A Good Day to Cry!
The Mission Statement for Run for the Wall states that “To promote healing among ALL veterans and their families and friends, to call for an accounting of all Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action (POW/MIA), to honor the memory of those Killed in Action (KIA) from all wars, and to support our military personnel all over the world.” The healing that we speak of is an emotion, and on the Run, there are really only two emotions. We are either laughing or we are crying. Most days we do both, and today was no exception.
We started our day, as usual, with our morning Riders meeting. Gary “Chief” Burd started us off with a prayer of thanks for safety, good weather, and entering into “God’s True Country.” (He was referring to his own home state of North Carolina, but we know that Heaven is actually Texas!) We had announcements from each of our Leadership Teams, and then Denise “High Maintenance” stepped up to the microphone. We braced ourselves, because this would be the reading of another Fallen Heroes biography. We were wrong.
Instead, Denise read us a letter that was sent from a commander on a ship cruising the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. In the letter, the Commander described as best as he could the details of the loss of one of his pilots. He told how the pilot researched and executed his mission perfectly, but at some point during the mission, his aircraft was hit. He flew the aircraft out to open water as the other pilots from the mission watched his plane catch fire and begin to fall apart. As the aircraft began to fall from the sky, our pilot ordered his Navigator to eject, saving the Airman’s life. For an unknown reason, our Pilot was not able to eject himself, and the other pilots of the flight had to watch helplessly as the aircraft nose-dived into the water, disintegrating on impact. The Commander had written this letter to the Wife of the downed Pilot, and you could tell through his words how grief-stricken he was but that he could not imagine the anguish that this young Wife must be feeling. Nor could he understand how she would tell her young son, who had yet to be born.
By now, the tears of every Rider could be seen falling to the ground. But Denise wasn’t finished reading yet. She then went on to describe how this young Son grew to be a Man, and through whose efforts, the National Gold Star Family Act was established. Again, more tears. This time sorrow was mixed with a little joy, as we learned how the Son had turned a negative experience not a positive one.
And then the tears began to roll again, as it was revealed that the young Son, now a grown Man, was standing with us and rides as one of our Ambassadors. “Pitch”, we are so proud of you for what you have done, for what you have shared, and for how you inspire all those around you. I am personally proud to call you my Friend!
After the Riders Meeting, all I could do was walk up to “Pitch”, shake his hand, give him a hug, and pat him on the shoulder. No words passed between us, but I could see in his eye that he understood the pain that WE feel for his loss, and that we will do whatever we can to support him and his Family.
And then another Friend of mine had to leave the Midway Route and head back home. Shannon Spake rode with us for a few days and quickly realized just how strong a bond we on the Midway Route share with each other. Before Shannon left us, she made arrangements for her Passenger to Continue The Mission. Jet is a little stuffed bear dressed in an Airman’s Uniform. Jet rode with me for several days, and now has been passed to another Rider who will in turn pass him to another, and another, until he makes his way back home. Jet is the surrogate representative for Lt. Commander Dennis Pike, Shannon’s Father, MIA 1972. It was hard for her to leave, and it was hard for us to see her go.
But as you know by now, our Mission must continue, and so we headed to our first stop of the day, Wilson Elementary School, in Crawford, Tennessee. This is a rather small, rural school. Again, I am not overly fond of children so I thought “Great! A whole school full of them!” I am glad it was such a small school (186 children in total) because I couldn’t have dealt with too many more.
They were incredible! They were laughing and cheering: their excited exuberance was infectious! How could I have been cynical with all this energy around? The answer is: I couldn’t! I actually enjoyed the visit! The kids almost YELLED the Pledge of Allegiance, they sang the National Anthem in every key imaginable! They were absolutely adorable!
One of the “performances” that we were given was a “roll call” of our Armed Services. As the anthem for each branch of the military was played, a young “soldier” would march across the gym floor carrying a flag twice his own size. Then came an “Airman”, followed by the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard, each with another huge flag. And at the end, here came “Uncle Sam” dressed in red, white, and blue and wearing a hat so big that it covered his eyes and he had to keep pushing it up off his nose! He practically ran around the entire gymnasium!
The Midway Route Riders were screaming with as much enthusiasm as the kids! This was just about the best, happiest thing we have seen on our entire journey so far! It was just simply an amazingly good time!
This school has been “adopted” by the Midway Route. We provided them with some school supplies (sorely needed) and a check (even more sorely needed). The Principal was overwhelmed with gratitude to the point that we could almost see her crying. But she regained her composure and insisted that we all stay for some refreshments. (Y’all, we ARE in the South. We feed people every time we get a chance!)
After the program, a bunch of the kids were BEGGING to come out and see the bikes! Being a good Principal, she granted the kids their wish. I ended up taking class photos of each grade in front of our bikes! I really had a good time, and I KNOW our Riders did, too. I can’t wait to come back next year for another visit!
By this time, it was only about 09:00. Folk’s, that was an emotional rollercoaster way to start our day.
