In May I was privileged to accompany an Honor Flight Maine group to Washington, D.C., my second trip volunteering with the organization. I have written before about the trips to Washington, D.C., organized by the Honor Flight Network. Through Honor Flight, veterans — with priority for those who served in World War II — are provided all-expense-paid trips to see the war memorials and other military monuments and sights in the nation's capital. Many of these monuments, including the National World War II Memorial, are relatively new, and most of the veterans served by Honor Flight are at the point in life where traveling is a bit of a chore. This organization knows how to make the trip easy.
Honor Flight Maine trips begin with World War II and other veterans from all over the state assembling at the Portland Jetport, some having arrived in small planes from places like Rockland and Belfast and Bangor and Rangeley, carried by private pilots and small air taxi services like Penobscot Island Air and Katahdin Air Service. Veterans and "guardians" — each vet has a helper to assist throughout the trip, either a younger relative or a volunteer such as myself — then fly as a large group to Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, arriving in the afternoon. Trip leaders and volunteers got everybody settled in the comfortable hotel in time for an afternoon doing nothing in particular, because many of the guests of honor normally have an afternoon date with their recliner at about this time, or aren't used to a lot of charging around and travel, and the next day will be a long one. Besides, a special evening awaits. There is no program, no structured activity in the evening; there is the spacious and welcoming hotel bar. Let the storytelling begin.
The average age of the World War II vets on this trip was easily 90 years or better. It should be noted that few of them acted anywhere near that old. As Honor Flight founder Earl Morse has more than once observed, "They tend to come back younger than when they left."
Social time is a big part of any Honor Flight trip. Some of these guys haven't talked about their war experiences in most of a lifetime, and nobody pries it out of them. But it doesn't seem to take long for friendships to form and the history to start spilling out. Every once in a while a reunion happens or a missing piece of a day long gone is discovered. Guys who knew people in common or who fought in the same place somehow find each other. Back-stories and quirky trivia and small-world stuff makes it fun; this May, one of the guys in our group told us he had worked for General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, dealing with correspondence, including a substantial number of notes from women who wrote that they wanted to "have MacArthur's baby."
I was hanging around the hotel lounge, half watching the hockey game and chatting with our Maine guys and others from Honor Flight Puget Sound, when in strode a familiar-looking character. I swore I had a photo of this guy from the Honor Flight trip in March 2014. This particular biker sort of fit the joke about the fellow who was "8-foot-6-inches with a picture of an aircraft carrier tattooed on his nose." You might think Ralph — his vest said "Ralph" — fit the description of the stereotypical Hell's Angel: loud, bald and dangerous. He is far from it. He sat down at the table with me and trip leader Terry Waters. It turned out Terry, who was new at organizing these trips, didn't have the contact information for scheduling the motorcycle escort and so it hadn't been planned properly. Ralph explained to Terry how it all worked, and assured us it would all be in order next time. What we didn't know was just how much this stuff mattered to him. Unknown to us that evening, Ralph would scramble and make a lot of phone calls that night to see what he could do, although it was in no way his fault that we didn't get things set up. Terry never even hinted that he should try.
Before he left us for the night, Ralph got telling stories of the many Honor Flight groups he's met, and the more he talked, the more emotional he got.
"That table right over there..." as he pointed across the room, "This guy sat down, all by himself, didn't really know anybody, and a little while later this other guy comes over and there aren't any tables left so he joins the first guy, and it turns out they were both Pearl Harbor survivors. They spent the rest of the evening comparing notes about what was going on in different parts of the harbor."
Ralph modulated his volume, louder and softer, to accentuate his tale, like a trained actor. Before long Terry and I were damned near in tears. Our biker friend was good at this stuff.
Behind Ralph stood Keith the cop and another member of the motorcycle honor guard whose name I did not catch but who I'd heard was a Huey pilot in Vietnam. Huey pilot guy didn't talk much. Keith the cop kept his observations controlled and polite but when the subject came up he clearly didn't have much sympathy for police officers who didn't even try and get along with bikers, or with bikers who refused to think about getting along with cops.
"I happen to be a cop," he said, standing in his black leathers. I always appreciate a good smashing of stereotypes.
These guys are among the "BWI Brownies," BWI being the indicator for the Baltimore airport. They are the motorcycle escort group that rides ahead of many of the chartered tour buses carrying Honor Flight groups from all over the country through the city to the World War II Memorial and, I would learn, it is rather a big deal. A lot of the guys in our group were deeply touched by the motorcycle escort. "Those guys are here for us? Really?" Our veterans were not used to a lot of attention.
Of course, the airport fire trucks spraying the arch of water for the incoming plane to taxi through was for them, and the applause from the hundreds of random travelers in the airport terminal was for them, and the individual flowers from the teenagers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were for them, and the handshakes from the school kids and tourists and active duty military personnel all around Washington, D.C., were for them too, and in every case they were surprised. By the looks of the smiles, they were happily surprised.
Anyway, despite the late hour, Ralph managed to pull together a small motorcycle honor guard to lead our group's bus through the city the next morning. It was a very big deal. The guys from Maine were entirely surprised, and by all accounts really did feel honored.
At the World War II Memorial site, Ralph the biker was generous with hugs, help, words of thanks to veterans, broad smiles and occasional heartfelt lectures. He definitely had a "soap box" and he knew it. He was down on his knees to greet elderly vets in wheelchairs. He snapped pictures for people with their cameras — veterans in front of the name of their state, for example — and with people, and he knows that all sorts of folks are taking pictures of him, up close and from a distance. Ralph is a fixture at the World War II Memorial. He knows this place backwards and forwards, which is no small thing, because it is a large plaza with a lot of historical detail. He answers questions, gives directions and kicks teenagers out of the fountains. He reminds people to get off their bicycles where decorum requires the same, and, rising to his full imaginary 9 feet of height and scariest biker image, admonishes some of the more patently obnoxious tourists to be respectful of this place. He may as well work for the National Park Service. He treats everybody like family, whether that means they get a hug or a stern talking-to. He treats the veterans like each is his grandfather. He seems to genuinely care about them, and this peculiar duty, which I assume is a self-assigned responsibility and a labor of love, rain or shine. Thanks, Ralph; hope to see you good folks again next year.
*For information about Honor Flight Maine, how to get a World War II veteran involved, how to volunteer or to help out financially, visit honorflightmaine.org or honorflight.org. Honor Flight Maine also has a Facebook page. Our May trip was also accompanied by WCSH 6 news reporter Don Carrigan and a cameraman. More images and stories can be found on the WCSH 6 website.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus
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