By Bob and Rita Preston
Editor’s note: In an effort to share with others what it means to and why it is important to participate in special events honoring veterans, Bob and Rita Preston authored this piece about their participation in the motorcycle convoy that made its way to the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall Exhibit on display in Cochranton several years ago. The couple are longtime participants in the local POW/MIA Ride for Freedom, which is this Saturday starting at 3 p.m. at the Fairway 12, Route 618, Conneaut Lake. The article was first published in the October 2003 edition of Cochranton Presbyterian Church's newsletter, The Good News.
For three weeks I waffled over the decision of riding alone on the freedom ride or to take Rita with me. You have to understand that for 17 years I have visited the silent black marble giant that lay as if sleeping in the shadow of the Washington Monument, as if waiting to be awakened by another passing veteran. As a tour bus operator, I have told countless school children and adults about the memorial, which path to follow to observe the silent, hallowed wall. But I have never shared my private visits to the Wall with anyone except God and the souls of those who earned the dubious honor of having their names inscribed deeply into that black marble. Each time I had visited that silent giant, it spoke volumes to me, reaching deep into the almost forgotten memories buried away by the passing of time. Memories about the injustice of war, the loss of innocence, and the loss of comrades in arms. Did I want to open up that never before seen part of me?
Rita was as nervous about going on the ride as I was about taking her. I could tell that she wanted to share this experience but was reluctant. I asked her to go.
The early morning sun was beautiful as we prepared to get underway, and I tried to hide the elephant-sized butterflies stampeding through my stomach. We were riding toward Cochranton to meet my brother and the elephants were slowing down their stampede. I remember my mind racing with questions that I had no answers for and I prayed for a good day and a safe trip. We met up with seven other bikers at a house on the Franklin Pike. After a round of introductions and some friendly chatter, I felt the feeling of brotherhood that only a combat veteran has experienced start to seep in, and I began to relax.
We rode through Cochranton, south on 173 to 285 to Conneaut Lake. On the ridge west of Route 19 the sun danced and glistened on the windshield and the view across the valley was breathtaking. God had given us a beautiful day.
We arrived in Conneaut Lake and I thought of my friends who were riding from Pittsburgh to join us, and I hoped they would make the trip safely. There were about 50 bikes in the parking lot so we took our place in the line of Iron Horses. We were greeted by a friendly group that directed us to registration and a badly needed restroom. The Vietnam Veterans had tables of merchandise to sell in support of their effort to bring home POWs and to support the Moving Memorial.
We were parked in the second row of bikes from the street and had a great view of the rest of the riders as they arrived to join this adventure — bikes of all sizes and colors. The most outstanding commonality was the display of the American flag. The red, white and blue of Old Glory was also matched by the display of the somber black and white of the POW/MIA flag. My heart ached as I remembered and I hid my sadness behind dark glasses, hoping no one would notice.
2:55 p.m. and there were my friends! We’ll meet up at the Memorial in Cochranton.
3 p.m. and the parking lot came to life as thousands of bikes roared to life. Instantly we were all alive with the excitement of the ride! Where did that elephant come from? He’s back. I have never ridden in a group this big. I hope I can do this safely, please God? The ride up Gable Hill was great — nothing but headlights as far behind me as I can see, both lanes are full!
We rode up Park Avenue to North Street and turned right. Then onto North Main and around the Diamond backwards (the Court House side) past the war memorial. God bless the honor guard, they were saluting all of the colors as they passed in review. That was very cool.
On 322 just south of Kebert’s I might have had my first flash back to Vietnam. The thunder of the Harley Davidsons around me reminded me of the thump of helicopter blades against the wind.
Suddenly we were stopping. A bike was down and I was standing over the rider. Call 911 ... no, you can’t get up ... you’ll be OK, just lay still. I see my brother and someone else lift the bike off the rider’s legs ... it does not look like there are any serious injuries. The ambulance is on the way and he has friends with him.
Someone barked the order to move out and we were on the way again toward the Vietnam Memorial. As sick as it may sound, I couldn’t help but observe that the tragedies of a war so long ago had just earned two more casualties. The ride to Cochranton was very somber for me as I passed countless people out along the highway to support us by waving flags and blowing horns as we passed. It’s sad that all of this support was not there when we returned home.
Wow! We’re being parked at the Legion. I thought we were going to the fairgrounds, and there are my friends. It’s so good to have them here. Tony is not a veteran but he and his lovely wife never miss an opportunity to support vets. We talk quietly and walk to the Wall as do hundreds of others and once again we all become overwhelmed by the air of grief, loss, hope and respect that emanates from the hundreds of grey-haired warriors that still remember as they are humbled in the presence of God by memories three and a half decades old.
Off to the church booth for a sandwich and a drink ... nothing like food and friends ... a fond farewell and their BMW rides off toward I-79. My emotions have had a real workout today — from the joy of seeing this great support system gather in Conneaut Lake in support our veterans to the deep sadness of the loss of American men and women on foreign soil for a war that accomplished little of nothing. I hope everyone will remember.
Thoughts at the start point:
This is so cool — really glad we can do this ... together.
OK, we’re signed in and we accepted the white ribbons to wear — each one bears the name of a soldier still listed as Missing in Action. That’s a responsibility — I hope that it doesn't blow off. Wonder if anyone will realize we’re all wearing them and what they mean?
Wow, there's a lot more guys here than ladies. Are they all veterans? Well, little Timmy isn’t, so at least there’s two of us who aren’t — we’re here to support the vets.
Wonder if Bob’s friends will get here in time. They’re coming such a long way. Hope we all make them feel welcome.
Wow, these folks are having a good afternoon, sharing stories, checking out the bikes, remembering those who aren’t here. I see some faces that look kind of distant. Wonder what they’re thinking?
