In 2008, when I rode a Can-Am Spyder GS in the Northern California Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation Ride for Kids, I was surprised at the diversity of riders. I’d expected the mom-and-pop Harley and Wing riders, but not the mix of sportbike knee-draggers, dual-sporters, cruisers and others, including several Spyder Ryders. We had a great time, a great ride and raised a lot of money for the kids. What’s not to like?
Nothing. Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the American Legion’s “Legion Riders” program has been the most successful recruiting and money-raising program the Legion has had in living memory. So far, the Legion Riders membership is more than 106,000 riders in more than 1000 chapters. Since 2006, the Riders’ annual Legacy Run has raised money to provide scholarships to children of U.S. military personnel killed since September 11, 2001.
Joining the Legion Riders requires membership in the Legion, the Legion Auxiliary or the Sons of the American Legion, categories which capture a whole lot of people these days, given how many have served the nation in uniform. It’s fair to say, though, that some, maybe many, veterans and non-veterans might not agree with the social and political positions that the Legion takes on such issues as flag-burning, or, indeed, its commitment to “Americanism” as defined in its Preamble. And it’s fair to say that the bikes and clothing preferred by many of the Legion Riders are not those favored by other riders.
Still, the leadership of the Legionnaires in civic responsibilities and helping hands outstretched to veterans and non-veterans alike is what we in the military used to call “leading by example.” This is the best form of leadership, which I experienced at least sometimes when I served in the military during the Vietnam War, and which, in the social context, I’ve also been fortunate in experiencing, too. My wife, Lanny, for example, has been volunteering in church and community work her whole life. Others I’ve known, such as my old friend Carolyn Surrick, “navigatrix” of the early-music group Ensemble Galilei, have similarly dedicated their time and talents to aiding wounded veterans.
It’s easy for cynics to claim that the motorcyclists who ride for others or the musicians who play their instruments for others’ benefit also benefit from what they do, often simply because the riders and players enjoy what they do. Of course. But what must be kept in mind is that riding for others brings people together in ways and with consequences that riding for oneself, or playing an instrument for oneself, does not.
Like riding itself, the experience of riding for others is something that has to be done to be understood. And like membership in the American Legion or the Legion Riders, it’s not for everyone. But as my experience in the Ride for Kids and then in the Legion taught me, you never really know until you try it.