Oh Hey! I forgot something ELSE that happened this morning. While on the way to Wilson Elementary, I rode with the Ambassador Team. I got to stop at on of the highway overpasses and visit with the people standing underneath a giant American Flag! In fact, I stayed with them until the entire pack of Riders had passed by us. It was such an uplifting event to share with these great American Patriots!
We were given ANOTHER incredible Police Escort AGAIN today! In fact, we had escorts almost all day! And we were extremely grateful for them going into Knoxville, TN. We were escorted directly to the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial. We have a tradition here (remember how I said that we are BIG on traditions!) and our FNGs as well as seasoned Riders did not disappoint. Immediately upon dismounting our bikes, we made our way to the fountains, and promptly walked right through them!
I don’t know exactly who started this tradition, or why, but I “heard” it was RFTW Founder James “Gunny” Gregory. I think he may have just been hot and wanted to cool down. (Others say he simply needed a shower.) However it started, the Midway Route just goes with it. Our Road Guards are generally first into the water, but everyone is welcome to join them. And this year, so many did! It is fun to watch! No, I didn’t join in. Someone had to stay dry to take the pictures. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)
It was another fun moment.
But then we walked to the actual memorial site. This is a series of grey granite slabs with the name of a military conflict at carved at the top and a list of all the veterans from the County that participated in that conflict. What makes this memorial so powerfully emotional is that it sits at the very spot where an old train terminal stood. It was from this very ground that these boys boarded a train, leaving their homeland, to go off to war. Many of them never came home. It is a sobering reminder of how world events can affect even the most remote corners of our country.
It was another dip on that roller coaster ride!
After the lunch donated by the local American Legion Post, we wound our way through the beautiful mountains of eastern Tennessee, enjoying the great weather and fantastic winding roads. Of course, we stopped for fuel and ice-cream, which just made our moods so much lighter.
And it was at this time that I got the call to participate in the dignified transfer ceremony for the American Flag that we are carrying across the country. I know that this may sound a little silly to some of you, but it is quite an honor to carry this flag. For 100 miles, I was responsible for the safety and integrity of this symbol, this representation of our Nation. It is humbling to be a part of this, and also a great burden. We do not touch this flag. We wear white gloves during the transfer. As the flag is removed from its protective case, it is held in front of the bearer, who renders a salute. In my case, as a Civilian, I put my hand across my heart, held it for a respectable time, and then slowly lowered my hand. The flag was placed gently into my possession, and then saluted again. Do NOT think that the salute was for me. It was for our flag and all it represents! To see this solemn ceremony is one thing, to participate in it is quite another experience. Thank You, “Needy”, for allowing me this great honor.
By this time, I am an emotional zombie. I don’t know if I am happy, sad, joyous, depressed, or whatever. I am on emotional auto-pilot.
But our Mission must continue, so we mount our bikes and ride.
This is one of the regions that I really enjoy visiting. The roads are perfect for motorcycles. Clean, smooth, winding, and beautiful.
And there are TUNNELS! Two hundred big V-Twin engines going through a tunnel is an awesome sight … and sound! I had set myself up to take some photos from a really good vantage point just outside the tunnels exit. I could see the look of surprise in the smiles of each Rider as they passed by, knowing that I would get a pretty cool photo for them to remember this day. (I got a fun video, too!)
Again, our Law Enforcement Escort was phenomenal! We made it safely, and with minimal traffic, to our days final destination: Harley-Davidson of Asheville. Here we had great food and conversations. (Mostly talking about how fun the roads had been today!) There were also some very pretty “Big Rigs” to view, and one fancy “wrapped” motorcycle. I can’t explain them, you will just need to see the pictures. We were Happy Happy Happy!
And then “Gunny” Gregory walked up to me. Don’t worry, I was still Happy! I got to see his lovely Wife Patti again, and also got to meet his charming brother Eric. “Gunny” is an amazingly nice, generous, and thoughtful Man. He is the Founder of Run For The Wall, and we are all grateful to him for giving us this opportunity. But instead of simply accepting OUR gratitude, he gives it right back to us, letting us know how grateful he is to US for carrying on his Mission. I have been fortunate to get to know Gunny a little bit over the past few years. He has bestowed upon me the highest honor that I could receive: He likes my SITREPS and has asked me to keep writing them. When Gunny says something like this, there is a lot of pressure involved! I told him that I would continue and do my best.
So here I am, late at night, writing down the stories of our day and reliving all of the emotions that we experienced today. There are tears on my keyboard as I type, and then I occasionally laugh out loud as I look at the pictures of those kids. My roommate probably won’t get much sleep tonight because of all this noise I am making. But he wouldn’t’ have it any other way, and neither would I, because he rode that same roller coaster with me today.
And that is why we are here: To provide AND receive the healing that is in our Mission Statement. We are here to feel all of these emotions.
Jim “Hoofer” McCrain
Midway Route Photographer and SITREP Author
If you would like to see some of the photos that I have taken during the Run so far, please visit: https://jimmccrain.smugmug.com/Run-For-The-Wall/2023-Midway-Route-Facebook-Gallery/. I will be adding more photos to this gallery each day. After the Run is completed, I will be editing thousands more photos and posting them to individual day galleries on the same location.
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