Had it not been for Mark I think I would have collapsed right there on that little triangle-sized oasis where Constitution Avenue, 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue meet. I had been nursing my last bottle of water for the past half hour; it was hot and had a strange taste to it that I suspected was plastic leaching into it. Mark saved my life by simply being there and serving as both an anchor of normalcy and a failsafe had my stubbornness taken me too far. I refused to tell him I had stopped sweating, or that I was growing more and more confused, or that the ground under me had suddenly turned into a trampoline. I refused to tell him out of sheer obstinate pigheadedness. Had I not told him how I had endured the desert at White Sands, New Mexico? Had I not heard of his bravery in Kuwait, how he had voluntarily offered his life to preserve freedom and crush tyranny? Had our forefathers not probably stood in this very spot, twenty and thirty years our senior, on a day much like today, and watched the birth of a nation without the benefit of bottled water? My God, they carried primitive animal-skin pouches with them that leaked and made the water taste like goat testicles! Who was I to complain? Besides, imagine the trouble my collapsing would cause. While EMTs hooked me up to an IV a million bikers would be roaring past, thinking some weak-kneed Muslim had probably been deservedly shot. I would have come this whole way just to fail at the most crucial moment. Hell no! Heat stroke be damned! I would ride this crazy train all the way to the bottom before I gave up one moment of anticipation. After all, did I not want to do this gonzo-style? I hadn’t had to ingest any illegal substances to achieve this state of insanity. I wished I had worn longjohns and wool. Still, Mark’s cool demeanor and calm disposition was the Mecca of lucidity I would circumnavigate.
It was half past noon and still no army of rolling thunder. I feverishly used my borrows tablet to film as much as I could, not realizing until much later that the sound recording capability of this device bordered on non-existent. The numbers of bikers riding together didn’t increase – they came in packs as small as two and really no larger than a dozen – but their frequency did. They rolled in from all directions, their deep-throated machines overriding the mundane sounds of traffic. This wasn’t a festive event, not at all. The riders all wore faces of serious determination, as if headed into battle. The occasional woman passenger held flags up as stoically as Lady Liberty held her torch. Had I been more cognizant, I would have realized that the bikers now outnumbered the other vehicles in traffic. The army was among us, just not all in regimented ranks.
We heard sirens coming from the south on 3rd street, heard the unmistakable heavy growl of American-made motorcycle engines, and felt the ground tremble beneath our feet. Well, I had been feeling the ground shake under my feet for some time, partially from weakness and partially because the 3rd Street tunnel was just a few yards away to the east. Mark and I moved toward the sound and prepared to film the incoming horde. We spoke to each other in clipped bursts of expectancy. This had to be them.
A Homeland Security van – perhaps even the same one I had seen in Fort Washington – sped around the corner from 3rd Street westbound to Constitution Avenue, followed by a couple of polished motorcycle cops riding side by side, and then came the bikers three wide and stretching beyond my line of sight. Touring bikes, choppers, trikes – every conceivable shape and size of motorcycle – followed the law in loose columns, revving their throttles as if straining to leap out of line. I did not count them, wasn’t really aware of anything else except keeping the tablet focused on them and not falling down. Up ahead a traffic light must have turned red because the battalion stopped momentarily, long enough for Mark to hustle out into the street into the midst of them for a photo. I thought about doing the same but decided that if I came out from under the protection of the shade it would be curtains for me.
Then they began to move again, and the columns thinned down to two, and then became a single line that eventually morphed into a staccato of lone bikes. Mark estimated the count to be up to one hundred bikes, a mere fraction of the monstrous number we had anticipated. What had happened? I remember one biker saying he thought the police were checking everyone’s licenses and searching them for anything illegal. If that were the case it would take a Brigade of cops all day and night to go through two million bikes. Perhaps the bikers had been stopped and turned away. After all, they did not have a permit and could have been denied access to the National Mall as a single entity. Having driven a taxicab in that area decades ago, I knew there was no way anything short of a well organized army could effectively block all avenues to the Mall. However, if the bikers had somehow been broken up into small packs, it would not be surprising to have them coming from all directions as they were, like hornets that been stirred up. The streets of Washington DC were hopelessly confusing, also, so I imagined there would be riders literally everywhere, especially if they did not know their way around. Had the bikers been allowed to travel as one into the Capital, they would have literally brought it to a standstill.
After the frequency of bikers returned to the sporadic lone wolf or two, I turned back to finish the rest of my water. I had laid my Jack bag (named after the bag Jack Baur carried with him on the TV thriller 24) on a large, square heating grill, and in my delirium I thought Mark had a bag as well, so when I saw only one bag I blurted out “Someone stole my stuff!” I took another few steps toward it and realized the bag was mine, and imagined Mark looking at me as if I were senile. We stood there for awhile watching the occasional motorcycle roar by and speculated. I secretly cheered and wept when Mark suggested we give up. We had yet to learn from the news and eyewitness accounts the actual reason why the event had not happened as planned. All I knew at the time was a mixture of disappointment, confusion and sadness, along with feverish anticipation of fresh, ice cold water and air conditioning. We trudged back toward Mark’s parking deck and my Metro station.
To Be Continued…