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Monday, May 30, 2011

Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" 2011

A detail from the Korean War Veterans Memorial

Memorial Day Weekend. For many in America it's a time for family get-togethers, taking the boat to the lake or river, soaking up the sun's rays or taking advantage of the many Memorial Day sales. For those who have served or had family and friends serve in the military, and who have paid the price of that service, Memorial Day has a purer purpose as intended when it began at the end of America's Civil War - to honor the nation's war dead. (See the op-ed piece published in the New York Times today for a fuller history of the day's origins. )

Yesterday, I was honored to ride with thousands of other bikers in the 24th annual Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom." The first ride was initiated by returning Vietnam veterans in 1988 to publicize POW and MIA issues - that's Prisoners of War and Missing in Action for those unfamiliar with military acronyms. About 2,500 bikes took part in a ride through Washington, D.C., that inaugural year and organizers vowed to keep riding until "all POW/MIAs were accounted for.

The flag I flew behind my bike gave sobering statistics for anyone unaware of how many of America's military have never been accounted for:
  • WWI           3,345
  • WWII        78,573
  • Cold War        120
  • Korea           8,107
  • Vietnam        1,716
  • Iraqi                    1
  • Afghanistan         1

Bringing attention to the plight of POW/MIAs

I am not from the U.S.A. and I have never served in the military, although my Irish father served as a sailor, as did two brothers in the New Zealand Navy. But I have nothing but admiration for those who are willing to put their lives on the line in the service of their country, regardless of whether they believe the politics of whichever flavor is in power at the time. I respect those who have taken an oath and stand by it and who give up many of their own freedoms to ensure those of others. I have many friends and some family members in the military and although I would be a pacifist in an ideal world, this is not an ideal world.

I rode not to support this nation's politics and my thoughts on that are obvious in previous posts. I rode to honor the service of the friends I rode alongside - a retired Navy Seal and an active-duty Navy nurse - and the service of the hundreds of thousands of veterans and active-duty military riders who also took part. I rode to honor the service of the young friends I have seen return from war damaged in body and/or soul and those I never met who never returned.

I was humbled by the turnout, although my friends estimated it was slightly less than last year's estimated 500,000 bikes. (To put that in perspective, Jeju Island, South Korea, where I lived last year, has a population of just over 500,000. Add the number of bikes that carried passengers and more people rode last year than lived on my entire 712-square-mile island.)

A view of the Pentago North Parking Lot, with the Pentagon behind

We arrived more than four hours early to stage our bikes in the Pentagon North Parking Lot, but thousands of bikes were there before us, and many more followed. Despite Washington providing a hot, humid day, riders waited for hours for the noon departure, after which they started rolling out across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, down Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol Building, 3rd Street to Independence Avenue and around the National Mall before ending near the Lincoln Memorial. Despite two and sometimes three columns of bikes riding in close formation, it took more than 90 minutes for us to leave the parking lot and bikes were still rolling around the Mall more than three hours later.

I was more humbled by the thousands of spectators that lined the route, waving flags, holding signs of support and thanks to veterans, applauding, waving, slapping hands with passing riders and saluting. The ride was not only a chance for riders to support their own, but for everyone and the spectators were of every age and racial background.

(I apologize for the length of this post, but there is a lot to write about.)

Once we stopped and parked we joined the spectators to cheer on those still riding in, then visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. There were many times during the day when I choked up and had to wipe away tears - the following are the most memorable.

The Lone Marine: My friends, who were riding Rolling Thunder for the third time, had told me of the Marine who stood at attention in full dress uniform as the ride goes by. I'd been told that seeing him would be a spine-tingling experience and they were right. Having done a little research this morning, I'm even more in awe of this Marine. A friend wondered if different Marines took the station each hour, knowing how difficult it is to hold a salute for an extended length of time. They don't. Retired Marine Sgt Tim Chambers has held the post since 2002 and according to this report, did so this year with a broken wrist.

The wounded veteran: I am sure there were many along the route but after we parked and dismounted, a young man rolled up beside us not on a bike but in a wheelchair. He was a double amputee with other bandages on his arms. The Vietnam vet on the other side of him (you know who many bikers are and what they believe in by the patches on their vests) shook his hand and thanked him for his sacrifice. Many of the riders who saw him as they passed saluted him.

Those who came home: Visiting the Vietnam Wall is a sobering and emotional experience. The reflective granite structure lists the names of more than 58,000 combat casualties, about 1,200 of whom the Wall's Web site states are still listed as missing. Family and friends leave mementoes, photos and letters in front of the panels, and many take pencil and paper rubbings of their loved one's name. I witnessed grizzled old bikers wearing "Vietnam Vet" patches in tears before the Wall.