Bob’s friends, now mine too, made it with just minutes to spare ... yikes! Hope they have a good time. They’re going to be way at the back ... hope we can find them in Cochranton!
During the ride:
This is so awesome.
Look at that — taillights as far ahead as we can see practically — can just spot the chief’s roof lights once in awhile — and we’re near the front! Headlights behind us further than we can see. Wow! We are really a part of this.
These guys sure are good drivers to keep any kind of line-up order — this is amazing. I wonder if the last ones have pulled out yet.
Look at those people along the side of the road! They’re waving at this entourage — some are actually yelling — and the signs: “We Love You!” “THANKS!” “We will not forget!” Oh, and oncoming traffic and cars parked along the way — they’re honking at us. Oh my!
Coming off the open road into Meadville:
Oh, we have to snug up a bit here, interesting, we’re meeting traffic here on Park Avenue. Wonder what it will be like when we get to the Diamond.
And then at the Diamond:
Oh my goodness ... it seems quieter here. No traffic. Wonder what we should actually do when we go past the memorials. Some of the guys up ahead are honking their horns. Hmmm. Oh my ... there is an honor guard standing there at attention, in salute. Oh my, I don’t belong here, I’m not a veteran. That’s for them, for the flag, for those who served. I’m so proud of Bob, of my brother, of Bob’s brothers, of my dad. Can I possibly hold these tears in? This soldier’s name I wear, he didn’t come home. He didn't get the hug I got to give my brother when he came home. I was just 5 when my brother came home. This man’s family never got to hold him. What must that be like? How on earth do they carry that every single day? To not know, to not have closure every single day. And to look at someone like me, who lives so much more at peace than I realized until now, knowing my loved ones came home.
Oh, we’re already past and heading south out of town now. South Main is completely closed. The road belongs to the Freedom Riders. Do people know why these folks get together and ride? Why they come out and make this procession? Do they understand the depth of feeling down deep in a soldier’s heart for those he left behind? Gosh I hope so.
This isn’t just a cool thing to do, this is an important thing to do ... this is way more than awesome. This is remembering. This is telling the world that those who did not come home have a voice. A rolling, mighty thunderous voice that will not quiet until the last one is counted.
And little Timmy, too young to really understand war. I’m thankful of that. He’s getting to ride with Grandpa, one of our honored vets, and he looks back and winks at Uncle Bob and myself. This is family. This is good.
Oh dear ... we’re stopping, way too quickly. An accident. Oh dear. We’re pretty close to it. I’ll stay with Timmy while Bob and Del do what they were trained so well to do so many years ago — look after their fallen. There are so many right there and they all know just what to do. You can see the soldier within right there. OK, we’re moving out ... quickly — we have to keep rolling and clear the area for the medics to move in. It’s amazing to watch.
I think the ride is somehow quieter now. I can't explain it ... things happen so quickly. Those riders were doing something for the greater good and now they are sidelined. Gosh, I hope they’re OK. Thankfully there were helmets. Well, the medical units are speeding past us. I am so proud of our emergency personnel in this area. They do an awesome job as protectors, and rescuers — when was the last time I told one of them “thank you”?
And here we are at our little town. Look at all the people along the streets! What a nice welcome to all these dedicated folks we’re with today. Oh my, there's a volunteer fire policeman in salute. Where has my brain been all these years? What took me so long to catch on to what’s been right in front of my face? I am so proud of my community members coming out like this — can I possibly bite my lip hard enough to hold the tears back? All those volunteer personnel from Conneaut Lake to Cochranton who stood at side streets and held back traffic to let this procession through, the miles of volunteers standing watch for this cause.
This is truly awesome. I surely don’t deserve to be among these, but I am so honored to have shared this ride. Can I just remember to thank these guys and gals for their service?
We’ve found our friends and they are joining us to walk over to the wall. Their enthusiasm and candor is genuine. They attend many rallies in support of those who serve and want to come join us next year. Wow! What an impression our community has made. We found food at our church’s booth — look at all the unique individuals sharing food, brought together with a common purpose, nourished by a church family. This is where it’s at. Look who's pulling in! Bob and Verna! They made it too! How cool!! Four of us from our church family!
Will I ever go to sleep the same again?
Shall we leave town? Go straight home back to our ordinary lives? Shall we ride a bit further? Deciding it has been a full day, we head home, quiet in our thoughts. As we take off our white ribbons, I think we both look at those names and wonder what their families feel this day, in some other state. They don’t know we rode in honor of their loved ones. I hope these men had someone here who did love them, that they are missed, that their gift of life and service to this country does not go in vain. I pray they are found, that their families have closure in knowledge.
Would it be too much to ask our church family to add the families of these men to our church’s regular prayer list? We’ll talk to Bob and Verna tomorrow and ask them what they think.
We’ve spoken with Bob and Verna. We’re going to give our ribbons to the church and ask that they become part of our prayer family. This is so cool! I am not the only one trying to hold back tears. How could a war so long ago bring so many to tears so many years later? Can any of us do enough to keep their memories alive?
The decision has been made to donate some of our abundance of sausage sandwiches to the volunteers at the Legion. Bob and I head down to try to get a count so we know how many our cooks will need to prepare. As we walk back across the stones by the railroad tracks we find something that brings more tears ... a white ribbon slightly trampled in the mud ... no doubt lost, surely not thrown down. As we know we cannot leave this soldier behind, we pick up the muddy ribbon and quietly agree we will add this soldier to the group we will ask our church family to include in prayers. We cannot let one be forgotten. Not one.
Authors’ note: One more ribbon was spotted along 322 and was added to the group of ribbons and memories the following Sunday when we brought them forth to be dedicated to our congregation’s prayers.