RIVERSIDE, CALIF., MAY 27–By 7:30 a.m. only remnants of the marine layer’s cloud cover remained in the skies above Riverside. The mostly sunny conditions served to heighten the visual effect as three members of the Lucas Oil Parachute Team dropped in, literally, on the proceedings at Skip Fordyce Harley-Davidson on Indiana Avenue in Riverside. This was the starting point for West Coast Thunder, the annual charity ride to benefit the Riverside National Cemetery Support Committee (RNCSC). This would be the first year Lucas Oil has sponsored the fundraiser, and the parachute jump made for one hell of an entrance!
At 8:00 a.m., after a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner by Sarah Pierce, once again this year Bronze Star recipient General Paul E. Mock from the 63rd Regional Readiness Command addressed the gathering, thanking them for their patriotism. Then State Senator Roth approached the microphone and favored the throng with a few encouraging words. Next, for the first time in WCT history, Staff Sergeant Tim Chambers (Ret.), the famous Saluting Marine, spoke compellingly about veterans’ issues.
Since 2002, SSgt Chambers (Ret.) has stood at attention for up to five hours saluting the half-million participants in Rolling Thunder at our nation’s capital each Memorial Day weekend. The endurance needed to stand at attention for such a long period of time is just short of Herculean in and of itself, but when you consider that for the past three years an infection in his back muscles contracted during an operation causes flare-ups that can require hospitalization, the feat becomes a study in spiritual dedication. I won’t even get into the mind-over-matter process he must have employed in 2011 when he executed his salute while suffering with a broken right wrist. Check out his charitable foundation on his website at www.thesalutingmarine.com.
SSgt Chambers (Ret.) currently resides in Oceanside in San Diego County, and just last April he took the Rider’s Edge motorcycle instruction course at Skip Fordyce H-D. That’s where he met Jim Bridges, the course instructor, who told him about West Coast Thunder. Bridges introduced Tim to his wife Sharon, who is the director of WCT. As luck would have it, Tim had wanted to get involved with military support projects in SoCal and when he and Sharon got to talking about the annual Memorial Day fundraiser, Tim was so impressed with the project that he decided to fly back from Washington, D.C., after Rolling Thunder this year so he could salute the riders participating in WCT.
At 8:20 a.m. officials with the Orange, California-based veterans support organization, Vision2Victory, presented Skip Fordyce H-D Dealer Principal Jay Dabney with a memorial entitled “The California Tribute Wall of Remembrance” in recognition of his contribution to the Riverside National Cemetery and for his continued support of veterans’ issues. The memorial consists of three 4″x6″ tablets inscribed with the names of Californians who have died in the war on terror since the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen.
At 8:30, accompanied by recorded strains of “Amazing Grace“ played by a chorus of bagpipers, the Inland Empire H.O.G. West Coast Thunder Color Guard, under the command of Earl Chadd, presented the “Ultimate Sacrifice,” a rifle wedged muzzle down between a pair of combat boots topped off with dog tags and a helmet. “Taps,” played by Robert Morgan on trumpet, followed the presentation and provided a fitting end to the service. Following the Ultimate Sacrifice presentation, the 8,000 riders (as estimated by the Riverside PD) were instructed to return to their bikes and prepare for departure.
SSgt Chambers (Ret.) set himself up to salute the color guard as they took off from in front of the dealership and then hitched a ride on a fire truck that followed the color guard until he hopped off at the intersection of Trautwein Road and Van Buren Boulevard. There he snapped to attention between the two left-turn lanes on Trautwein as riders proceeded onto Van Buren and on towards the Riverside National Cemetery.
Jim Bridges, who also serves as a member of the WCT Color Guard, told me that he happened to check in with the volunteers in charge of staging riders on Indiana Avenue in front of the dealership some 55 minutes after the ride had gotten underway only to find out that the last of the riders were just beginning to depart. That means there was a solid line of bikes from the dealership and over the 10-mile route that covered surface roads on the way to the cemetery, plus the section of the 215 freeway from Van Buren to the 60 freeway and on down that road up to the Heacook exit for a total of just under 19 miles. Continuing a tradition, two Vietnam-era helicopters from the Wings and Rotors Air Museum in Murrieta, California (Pat Rogers, director/pilot), followed the parade from the dealership to the cemetery and then on to the Soboba Casino.