The Vietnam Wall and Memorial statue

The Korean War Veterans Memorial: Having spent many years in South Korea, where New Zealanders also died as part of the United Nations contingent, and having been an associate member of the United Nations Command Officers' Mess, this memorial is of deep personal interest to me. As with the Vietnam Wall and associated sculpture, visiting the Korean Memorial was a moving experience.

A detail from the Korean War Veterans Memorial

What did NOT impress me:

Being informed by the Rolling Thunder organizers that the Pentagon objects to its parking lots being used as a staging point for this ride: One would hope that the Pentagon would support this purpose more than any other organization but it seems that is not so. I joined many other riders in signing a petition in support of Rolling Thunder's staging point staying where it is, and will try to find if there is an online petition people can join.

Sarah Palin using Rolling Thunder for political purposes, and the media coverage today: Shortly before the ride began I passed a media scrum but could not see who was in the middle and continued wandering among the bikes instead. This morning, while searching online and in print for an estimate of rider numbers, I instead found multiple articles about Ms. Palin and family kicking off their tour of the Northeast by joining the ride. I can't vote in America so my political views are moot, but I object to any politician co-opting a worthy cause for their own reasons. This morning's media coverage focused on the Palin sideshow rather than the POW/MIA issue, as I have no doubt she and her advisers knew it would.

Those are minor quibbles on what was a day I will never forget.

To all who serve and have served, on this Memorial Day 2011, We Salute You!

Monday, May 23, 2011

This Vast, Vast Country

The first time I motorcycled across states in the US on my own, I ended up hundreds of miles and about seven hours off track. It was an honest mistake based on two parts innocence, three parts ignorance and five parts utter belief in my friends.

I was heading from Surfside Beach, SC, to Norfolk, VA, which should have been fairly simple, both being on the East Coast. And so it was, my friends assured me, just take 17 North until I hit 64 West then follow directions to Norfolk International Airport. I questioned why I would be turning west to head east but was assured that was just the way it worked. That plus a few minor turns would take me straight to the address at which I needed to return the motorcycle before I flew back to Indonesia the following day.

The plan was to have dinner with the owner of said bike, whom I had never met but who was a good friend and colleague of my very good friend. My friend and his lady (also a good friend) had needed to leave Myrtle Beach Bike Week early and I wanted to stay til the last possible moment.

So with directions carefully memorized, I headed out from Surfside at about 10 a.m., expecting an easy seven hour ride that would get me to Norfolk in time to clean up myself and the bike before dinner.What my friends had not realized, having done the trip so often it was second nature (and knowing where they were going), was that 17 intersected a 64 highway in North Carolina before crossing the border and meeting the 64 interstate in Virginia.

I, coming from a country about the size of Texas where our highway numbers barely get into double digits, would never have suspected there'd be two 64 Wests to choose from. So I took the first one I came to, and rode and rode and rode, even after I had to have gone too far in the wrong direction. I couldn't pull over to phone for a clarification without taking an off-ramp, and I'd had an aversion to unknown off-ramps since taking one off the DC Beltway some years before and not being able to find my way back on. (My solution was creative, but not precisely best driving practice.) And I was on the road I'd been told I needed (or so I thought), and was slightly reassured by seeing turnoffs to towns I'd seen when we drove down, so kept going.
By the time dusk was falling I had to admit I was totally lost so stopped at the nearest town, which turned out to be Durham. I called my now-frantic friends, got a map and some accurate directions and headed further north and back east, where I finally reached Norfolk after 1 a.m.

This time, I've been outfitted with a GPS and am spending hours mapping possible routes online before I go. And gaining a new appreciation of just how vast a country this is. As I sit at Fayetteville, NC, and try to choose routes that take me to the places I want to visit, I realize that the West Coast is not a viable option in the time I have. Texas and Colorado also seem unlikely without riding longer days than I want. My next few stops, further northwest  in NC (not far from Durham, in fact) then back to Norfolk, Washington DC and NYC are fairly simple, but when the distances increase, so do the options.

It's going to be an interesting trip, whichever routes I take.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Untimely Death Unites Community

I never knew Nathan Furey but we had many mutual friends and his life has touched mine and that of others he never met in ways that I doubt he would have ever imagined. Following is the article I wrote for Yonhap News Agency on part of his legacy, although I had enough material to write a small book. I may do so for his sons when they are old enough to ask.

