulled off again. "I'm sorry, guys," I hollered as we were stopped at the stop sign, "I gotta get gas." We rolled around the corner to the nearest gas station, and to our surprise, there was yet another of our guys. "Where is everyone?" he asked. I explained that we were suppose to meet in Adair.

I gassed up and glanced at my phone. I'd missed a few calls and had a message. I punched the code for voice mail and heard, "We're all sitting here in Adel waiting for you. Where are you guys?" Adel? They said Adair! Adel is twenty miles back... I called them and told them we were headed for Adair.

We mounted up and made our slow way the remaining twenty miles to Adair and pulled off again. The wind was really battering us, making riding difficult -- especially on Seamus, who had a large flag rolled up on a staff mounted on the back of his bike. "I'm having trouble keeping up," he said as we stopped. "The wind's really pushing me around. You guys just go on ahead."

"No," I said, "We'll stick together. I don't wanna leave anyone behind."

"You stay in front, though," he said. "If this stupid flagpole wiggles it's way loose I don't want it hitting anyone. I'll stay in the back."

"Sounds good," I replied. "If I'm going to fast, just hang back and I'll slow down."

We joined the rest of the group, counted heads, and headed back out to the Interstate. Within two minutes the first half of the group had passed a semi leaving me and Seamus behind. Ah well -- Cap'n Doodle will get them home okay. Seamus was having troubles getting above about 60 mph, so we trundled our way slowly up the Interstate. Eventually the wind shifted around so it was coming directly at us, making riding much easier and we were able to get back up to speed.

About thirty miles east of I-29 we passed a cold front. One of the strange things about riding is that you're very susceptible to temperature -- we both knew exactly where the cold front was! Within just a half mile the temperature dropped from the mid 80's to the low 70's. By the time we got to I-29 and the last stretch of our trip home at 7 p.m. it was colder than it had been at 6:30 that morning.

At last Sioux City's fabled skyline shimmered in the distance, signaling an end to our voyage. Seamus waved a cheery salute to me as I pulled off on my exit ramp and we parted ways. I got home, kissed the dog, patted the wife on the head, and took my coat off just in time to hear my phone ring. It was Cap'n Doodle. "You get home okay?" he asked. I was happy to hear that he got everyone else home without incident, and I was happy he was checking on me. I'd worried about the group being separated the whole way home, but things turned out okay.

After I sat down and started shaking the 500+ mile windblown trip off, I started to realize just what we'd done that day. Being so caught up in events, I hadn't had a chance to think things through.

Seven veterans in Iowa died alone. But well over a thousand people made sure they didn't go to rest unnoticed. That's good.


You can see larger versions of the photos here:
http://tinyurl.com/dn5cf7

I don't know how long these links will be active, but here are a few TV clips of the event:
http://www.kcci.com/video/19289052/index.html
http://tinyurl.com/deu8g2

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5 Comments:

Blogger D A said...

That's a great story and really great pictures. It's sad to think of these poor gentlemen dying "lost", but the image of so many people showing up to put them to rest.... that's just awe-inspiring.

People in Iowa don't disappoint.

12:20 PM  
Blogger soul pumpkin said...

Chris, you and your brothers exhibit the best of what humanity has to offer...loyalty,compassion and love...having never been in the military, instead of saluting i bow deeply from the waist with sincere appreciation...

12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris,
I want to THANK YOU AND YOUR CHAPTER for going the extra mile to do this. It sounded amazing. GOD BLESS YOU ALL!!!!!

7:46 AM  
Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

Seems there many more "unknown soldiers" than we honor at Arlington.

More people need to know about what you guys are doing -- and thank you for it.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Annie Leonard said...

Loved your story, beautiful writing! Here's a link to some footage of the Knoxville part of the event: http://tinyurl.com/p5nqmr.

10:12 AM  

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