AVTT WALL

By Tim Anderson – Southwest Scooter News

Making the ride to Cripple Creek this year I was uneasy. Perhaps the phrase, “in a foul mood” is more accurate. I was riding alone this year. Even though there were other bikes—lots of bikes, I was riding alone.

I’d made the trip to historic Cripple Creek solo many times before, but I never felt alone ‘til this year. I was fine with it, too.

I was ill at ease. It’s been a rough time. Working too hard, worrying about too much, not comfortable in my own skin, memories and feelings and personal demons pulling at the edges of my brain, and jumpy…very jumpy—the aggressive kind of jumpy. I didn’t even want to be on this road, the normally soothing, gorgeous curves of Colorado Highway 67 leading into Cripple Creek. I just couldn’t shake the dark cloud following me.

Hitting the Victor Cutoff, I started to feel a little better. The small mountain pond there was reflecting the blue of a cloudless sky. Beautiful. I am always taken by that view whenever I pass by.

Then, rounding Tenderfoot Mountain, I could see all the way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sharp and clear through the crisp morning air. It stopped me for a second…though I was still riding. It was as though the high country was slapping me out of a dark funk. I exhaled, and took in the view. Below waited Cripple Creek, streets lined with happy cheering people…all of them waving; welcoming me to town.

 I was struck how I did feel suddenly welcome, and some of the gloom was swept away by the waving hands and flags. I was now a part of the 23rd Annual Salute to American Veterans Rally.

After parking, I wandered a bit. The streets were filling fast. The annual parade had passed, and excitement was building. There were motorcycles--thousands of them, only minutes away from town. This one-time mining camp was ready to explode in a cacophony of patriotism, appreciation, and celebration of freedom unique to this mountain valley. It was a vibe everyone could feel, as if they were waiting for the POW/MIA Recognition Ride, with it’s thousands of bikes, to arrive, giving permission for whatever it is that makes this rally special to officially begin.

Then it happened, bikes thundered down Bennett Avenue and excited, focused chaos broke loose. Thousands of motorcycles of every make and vintage, some flying US flags, others just rumbling through town as part of the celebration sucked up every bit of attention. Everyone watched. Some waved. Little kids screeched with delight. One little girl of about three years and perched on her father’s shoulders, waved ceaselessly for the 45 minutes it took for all the bikes to get into town and parked.

“This has been going on for 28 years now and we still don’t know how or why it happens,” rally organizer Jim Wear said of the explosion of good will that rolled in with the bikes. “It’s not like we had a plan to make this happen. We’re just the caretakers of this event—it has a life and power all its own. And it just keeps happening every year. We never know for sure what’s going to happen, we just try to manage things to keep the integrity of the rally intact. It is amazing, though.”

And at midday on August 15th, 2015, the rally was going full steam ahead.

The roar of bikes ripping up the main drag tapered off, and a healthy crowd gathered at City Park for the POW/MIA remembrance Ceremony. The ceremony has stayed true to its roots, but has evolved along with the rally. It has become not only a solemn event of honor, but a gathering of inspiration, education and spiritual renewal. This year was no different.

After the posting of the colors, and introduction of VIPs, including an always-impressive display from the original Kansas Patriot Guard Riders, everyone was officially welcomed by Cripple Creek mayor Bruce Brown.

Then, the assembled crowd was addressed by the oldest living survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, US Navy Commander Jim Downing, who was one week shy of his 102nd birthday when he spoke, delivered a message of vigilance and perseverance, honor and commitment. Seventy years on, he had not forgotten a single lesson of Pearl Harbor or its aftermath. He drew parallels to current events, and urged us all to do what we can to keep our nation strong…not to be complacent. The lesson was learned once he said, that was enough.

“Remember Pearl Harbor,” he said. “Keep America Strong.”

It’s hard to find a more fitting voice for that message.

There was also the dedication of a plaque to the veterans of the Bataan Death March, which was added to the veterans Memorial Wall in the park.

Just in front of the wall, another memorial was dedicated to Korean War POW, 1SGT (ret.) Lester Stroup. After a harrowing interment, Les Stroup made a career of the Army upon his release. Just as impressively, he became a driving force behind the POW/MIA Ride, and subsequently, the rally. His support never waivered. Les Stroup passed away August 17, 2014, just one day after the conclusion of the only rally he missed in 20 years.

