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Preparing for Thunder

Local businesses get ready for Rolling Thunder riders. But most say biker clubs mean good business, no harm.

Steve Nelson is looking forward to Memorial Day weekend, a reunion with friends and a barbecue.

"We’ve got guys coming in from all over the country, Texas, California, New York," said Nelson, a member of motorcycle club the Booze Fighters. "We’re expecting 70 to 80 guys, not including their buddies or their wives."

Nelson will be part of the welcoming committee for his brothers in the club, as they descend on Arlington for the annual Rolling Thunder ride on Sunday, May 26, followed by a rally at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

There are more than 150,000 Rolling Thunder riders expected this weekend, said Jerry Smith, manager of the Highlander. That means hotel parking lots around Arlington will be filled with motorcycles, restaurants will be filled with riders before and after the Sunday morning event, and Arlington businesses will be prepared for an influx of bikers straight out of "The Wild One."

The Booze Fighters, like many regular participants in Rolling Thunder, have regular haunts in town. Many members will be staying at the Highlander Motor Inn, 3336 Wilson Blvd., and making regular trips next door, to Mario’s Pizza, in the wee hours of the morning.

<b>"WE’RE A DRINKING CLUB</b> with a motorcycle problem," Nelson said. "We do our fair share of partying."

The Booze Fighters started in Los Angeles in 1946, and spread with clubs opening across the country. Members have been coming to town for the Rolling Thunder ride for "years and years," Nelson said. "A lot of guys have been coming to Rolling Thunder since it started."

That sets its members apart from other bikers in town for Sunday’s ride. "A lot of what goes on is, a lot of guys come into town, they go down to the Wall and see the monuments," Nelson said.

The Booze Fighters, most of whom have made many trips to the memorials, come to town for camaraderie, he said, for a sense of brotherhood. "We have a barbecue and a party for our own guys" at the house of a local member, Nelson said,.

Washington-area Booze Fighters will also be hosting some of their out of town brethren overnight. It’s appropriate, according to Nelson, because it guarantees some demographic shoulder rubbing.

Nelson agreed: The Booze Fighters makeup reflects the current state of cycling. "The demographic ranges so much," he said. "Harley put out a release, that the average rider 10 years ago was 37.5 years old and made over $60,000 a year. That was when this all started getting faddish."

Many get their start the same way Nelson joined the Booze Fighters. "A friend of mine was in the club, and he brought me along," he said. "I got to know some of the guys in the club, and got to be a part of it."

<b>A HORDE OF BIKERS</b> descending on a small hotel sounds like a nightmare scenario from a 1980s horror film. But Jerry Smith takes it in stride.

"These aren’t motorcycle gangs," said Smith. "There are some doctors, a couple attorneys. There’s a psychiatrist from upstate New York – of course they call him ‘Psycho.’"

The Booze Fighters don’t even require much preparation, just a blocked off front parking lot. "They put sentries out there with their bikes at night, they pull two-hour shifts," Smith said. "We get out safety cones Friday night, and block that off for nothing but bikes, so they don’t have to have guys posted all over the property."

In return, he knows that at least two-thirds of the Highlander’s 45 rooms will be filled. When the weekend ends, Smith doesn’t have to worry about trashed rooms; the Booze Fighters leave the Highlander cleaner than the average guests.

"They have fun, no question," he said. "But they don’t get out of line. These guys, God knows how many cases of beer they go through in a weekend. But they know where the dumpster is, and they come ask me for trash bags."

The club has proved loyal to the Highlander. The Highlander earned that loyalty, Nelson said. "They leave us be. You get a phone call, saying you got a group of bikers coming in, and people will worry about things getting out of hand," he said. "But the way we look at it, they’ve taken care of us over the years, we’ll take care of them. We police our own, and take care of things in house."

<b>NEXT DOOR,</b> at Mario’s Pizza, owner Alan Levine said he has also come to look forward to the Booze Fighters, who mark the beginning of a busy period for the restaurant.

The bikers are reliable customers, he said, out of necessity. Late at night, Mario’s is one of the few fast food places open, and when drunk bikers want something to eat, "it’s one of thew few places they can stumble to," Levine said.

It’s still a far cry from the kind of group Levine first expected when the Booze Fighters came to town. "At first I thought it meant they were a sober motorcycle group," he said. "Then I asked what does the name mean, and they said, ‘It means we like to drink, and we like to fight.’"

But the club is really a bunch of "nice guys," he added. "They used to be pretty rough and tumble in their day."

Mario’s crew ends up with a batch of new T-shirts after Rolling Thunder, too. "We always trade them T-shirts for pizzas. They usually come out with a new one every year," Levine said. It has netted shirts from across the country and into Canada, but especially shirts made by Booze Fighter crews from New York, Cincinnati and North Carolina, staying at the Highlander.

<b>WHITEY’S GRILL ALSO</b> hosts its fair share of Booze Fighters, and bikers from all over, Nelson said. "Whitey’s is home to us."

Calvin Seville, owner of the Arlington institution at 2761 N. Washington Blvd., said he’s happy to see Rolling Thunder riders in his restaurant. They’re his peers. "I served in Vietnam, and most of them served in Vietnam," he said.

Like others in Arlington, he says that the bikers in town for Memorial Day don’t pose much of a public menace. "They’re well-behaved. You gotta remember, most of these guys are my age," said Seville, 55. "Drive downtown that weekend and you’ll see tons of motor homes with trailers. They used to drive cross country on their bikes, now they have to trailer ‘em."

Seville has been hosting Rolling Thunder riders for 15 years, since the event started, and even sets up a special Sunday night of entertainment for the ride. "We have the Nighthawks, and the Lost Highway Band," he said. "They seem to really like the Nighthawks."

Bikers are so much of an institution at Whitey’s, they sear themselves into the memory of the staff. One waitress’ first day fell on the day of Rolling Thunder, Seville said, "and needless to say, she was scared to death."

She made it through fine, helped along by "nice guys" swathed in leathers, he said. Still, that first day made an impression. "The next year, she said she woke up at five in the morning, thinking about all these bikers coming in," he said.