Summer Begins, With a Parade and Rolling Thunder

Here in Washington, the Memorial Day weekend is a lot like it is in cities and towns across the country: the end of spring, the beginning of summer, the end of school, the start of vacation. Just to prove it, half the city begins to leave town on Thursday, clogging highways and airports. By Friday, it’s a true exodus.

Those that remain fill the restaurants, do some late spring cleaning and gather in the neighborhoods with family and friends.

But it’s also different in Washington, because of the monuments, the cemetery, the historic places, the presence of the Pentagon and policy makers. Just because it is what it is — not just on Memorial Day but every day. You can breathe in the air of history (and, on occasion, feel the tingling idea of being a target in terrorist times).

Washington is different, especially this year, what with the race for the presidency in both parties, what with the politics and the politicians among us, some of whom left town early with business undone and others who made it a point to be here.

Washington is different on Memorial Day weekend because it seems placid and peaceful, and also because of the parade and the veterans converging and the Rolling Thunder riders, all of it concentrated around the Mall and memorials.

Every year, the vets return, graying into age and history and embracing newcomers with their new wars and new wounds.

The parade is much like a small town parade, only bigger. We have soldiers, beauty queens, dignitaries, twirlers and marchers, local officials in big and vintage cars, high school bands and big bands and the surviving veterans of our many conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, including, this year, a military doctor who tended the wounded at Pearl Harbor, wizened now into old age (100 to be exact), riding in a car and being interviewed by a former Miss America, Kirsten Haglund, all fresh and blond.

The difference is of course that our parade — which highlights with reenactors America’s wars from the Revolution through our continued presence in the Middle East — takes place against a background of official and historic Washington, the raison d’etre for tourists and residents alike, so that Constitution Avenue, itself a leavened hallmark, is lined with the family of man from all over the world.

This kind of parade, best watched in person for the atmosphere of sitting, eating, whistling, cheering, singing humanity, echoes with import because every year you see families of veterans, tee-shirts signaling losses, the blanket of current events falling like dry rain on the past.

Watching it streaming live or on television is a different experience. It is, like many such telecasts (the “Today” show babblers at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for instance), full of chitchat and unwanted and sometimes inappropriate advertising, an event at a remove, the screen getting in the way of the details.

It is true that you get four-star generals talking and members of marching bands big-eyed with energy and celebrity supporters like actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna and celebrity chef Robert Irvine and another Miss America, current title-holder Betty Cantrell, singing, plus acts like Tony Orlando, John Michael Montgomery, Phil Vassar and the New American Freedom Train Show — which is all well and fair to middling.

Watching the various units dressed in the uniforms of history is to remember that, for a young country, we seem to have fought an awful lot of wars. One is appropriately cognizant of those who suffered and fought and died, watching a substitute General Pershing manage a skittish horse, a youthful man in an odd hat trying to be Lincoln, the crinoline dresses of the Civil War period, the veterans of the Gulf War, the grizzled riders here and there.

They were out in full force, as they always are, during the Rolling Thunder ride, the 29th annual motorcycle run, which is dedicated to, among other things, the finding and returning and accounting for members of the U.S. military captured and still missing, mostly from the Vietnam and Korean wars. It is always a loud, passionate and compassionate and moving occasion, the veterans and those who care about them riding by on Harleys and such, sometimes as couples, many of the ’Nam veterans grizzled and tanned and tattooed with unit designations, roaring through town toward the Vietnam Memorial.

This year was a little different, if only for a time, because the sponsors of the ride had invited Donald Trump, now the official Republican nominee for president, to speak. This seemed like a fit, both for man and occasion, since Trump has always almost belligerently presented himself as a supporter of veterans (and then again, perhaps not, since he also insulted Senator John McCain at the start of his campaign, saying McCain was not a hero and that he, Trump, did not admire people who get captured).

Up close, Trump is not exactly the biker type, which he admitted with good humor, saying that he preferred a limo. However, Hillary Clinton, his presumed rival, is not held in affection by much of this crowd.

On a weekend that seemed to require respect and memorialization, Mr. Trump did his usual thing, which was to castigate Clinton and politicize the occasion. While the turnout was more than respectable, it was not, to use a Trump word, “huge,” and he was miffed. He had, amazingly, huge expectations. “I thought this would be like Dr. Martin Luther King, where the people would be lined up from here all the way to the Washington Monument,” he was quoted as saying, a statement that seemed just plain wrong in ways too numerous to explain.

His speech was, in 2016, still only another part of Memorial Day weekend in Washington, a time we remember those who served and sacrificed. Trump may or may not become president, but it won’t be because of anything he said here.


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