For the Benefit of Others

 

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It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were. Conditions were sunny, dry, and relatively warm as Ann and I rolled into the spacious lot at Fox River Harley-Davidson to register for the 31st Annual DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy & Food Run. This was Ann’s third consecutive year attending and my fifth. I attended for the first time in 2013, at which time I reconnected with one Wally Elliott, then the event’s coordinator, with whom I had done business back in the 1980’s and 90’s. One year later, I was a member of the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois and was actively promoting the Toy & Food Run.

The folks at Fox River Harley-Davidson do it right. Besides serving as a registration and donations collection point, this motorcycle dealership puts out a free breakfast for Toy & Food Run participants. I should point out that riders of all makes and models are welcome. I have never ridden a Harley, but was made to feel no less welcome for it. When Ann and I rolled out toward Elburn with all the others, we had no idea how many bikes were in our party. Still, it felt awesome to be a part of that.

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This annual event, billed as “Chicagoland’s oldest and largest suburban toy run,” is not a small one. From remote registration points, eight this year, participants fed into a parade staging area, and also a registration point, outside of Knuckleheads Tavern in Elburn, Illinois. From there a fully escorted parade wound its way to the Batavia VFW grounds for an afternoon of fun and festivities, with merchandise vendors, live bands, and food and beverage vendors on hand for the duration of the event. Local and state political figures and candidates also attended, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself an A.B.A.T.E. member and avid motorcyclist. Admission was once again only $10 per person, along with a new, unwrapped toy and a non-perishable food item.

The atmosphere at Elburn could only be described as festive. Bikes were being parked in several staging lots. As usual, a live band was playing their hearts out in the lot behind Knuckleheads. Bikes and bikers were everywhere. A large, dedicated group of volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion. Governor Rauner was there, as was Santa Claus. Some of us joked about who was the bigger celebrity.

At 12:30 PM, we rolled out of Elburn. As always, Ann was capturing everything she could with still shots and video. Countless Law Enforcement Officers and designated volunteers assisted with traffic control, ensuring a safe ride to our endpoint in Batavia.

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The festivities at the Batavia VFW are always extraordinary and this year was no exception. Multiple bands provided an afternoon of vibrant live music, courtesy of TOGA Talent Agency. The merchandise, food, and beverage vendors were all top-shelf. And still more volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion—no small feat for an event of this magnitude. The toys and food items collected that day (enough to fill two flatbed trailers, were distributed to many local charities, representatives of which were on site to tell their stories. The event itself also raises funds for our A.B.A.T.E. chapter.

For the record, A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois is a motorcycle safety and rights organization (read: lobby) that not only protects and fights for the rights of motorcyclists, but brings motorcycle safety and awareness to the community through speaking engagements, education at driver’s ed courses and visiting clubs and organizations. The DuKane Chapter represents the state organization in Northern DuPage and Kane Counties.

It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were, and it was awesome! As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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Why I Choose to Ride in the 2017 Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run

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The Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run is something that has become important to me over the years. In terms of numbers, this is the biggest fundraiser run I do each year, with thousands of bikes, all riding together for a common cause, in support of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial.

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Whether you ride a motorcycle or not, if you have never visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial in Marseilles, Illinois, I urge you to do so. That wall memorial is most unusual for several reasons. For openers, this memorial was made possible not by any branch of our federal, state, or local government—believe me, if that were the case, we would still be waiting—but by the Illinois motorcycle community. That’s right. As I understand it, the concept was hatched by a couple of bikers named Tony Cutrano and Jerry Kuczera. Made possible by donations of material, labor, and funds, this memorial was dedicated on June 19th, 2004. As the result, the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial became the first of its kind, a memorial honoring our fallen, by name, while a conflict is still ongoing.

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Each year, on the third Saturday in June, members of the motorcycle community gather in numbers—think four figures minimum, sometimes five—to raise funds for the memorial wall, which unfortunately continues to grow as more names are added each year, and to show their support for the fallen as well as for their families, some of whom are also in attendance that day (these are called Gold Star Families).

I want to talk to you about these families for a moment. You’ll notice them as you approach the wall, no matter if it’s during the day of the Freedom Run or any other day. They are usually very quiet and are usually focused on one of the many names now engraved on that wall. As often as not, some are crying while others are consoling—and sometimes they are all doing both at once. You know, it’s one thing to come thundering into Marseilles with a few thousand casual acquaintances, but once the kickstands are down, the closer everyone gets to the site of that memorial, the quieter things get.

And there you are, a badass biker, standing there looking at all those names engraved in the granite. You can see and hear the Illinois River flowing just beyond the memorial site. Then you hear another sound and you look over to see a mother, a father, a wife, a brother or sister, a child… sobbing uncontrollably. You look upon a scene like that and it changes the way you think about the Wall Memorial and the event that has made it possible through the years. It changed me, anyway.

Some years ago, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the co-founders of the wall memorial, the late Tony “Greaseball” Cutrano. At the time, I had been president of the Illini Free Spirit Riders motorcycle club, and we had arranged to meet Tony at the Wall Memorial and present him with a small donation during the off-season. After we presented the check and took our pictures (I wish I had one to share with you here), we spent some time talking. Of all the things we discussed, there was one thing Tony said that made everything click with regard to the scene I described earlier. He explained that for some families, that Wall Memorial is the closest thing they will ever have to a cemetery because sometimes, there is no body to be recovered. I never felt the same way again about the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, about the Wall memorial, about the big after party, about any of this gig.

I also have never missed this event in more than ten years.

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This year we will carry on the tradition that began in 2004, but without the “festival” support of the City of Marseilles. I could speculate on the reasons, but to what end? Listen to me: Times change, people change, events change. But our cause has not changed. Get it?

This year the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run returns to its roots by renaming its after-party the Celebration of Freedom. As you will see on the flier, this part of the event will take place at Fat Daddyz in nearby Seneca. It’s a great venue, I am told, but is obviously smaller than the City of Marseilles, so if parking becomes a bit of a hassle, please exercise a bit of patience and cooperation.

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Just one last point. I know some riders are gravely disappointed in the City of Marseilles for their decision to discontinue their municipal Freedom Fest this year. Yeah, me, too. But their municipal event was NEVER the focal point of the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run! Sure, some people stayed in town and partied while the solemn ceremony took place at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial site. Now wouldn’t it be a dirty shame if those brothers and sisters didn’t participate this year because the city wasn’t hosting a party?

Yes, that would be a dirty shame. Do we really want to buckle under a bad decision made by some lame politicians? This year, just like every year before, the Freedom Run itself and the solemn ceremony at the Wall Memorial are still the collective centerpiece of our day and they are still as important and alive and vibrant as they were in 2004. So please, do come out on June 17 and show your continued support for this cause. Come June 17, let’s ride!