First responders had enough going on as dawn crept upon Virginia last Friday. Scattered rain showers led skittish Virginia drivers to slow to a crawl and crash their cars. By 6:30 a.m., per my car radio, authorities had already cleared up a fatal accident on the Memorial Bridge, while fire trucks and police tended to three separate collisions on I-95 South.
I had thirty minutes to drive 40 miles to the All American Truck Stop in Doswell, Va., or would be left behind by the Truckers Ride for the Constitution rally.
“A messy rush hour with rain …” a DJ intoned as I meandered through a red sea of taillights, flashing high beams, passing on the right, cursing all the way.
If I were left behind, there would be little hope of catching up with the truckers. This was the “give me liberty or we’ll give you gridlock” movement. They said they had hundreds, maybe thousands of vehicles coming in from the Florida panhandle, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest. One convoy started in Alaska last week and snowballed as it crossed the country, according to country-singer-turned-rally-organizer Zeeda Andrews. The trucks would meet across the street from the Kings Dominion theme park and then drive at 7 a.m. sharp, purposefully bottlenecking 95 North before bringing the Beltway to a halt. If Washington wouldn’t obey the Constitution, it’d at least have to obey the speed limit.
I dialed up Zeeda in a panic as I passed the fire trucks tending to a crash outside Spotsylvania.
“Ten minutes away? You’ll be fine. I overslept at a rest stop at 3, so I’m 20,” she said at 6:58 a.m. “It doesn’t matter anyway. The guys with the indictment papers left at 5 to meet with congress.”
Truckers Ride for the Constitution had already suffered from a lack of preparation. The movement started under the moniker of Truckers to Shut Down America (T2SDA), before backing away from the title. Then a man claiming to be a group spokesman said the group intended to arrest members of Congress. Organizers called him nuts, insisting they would come bearing grievances, not handcuffs. Evidently the protesters compromised and agreed to present their grievances in the form of an indictment.
The changing story led many to conclude that the whole rally would turn out to be a hoax, but police were taking the matter seriously. A Hanover County Sheriffs Department squad car sat in the northwestern corner of the lot next to a tiny church steeple: “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve.”
“Virginia State Police will not interfere with the line of tractor trailers …” the radio said as I pulled next to a man polishing a red, white, and blue Truckers Ride for Constitution sign on his silver Chevy pick-up.
Doswell proved an apt rallying point, with $3.29 gas and a population that voted 2 to 1 for Mitt Romney in 2012. Truckers and locals honked their support as they entered and exited the plaza.
“I hope they clog up the whole damn thing. Washington’s nothing but high paid junkies, taking all that money out of Social Security, so that we’ll never live to see it,” said Gloria Tolen, a Pit Stop employee and mother of two disabled children. “I drove a truck for eight years and if I still did, I’d be right there with them.”
You didn’t need to be a trucker to participate, however. When I arrived there were more Mini Coopers than 18-wheelers among the protesters. That is to say: There was one more.
Chief Petty Officer Michael Megonigle (USN ret.), 53, rested on a faux wooden cane and adjusted the American flag on the hitch of his red compact. His Kansas license plates say NAVYDOC—“my grandpa was a Marine, I repaired Marines.” He was a Navy corpsman during the first Gulf War. His grandpa Nicholas inspired him to serve 24 years in the military and another seven in the Veterans Affairs Department. His grandpa was also the reason Michael spent three days driving from Wichita to Doswell.
Nicholas Megonigle was an Iwo Jima Marine, recipient of two purple hearts. Last year, he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington for the first time thanks to Honor Flight, the non-profit that brings hundreds of aging vets to the Capitol each month.
“He died in July, and that program didn’t just make his day—it made his life. It brought closure,” Megonigle said. “They shut down memorials to hurt people like my grandpa. They’re trying to make things as painful as possible so they can play the blame game with Congress.”
Megonigle’s lengthy service has taken a toll on his health. He broke his foot and herniated two discs in his spine after taking a fall while loading gear during the second Iraq war and retired soon afterward. Doctors implanted a spinal cord stimulator into his spine to assuage the pain from his nerve damage. Electric pulses coursed through his back throughout the 1,300 mile drive from Kansas. But if he could send a message to the Obama administration about the impact political games have had on Grandpa Nicholas and his daughter in the Air Force, the pain would be worth it.
