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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Last Refuge, Part One

A few months ago I read an article in the Free Press about a handful of protesters dispatched to Michigan by the quite deranged Reverend Fred Phelps. He is the leader of some mutant strain of Christianity that has Christ himself threatening to come back just to file an injunction banning their further use of his name and seeking unpaid back royalties stemming from use of his likeness and trademarked tag lines.

I won't waste time ridiculing Phelps, the person or the premise, because it presents no challenge. What is left to be said about a chronic failure who attempted to shoot himself with a 12 gauge shotgun and missed? That Kurt Cobain was a better marksman? That he should be hanged for tainting the image of the cowboy hat?

In any event, the mission of said protesters was to get as close to military funerals as possible, not to protest the war, but to wave Day-Glo signs reading "God Hates Fags," "Thank God For Dead Soldiers," "America is Doomed," and other charming leaps of logic. AS SEEN ON TV.

Enter the Patriot Guard Riders, a loosely-knit conglomeration of existing biker clubs and, generally speaking, extremely pissed off veterans with Harleys. Their mission--to provide funeral escort and form a formidable human barrier between the protesters and the grieving family.

I had to check it out. It appealed to my Forrest Gump instincts. The instinct to be in the arena, intentionally or by happenstance. The instinct to hear and understand and humor all sides. And the instinct to thump the living crap out of anyone who crosses the boundaries of basic human decency.

I rode in the formation honoring Army Spc Andrew K. Waits of Waterford on April 22d. Another casualty of a HUMVEE strike. That these vehicles need to be adequately reinforced goes without saying. Sadly, I think there is currently more American brainpower directed at the problem of reinforcing Kotex pads.

A word about the sheer drama of 300+ motorcycles, most of which fall into the earthshaker category, firing up simultaneously and deploying in waves. It's a solemn adrenaline rush. It's an exercise in total 360 degree situational awareness. There's no playbook, no manual, no guru, no method, no teacher. You find your slot, roll into it, establish a rhythm, and in the name of all that is holy, you make no sudden moves. Somehow I knew that marching for hours in the San Antonio sun would prove useful someday.

We arrived at the church and parked our bikes along both sides of Airport Road. I remember women who were there to welcome us literally falling apart, overcome by the enormity of what they'd conjured up. Tears everywhere. Really, really contagious tears. A sea of American flags. And lucklily, no protesters to siphon off the magic.

Most were simply there to line the street for the eventual funeral procession; a handful were selected to be in it. One of the more imposing PGR leads took command of the traffic situation, allowing mourners unimpeded access into the church parking lot. This was no small task. I lost count of the number of GuzzaloExpeditioTrucksters that couldn't be bothered with the delay and tried blasting right on through. Consider my irony meter pegged.

Thankfully, there were considerably more passers-by who put two and two together, leaned out and blew kisses, honked, waved, cried, and in a few cases, slowed to an absolute crawl while holding a rock solid salute, traffic be damned.

Pealing bells signified the start of the procession. I must have seen every level of government and law enforcement represented. A squadron of Oakland County Sheriff's Dept Harleys. Various cars containing Army personnel. Rumor had it Andrew's commanding officer was among them, which struck me as a class move.

And finally, the hearse. The plan was to have it get to a certain point on the route and stop so that those lining the street could, on command, pay respects. I was wholly unprepared for it stopping directly in front of me. And I don't mean the front parking light. I mean the rear window. Time stood still. Sound and peripheral vision got sucked into the ether. Nothing but the low metallic hum of a Cadillac engine at idle. Somewhere off to the right, as if I'm listening from the bottom of a swimming pool, I hear "PRESENT....ARMS."

My arm reflexively flips to the precise angle, as if it's been 15 minutes since my last salute and not 15 years. I am thinking of John-John on that cold November day in 1963. I am thinking of the motorcycle rides that Andrew Waits will never go on. I am thinking of kids like him who are driven to do the right thing and don't need or expect a textbook, universal acceptance, or gratitude.

I am thinking of a mother's soul in shards.

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