There was a new honor added this year, as the Northern Wind Native Dancers of the Sioux Nation performed traditional dances honoring warriors and their bravery. It was patriotic, culturally on target, well received, and very much admired and appreciated. Some of the dancers learned about dancing hard at altitude, but sucking a little wind didn’t slow them down. They had a mission, too.

The Vets Rally has a rich history of great and inspirational speakers, but this year, when Medal Of Honor recipient Sammy L. Davis took to the podium, a new standard was set. Davis’ exploits under fire by an overwhelming enemy force are the stuff of Hollywood. In fact, in Forest Gump, when Tom Hanks is awarded the CMH by LBJ, it is news footage of Davis receiving the medal with Tom Hanks’ face superimposed. Even the Gump character’s heroic exploits were loosely based on Davis’ actions.

Suffice it to say, Davis was a selfless badass under fire and was key in repelling an attack by 1500 enemy in which only 12 US soldiers survived.

Davis was just as badass in Cripple Creek. He quickly knew what he wanted to tell the audience of vets from WWII through Afghanistan, and all the civilians on hand.

He never once mentioned the action that put the CMH around his neck. Instead, he spoke of learning to play Shenandoah on the harmonica for a sergeant friend of his. When he asked why Shenandoah, the sergeant told him the tune put him at ease, letting him know things were all right. Eventually, that feeling spread throughout the company, and became a vital part of its deployment. They knew if Davis was playing “Shenandoah,” things were quiet, and would be all right. It became a soothing, reassuring tool used to get through a shitty situation. The sergeant didn’t make it home, but his love of the song did. Davis has used that song to put soldiers at ease for years. If Davis is in his blues, that harmonica is with him.

Davis then asked the attentive crowd to indulge him by allowing him to play Shenandoah for them. After the first few bars of the song, I found myself transported to the stinky, muddy-filled ditch Davis had described as his OP, from the look of the faces around me, so were many other soldiers and supporters. By halfway through the song, I felt a weight—that gloom, anger and bad attitude that had come to Cripple Creek with me start to drift away. By the end of the song, I felt my mood transformed. Things were ok, and the problems waiting for me outside the valley could be handled.

That slick SOB of a hero had once again put himself out front to make others feel at peace. Things would be all right.

Then, to top it off, as Monica Harvey sang “Welcome Home,” SFC Davis went out to the crowd to shake the hand of every Vietnam Vet who was willing. The line started small—maybe 20 graying vets. Suddenly there was a line that seemed not to end. Every one saluted Davis and the Medal, introduced themselves, some reciting units, shook hands and often hugged Davis. They all walked away feeling a little lighter.

The Shenandoah strategy worked.

With the ceremony complete, and my spirits buoyed, I made my way through the vendor areas, and to the beer garden, where “Justus League,” and “6035” performed. In between, the Sioux dancers performed again, including a cool as hell rendition of a traditional song/dance that mixed a little electronica in. It was like the Sioux nation went clubbing, and it was awesome.

Some folks made their way to the Traveling Wall, where private moments on display without shame. At dawn--in what was a deeply personal moment—but one that foreshadowed events still to come, SFC Davis, CMH recipient, mud soldier and loyal friend, knelt at the panel bearing his friends’ name played Shenandoah…putting himself, and the rest of us at ease perhaps, or letting his lost battle buddy know that things were OK now. It was time to rest easy. It was one of those moments that few share, and the meanings deeply held and guarded.

Back at the party in the streets, there was a little rowdiness heating up, and much of the crowd was settling in for a good time that would stretch into the evening. Then the sky opened up. We all stood under tents and watched the unintentional but enjoyable wet t-shirt show Mother Nature provided. Later in the evening, Arch Hooks put on a show for the Saturday night street dance.

As I leathered up for a putt home through the rain, I was feeling peaceful. As I rode out of Cripple Creek up onto the soothing curves of highway 67, I found myself feeling cheery, and enjoying the ride more than ever. I was also humming Shenandoah, over and over.

I’d been to Cripple Creek, and everything was all right.

Last Updated on Friday, 11 August 2017 15:36