He was standing alone looking at the large marble slab. His leather vest and studded boots would have been intimidating in a dark alley twenty years ago. The distant sound of tourists jostling for a view and a faint bugle was echoing off the hills. I saw his posse first. But on Memorial Day Weekend in Washington DC a group of Rolling Thunder riders is passe. They are everywhere.
We had brought a friend from out of town to Arlington National Cemetery and were up near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers walking around when I saw him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him standing there alone and was unfamiliar with the tombstone he was visiting so I approached a little to not interrupt but read from a distance.
And then he snapped to attention and slowly raised his right arm in a picture perfect salute. And I caught the shot. He was unaware I was there but I was uncomfortable capturing his private moment without permission. So as he began to walk away, I approached him and asked if I could take his picture.
As he started to talk, his wife – also in full leathers and clearly of the same era – came forward as if to protect him. And he told me his story. He asked if I knew of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal and the devastating fire in July 1967 in the Gulf of Tonkin. 134 dead in a deck fire with another 160 injured.
He was 19. His first assignment. His regular duty was below decks but he and another first-termer buddy had an emergency duty to man a specific fire hose so when the alarms went off they grabbed their face masks and sprang to their assigned location. When that hose ran out of water, they moved to another. When their 30-minute masks ran out of function, they threw them off and continued. For another 12 hours. With no relief.
In 2015, he was able for the first time to visit the gravesite of those who had been found, He had tried many times and ridden with Rolling Thunder for a decade or more. But had never been able to visit. He told me he thought it was time cause he wasn’t going to be able to keep riding much longer.
Thank you Skinner for honoring me with permission to take your photo.