Retired Turlock firefighter, a Vietnam vet, and his wife make 'run' for D.C. memorial

May 30, 2010 

When Michael Rollins fixed jets aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, he and his buddies would talk about what they'd do when they got back to the States.

The No. 1 dream: Buy a motorcycle and ride, ride, ride.

The idea always has appealed to Rollins, who went on to become a captain in the Turlock Fire Department. But it wasn't until after his second marriage in 1992 that he and his wife, Arlene, bought a Harley Fat Boy and took to the road.

Now, eight years and two bikes later, the couple are on the trip of a lifetime: a cross-country journey called Run for the Wall, in which they and hundreds of bikers travel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The aim is to call attention to POWs, MIAs and veterans issues. As the group drives into towns, spectators line the streets, flags waving.

"As a Vietnam vet, the welcome we all get in every town we pull into is very moving," said Rollins, 59, in an e-mail from the road.

Life's already been a memorable ride for Michael and Arlene. The two met through a friend and married after a yearlong courtship. Arlene knew Michael was a risk-taker -- what firefighter isn't? -- but she wasn't aware of his interest in motorcycles.

Good thing she's willing to try most anything. In fact, it was her idea to use her husband's collection of 1950s memorabilia to deck out the couple's home like a soda shop, complete with jukebox. The unusual home was featured in The Bee in 2002.

Décor is one thing. A 600-pound motorcycle is another. But Arlene was game.

"I really found I enjoyed it," said Arlene, 61. "It's invigorating. You're out there and feel like you're part of nature."

The couple -- Michael operates the bike and Arlene rides in a custom-made seat on the back -- made their first long-distance trip together in 1997 to the Grand Canyon.

Last year, they made their first coast-to-coast trip, to Savannah, Ga., and back. The couple logged 6,207 miles in 22 days on that journey.

So far, their travels have taken them to 30 states. Their goal is to hit all 50, something they will achieve after the Washington, D.C., ride.

Many motorcycle riders travel with a club. Not the Rollinses. They like having the freedom to change plans if a side road or tourist attraction catches their eye.

Once, while riding in British Columbia, Canada, Arlene saw a sign that pointed toward Alaska.

"So we checked the weather and headed north to Alaska," she said. "It was unplanned, but it was a beautiful

climb through the mountains. You almost felt like you were up in the sky."

Despite their penchant for spur-of-the-moment detours, Michael and Arlene decided to give Run for the Wall a try.

The couple set out for Rancho Cucamonga, then met up with several hundred other riders. The group traveled en masse through the Southwest and Midwest for 10 days until reaching the Capitol this weekend.

Every detail of the trip was planned, including which hotels the group stayed in and where and when the riders stopped for gas.

The group is divided into smaller groups, called platoons. There are captains (to lead the group), tailgunners (to bring up the rear), and road guards (to stop oncoming traffic).

"I have never seen a large group like this be so organized," Michael said from the road. "We are always on time within five to 10 minutes every day."

Michael and Arlene are riding their 2004 Harley Electra Glide. It's the third bike they've owned, and they say it's by far the most comfortable. The seat has been specially made to fit Arlene's small frame. The handlebar height has been lowered for Michael.

There's even an intercom, so they can talk to each other, plus a place for the couple to plug in the heated gloves and jacket liners that keep them warm while riding in cold weather.

The couple expect to log more some 3,000 miles on the Run for the Wall. In each town, they're greeted by residents cheering them on.

"As we roll into town, we are greeted by the locals with flags waving," Michael said. "We are made to feel so welcome and loved."

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