While I was speaking with Jay Dabney, he introduced me to Richard Greenberg. Jay told me, “Rich was one of the original eight whose Memorial Day Ride to Riverside National Cemetery 14 years ago became West Coast Thunder. Each year we, here at the dealership, like to acknowledge the founding members. It’s hard to believe that there’ll be a thousand times the original number participating in today’s event.”
I asked Richard about the event’s origin and he explained, “Pat Delahunty approached fellow Inland Empire H.O.G. Members Steve Cifelli, Steve Aragon, George Helton, Lucky and Theresa Delaney, D.J. Quinn and myself with the idea for the ride. Then we approached the Skip Fordyce dealership to see if they had any interest in keeping it going. The following year Don Odell joined Pat Delahunty as co-chairman. It’s exciting; I get goose bumps when I see all the people here, plus I get to see all my old friends. Of course, the whole basis of the event is to remember those who have given their lives in service to our country.”
As I was riding along the route the true scope of this event began to unfold. The streets were lined with spectators on both sides, and there were police officers positioned at every intersection. I’ve seen support at smaller events by law enforcement, but never on such a large scale as this. After riding the route all the way to the cemetery (over 10 miles), I found some high ground so I could get photos of the procession. When the last bikes finally passed, I rode through the cemetery toward the Memorial Day ceremonies. It was then that the real meaning of this holiday hit me like a freight train. I witnessed a couple hugging next to the grave of their loved one. My emotions began building and were eventually pushed over the edge when I saw a man alone by a grave. He had brought a chair and was spending the day with a loved one who had paid the ultimate price for the freedom that we enjoy every day.
The ample parking lot at the Soboba Casino, the ride’s destination for the fourth year in a row, easily accommodated the bikes of the 3,500 to 4,000 riders and their passengers who had paid to attend the concert. When the now-hungry riders made their way from the casino parking lot over to the food vendor area situated just west of the amphitheater, they were greeted by the sounds of On the Rocks, a band that did a great job rocking out from a stage at the southern end of the food vendor area.
Then at around noon The Farm took the stage and delivered an energetic performance that had the audience cheering wildly. After their set they sang The Star-Spangled Banner in three-part harmony while the WCT Color Guard presented Old Glory. Having been the opening act for last year’s fundraiser, The Farm got in touch with Sharon Bridges and asked to be included in the entertainment package again this year. Plus, they volunteered to sing the national anthem as their way of paying tribute to West Coast Thunder and its beneficiary, the RNCSC. Again this year The Farm’s Nick Hoffman let me know how thankful and how honored he was that the Skip Fordyce dealership had reserved a bike for him so that he could make the ride along with everyone else.
Headliner Craig Morton did a creditable job of following The Farm. He performed a number of classic rock tunes, and along with a couple hundred other audience members, my feet and hips found the band’s rhythms impossible to ignore.
Hundreds of military families with members both living and dead, many from far-flung regions across the Southwest, chose to participate in WCT as their way of memorializing loved ones who served with honor. Each year WCT is honored to count many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as participants; some only recently recovered from their wounds, some still in the process of recovering and some who will never fully recover.
The Soboba Indian Tribe donated the amphitheater, sound system and security staff, and also booked and paid On the Rocks, the band that played in the food vendor area. K-FROG morning on-air personalities Frogman Tommy and Kelli Green handled the emcee duties with flair and a V-twin-appropriate sense of humor.
No charitable fundraiser of any size stands a chance of succeeding without the generous outpouring of time and energy from a group of dedicated volunteers. Someone has to man the registration tables, run the booths, help with staging, serve as road captains and so on. Several members of the Inland Empire H.O.G. chapter stepped up and helped put the event over the top. Of course such a huge undertaking requires an executive who is not only efficient and accomplished, but also passionate and dedicated—a person who is willing to take ownership. This was the second year Sharon Bridges took on the duty as WCT director. Rather than go into detail about how hard she works, I’ll just repeat the sentiment expressed by all who have dealt with the lady: Let’s hope she stays on and continues to make the event her own.
Over the years WCT organizers, with considerable financial help from Skip Fordyce H-D, have donated over $350,000 to the RNCSC. Completed projects in which WCT donations have played a major role include construction of the National POW/MIA Memorial (dedicated in 2005), repairs to the Medal of Honor Memorial, financial support to the RNC Memorial Honor Detail and funding of the Concert for Heroes every July. WCT funds have also been used to honor indigent and unaccompanied homeless veterans that are buried each month with the placement of a bouquet of flowers and the presentation of an American flag for their final resting place. For more information about the volunteer-based RNCSC, please visit www.rncsc.org.