Riding season in New England starts in the spring when temperatures crest and ice melts, washing away salt and slag, and liberating thousands of miles of open road for any biker craving the whip of the wind against his face and the roar of a muffler thrumming in his ears.
For a Jarhead, there’s no better time of the year. And last weekend would have been the pinnacle of the season, the annual meeting of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club and its chapters across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine in the White Mountains of Gorham, N.H.
But tragedy struck before it even began. Two Fridays ago, a Dodge pickup truck hauling a flatbed trailer careened into a pack of Jarheads just as they were taking off for a charity raffle at Gorham’s American Legion hall, a little over 10 miles from the rustic motel where they were staying along Route 2.
The collision killed seven people — five Jarheads, one member’s wife, and another’s girlfriend — leaving the rest of the club’s members to grapple with a tragedy unlike anything they’ve ever endured.
The Jarheads are a brotherhood, forged in steel and shared experience only veterans can understand. Like many other motorcycle clubs geared toward military veterans, only active duty or honorably discharged Marines and Fleet Marine Force Corpsmen can join their ranks. Beyond their love for motorcycles, that’s what drew them to the club and what will sustain them as they navigate the unbearable loss of men and women as close to them as family.
“We’re gonna heal. We’re gonna move on. Our whole mission is we help our veteran brothers, and that’s what we do,” said Paul “Chops” Downey, president of the Jarheads’ South Shore chapter. “We suffered a loss, but we’re gonna stay and we’re gonna continue to do what we do.”
After World War II, motorcycle clubs sprouted across the country for veterans struggling to ease back into civilian life, according to Randy McBee, a history professor at Texas Tech University and author of “Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist.” They missed the camaraderie of their units. They yearned for the freedom of the open road.
“It wasn’t really the motorcycle part of it; it was more the brotherhood that I missed,” said Manny Ribeiro, the new president of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club. The club’s former leader, Albert Mazza, was killed in the crash. “I see a lot of struggles. I deal with a lot of struggles, and we lean on each other. That’s what Marines are.”
Ribeiro, 48, a veteran of the First Gulf War, was one of the Jarheads’ founding members. He was riding near the front of the pack with Mazza, the pack’s road captain, to his left when the truck slammed into Mazza’s motorcycle. There was no question: Mazza was gone.
Ribeiro escaped with a banged-up left hand. His Harley-Davidson was totaled.
The chaos and carnage was like “something out of a bad Hollywood movie,” Ribeiro said. After he recovered from the initial shock, Ribeiro sprang into action, darting toward Joshua Morin, one of the injured riders. Ribeiro tore off his belt and tied it around Morin’s leg to constrict the flow of blood.
“Every Marine trains to make sure that they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice,” he said. “What I saw Friday from my brothers was a true testament to that.”
George Loring III, a 67-year-old Weymouth photographer, was among the Jarheads to race to the scene. Loring is the treasurer of the South Shore chapter of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club. His biker name is Merlin. One day, back in 2001, he saw a poster in a local military surplus store advertising a motorcycle club for Marines and FMF Corpsmen. It was exactly what Loring had been searching for.
“The Marine Corps, it’s such a tight family and once you get out, you miss that camaraderie,” he said.
Loring has been riding motorbikes since adolescence, starting with a Lambretta scooter before graduating to Honda and Yamaha sport bikes. Now Loring rides a cruiser, a Suzuki Volusia. He joined the Marines after high school, shipping off to Parris Island, S.C. , for basic training in the summer of 1970. He spent most of his four years in the military in California, where he taught radio and radar repair.
Loring longed to serve in Vietnam alongside his friends, but he never had the chance.
“You feel guilty about that,” Loring said. After a pause, he added: “I feel a little guilty about not being with my friends on the ride on Friday — happy I wasn’t, but feeling guilty I wasn’t, too.”
After he completed his service, Loring returned to Massachusetts. He enrolled in EMT school and worked in the emergency department of South Shore Hospital for a few years. There, he thought he saw the worst things anyone could ever imagine, all the ways a body can crumble and break. He was wrong.
Loring and his wife were inside their cabin at Mount Jefferson View motel on that Friday evening, about 150 yards from the crash site. They would have gone to the American Legion with the others, but his wife is a diabetic and her blood sugar was low. They thought they’d go out to dinner instead.
Then they heard the screams, the frantic panic, the cries for help. Outside, they saw the smoke.
Loring and his wife jumped in their car and sped toward the wreckage.
Nothing had prepared him for this.
“My wife and I left Saturday morning. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Too much was in my head. The visions, the images will just never go away,” Loring said. “It was a very quiet ride home and I tell you, I must have cried the whole way.”
What happened will make the Jarheads even closer than they are already are, Loring said. As always, they will lean on each other for strength.
The Whitman VFW will host a fund-raiser and vigil for the Jarheads Motorcycle Club on Wednesday night. Then, the Jarheads will ride together again this week when the first of seven funerals begins. It’s part of their duties as Jarheads and as military veterans, escorting their fallen brothers and sisters to their final resting place.
Deanna Pan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.