Bad ass bikers witness a uniformed veteran with a peace flag

Today I attended the 15th annual Rally for the Troops, which drew around 1,000 motorcyclists from northeast Ohio. Since the temperature was predicted to reach 80 degrees, I was able to wear my Class A dress greens U.S. Army uniform and carry my peace flag, as I did at last year’s event, also held at Veterans Memorial Plaza in downtown Cleveland.

Before the ceremonies started and when only a few motorcycles were present, a middle-aged couple walking along St. Clair Avenue stopped to ask me what I was there for. I mentioned the impending rally and that with my presence I was trying to get across the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace.

I said, “Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We are doing the same insane thing in the Middle East that we did in Vietnam and the results have been no different.”

The couple agreed with my message and the woman smiled as she walked away, thanking me for my service.

Also before the event I met young newlyweds from Warren who had stayed overnight at the nearby Drury Hotel, the former administration building for the Cleveland public school system. I explained the same rationale to the couple and the woman said they were in Cleveland for their honeymoon.

I said, “You came to Cleveland for your honeymoon!?” She smiled and said a longer honeymoon elsewhere was in the works.

I mentioned to them that I found out last week the U.S.has 70,000 nuclear weapons. The woman said defense jobs are “highly coveted.” I said, “It always comes down to money. Why couldn’t we invest in solar energy or Habitat for Humanity?” They went on their way, but I gave them something to think about.

While standing on the lush lawn near the memorial plaza, waiting for speeches to begin, a number of people took my photo. A burly man probably in his thirties, dressed like the stereotypical bad-ass biker, approached me. I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go, but it went much better than I expected. We shook hands and he thanked me for being there.

His comments indicated politicians are not to be trusted according to what they say, and that there are people behind the scenes we don’t even know about who do not have the best interests of the American people at heart.

“I like Dennis Kucinich’s idea a few years ago about establishing a Department of Peace, as opposed to our war department,” said the biker. It was heart-warming to hear such thoughtful comments from one biker. Other motorcyclists who did not like what they saw kept their peace. There were no insults or critical comments.

A tall biker from Lorain walked up to me and said “Isn’t this a great free country that you can stand here with all these people…” I interrupted him, saying, “And not be assassinated?” He smiled and thanked me for being there and my message. He is active in various groups in Lorain that serve veterans, including an organization that provides housing for homeless vets. He is a veteran, but was stateside during his years, assigned to a “steel desk in Philadelphia.”

A cameraman and Fox 8 news reporter Maia Belay spent about five minutes interviewing me. The cameraman and I recognized each other as we met last July when he interviewed me on East Fourth Street downtown during the Republican National Convention.

He asked good questions but I got the distinct vibe from Maia she did not like my answers. In one of the questions the cameraman asked about me “serving our country” and I said, “I didn’t serve my country. I served corporations. Those truly serving our country are medics, nurses and doctors who work very hard to mend as best they can the bodies and psyches of those ravaged and savaged by war. They are the ones truly serving our country.”

It was clear watching the news report at 6 p.m. Maia did not like what she had heard from me. There was about a two-second close-up of me making the bland, innocuous comment that my uniform “Is tighter than it was in 1968.” Pretty profound stuff, eh? And of course my peace flag was nowhere to be seen in the video report. Well, what do you expect? It’s Fox “news”!!!

Maia’s report, like the event itself, was your typical red, white and blue, star-spangled jingoistic, flag-waving nonsense we see so many times. During the ceremonies MC Monica Robins, a Channel 3 reporter, suggested potential adversaries of the United States ought not disturb this “sleeping giant.” I thought to myself, “sleeping?” Our military has been wide awake for 16 years, causing enormous death and destruction in the Middle East, beginning in Afghanistan in 2001, followed by Iraq in 2003.

I positioned myself after the event on the sidewalk north of the plaza to catch the eye of spectators who might not have seen my flag. Again, more photos and handshakes–and stern expressions from several bikers. I said to one man who had his photo taken with me, “We were sent to Vietnam to kill communists and now Vietnam, a communist country, is our ally against China. Bottom line: More than 58,000 young American lives were wasted.”

A woman I would guess in her mid-40s, along with a young woman who appeared to be her daughter, shook my hand and was all excited because her soldier son would be coming home in a few weeks.

I asked where he is stationed and Mom said, “He’s in Italy right now.” I said, “Oh, okay. Good. That’s safe–unless he gets in a bar fight.” They laughed.

I can take comfort in the belief that those attending the event will remember my uniform and peace flag–especially Fox 8 reporter Maia Belay–much, much longer than they will remember the words of the speakers.

A drafted Vietnam veteran (First Infantry Division, 1967-68), Pumphrey is a member of Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace, based at a Cleveland Heights church. He lives in Shaker Heights.