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, May 13 (Yonhap) -- Many of the expatriate community on Jeju Island never met Nathan Furey, a young Canadian English teacher who suddenly died on March 13, 2009, but his name lives on for many on the island and abroad.

   A foundation started in Furey's name has become a symbol of caring for others, community spirit, friendship and, equally important, fun. It seems a fitting tribute to a young father in the prime of his life who left his Jeju-born wife a widow and two young sons fatherless when he died of an undiagnosed illness. His mother, Betty, said the final pathology was inconclusive but the doctors suspect that her son died of Japanese encephalitis.

   Jeju Island, like much of Korea, is filled with young expats teaching English, many of whom come for a year and stay for many more. This volcanic island of beaches, resorts, women divers and a unique indigenous culture at the southern reaches of South Korea is a favorite honeymoon resort for Japanese and Korean couples, and a haven for artistic or adventurous souls. As happens with young and old the world over, relationships form and fall asunder, and marriages occur between different cultures.

   Furey and Kim Hyo-jung were one such union. She and the couple's sons, Juno and Noah, now live with Furey's family in New Westminster, British Columbia, where Hyo-jung has applied for permanent Canadian residency.

   Betty says that her grandsons, Juno and Noah, have given her and her family -- her husband, Jim, and daughter Jennifer -- a focus that helps them work through the loss of her son.

   "Every time we look at them, we think 'Oh Nathan, I hope you're watching,'" she said in a recent phone interview.

   Jeju has a population of just over half a million, two main cities and a smallish English-speaking community. Those English teachers who choose to stay more than a year usually know each other. Dan Nabben and Furey weren't close friends but went hiking together some weekends.

   On the morning of March 8, Furey checked himself into a clinic when he wasn't feeling well. That evening, he was found unconscious in the washroom and was immediately taken to a hospital where he died five days later, with his parents at his bedside.

   Aided by fellow teachers Anj Schroeder and Jessie Dishaw, Nabben spearheaded fundraising efforts.

   "I wasn't a best friend so it wasn't up to me to go to the house to comfort Hyo-jung or look after the kids," he said, "but since I wasn't taking things quite as hard, it meant I could start figuring out how we could help out the family in other ways."

   That effort has grown into the Furey Foundation, initially set up to raise funds for Hyo-jung and her children, but now looking after another local Jeju family. With help from locals and an eager pool of volunteers, the foundation has become a brand for the island as it holds a variety of events under Furey's name.

   There have been four beach volleyball tournaments, with two more planned this year, two bowling competitions, and beach Frisbee and screen golf events. The first badminton event is planned for June. There have also been five or six auctions.

   Sponsors across the island, from Nohyeong Catholic Church to Jeju Book Town, provide support and prizes for competitions and raffles. Two local businesses, Texas-gal baker's Jeju Cakes by Christine and Korean meat-lover's Peter Burgers have started as a direct result of helping raise funds for the foundation.

   Nabben, who has been on the island for six years himself, said people enjoy the events because they're fun and also because they're for a good cause. A little more than 16 million won (US$15,000) has been given to Furey's family, all of which will be used for the boys' education, Betty said.

    Two million won has thus far been given to the new beneficiaries -- a family from Iho, where the beach volleyball tournaments are held. Nabben said the 78-year-old woman is raising two orphaned grandchildren on 200,000 won in government aid per month and a tiny income from odd jobs.

   The foundation, which Nabben runs, also has more than 4 million won invested in power and sound equipment, sports gear and apparel. He plans to give another 4 million won to the Fureys over the next year or two to reach the 20 million won target.

   Nabben cited long-term resident Fred Dustin, founder of Kimnyeong Maze Park and a quiet financial supporter of many initiatives on the island, when asked why the change to a local beneficiary. He had heard indirectly that Dustin thought it extremely important to give back to the community and that stayed in his mind.

   Dishaw, who helped with the first fundraiser and plays in every sports event, said she and others see this as a great way for the foreign community to give back to Jeju.

   "I know many of the foreigners living here feel that Jeju gives them so much in quality of life, so it feels good to give back to the island we love," she said.

   Nabben said he originally planned to hold just one tournament but changed his mind when he saw how everyone liked it, and also because the sponsors deserved more exposure than one event.

   "Then, when it became clear I would be doing these until I left, I decided I would want to do more than just raise money for one family. I wanted there to be something significant done for Iho."

   Betty said that she and her family "couldn't be happier about this decision as the needs of Nathan's family pale in contrast to the needs of others."

   "This is the highest tribute possible and we're sure that Nathan is smiling," she said.