Megonigle, with his humble, reasonable tone, grey beard, and long hair, was a far cry from what people had been saying about the rally’s participants. The International Business Times summed up the protest’s reception among the smart set in just one headline: “Extremist Anti-Obama Protesters Hijack Truck Drivers As Political Pawns.”
A passing trucker soon pulled up and honked his horn. He was making a shipment to Baltimore, but had to stop in Spotsylvania. He heard about the rally on the CB radio and wanted to make an appearance.
“Federal regulators are not listening to truckers and they’re getting real ignorant. If the Department of Transportation keeps messing with us, the economy’s going to get real messy,” he said.
Another reasonable voice Beltway experts ignore to pursue their ideological goals.
“Plus, I still say he’s not a U.S. citizen … the whole Soerto thing.”
The trucker’s name: Billy Cruz, no relation to a certain Texas senator.
Zeeda Andrews rolled up shortly afterward, bearing a list of the truckers’ demands.
“Long before he was president, Barry Soerto, aka Barack Obama, was already plotting with others, to overturn the Constitution for the United States [sic throughout],” the document said before lamenting limits on trucker idling, the TSA, “Soerto-Care,” and mind control drugs in the military.
Andrews is not a RINO, in other words.
We tried to track one another down via cell phone when she first arrived at the rest stop. She informed me over the phone that “400 truckers from Alaska” would rendezvous at the stop, then spotted me in the crowd.
“We have 200 coming in from Alaska then we’ll be heading out to meet [Texas Rep. Louie] Gohmert at the World War II Memorial at 11:30,” she said.
The phantom Alaskans never showed, nor could Andrews confirm whether the phantom 5 a.m. convoy actually met with a congressman. All she knew was that 10:15 was go-time. But we weren’t going to the World War II Memorial to meet Rep. Gohmert; we were going to an I-95 weigh station to meet up with the Pennsylvania convoy.
Just before departure, word arrived that one participant had already been pulled over.
“You got to play it safe, make sure all your tail lights are on, go the speed limit. They’ll be looking for us,” a grey-bearded man warned fellow protesters, as they chalked T2SDA onto their front windshields and “Impeach the Traitor” onto the tailgates.
The 10 vehicles at the rest area left Doswell in two rounds about five minutes apart. My car travelled with Megonigle’s Mini in the second convoy, which held true to grey beard’s advice. Andrews and the first convoy accelerated to meet their compatriots. I soon got a call.
‘We’re going to the weigh station right by 495, not the other one,” Andrews said.
“So it’s in Maryland?”
“No, it’s just north of D.C.” she replied.
I left my convoy and raced to catch Andrews, leading to multiple hydroplanes and disingenuous waves to cut-off vehicles. I caught up just as the first convoy exited onto the Virginia weigh station that Andrews swore we wouldn’t enter. Her phone went straight to voicemail as I doubled back on the next exit and went straight to voicemail again as I drove southbound and saw her vehicle drive due north.
I arrived at the Greenbelt Junction—where 495 and 95 meet—just before noon. The only traffic jam the protesters had caused thus far was at the weigh station where truckers honked in frustration. Not that there were many protesters present.
Organizers initially said 10,000 truckers would participate, then a few thousand, before settling on 400 on the day of the event. But I only saw 29 tractor-trailers, pick-ups, and sedans parked on the side of the exit.
Andrews stood in the pouring rain with Chip Jones and Ruth Saylor, who came to protest the debt being passed on to their ten children. They hitchhiked to D.C. from North Carolina and managed to make it on time.
The same couldn’t be said for rally organizers, who blew off the appointment with Rep. Gohmert and launched the protest without the second half of the Doswell convoy. Megonigle, who had driven three days and arrived in Virginia before Andrews, would end up not joining Friday’s protest because Andrews gave him the wrong weigh station.
I had finally found something more incompetent than government.
The trucks pulled out just before 1 p.m. They were covered with Gadsden Flags, “We the People …” stickers, and countless American flags, but all appeared to have removed the “How Am I Driving” notices visible on nearly every semi in America.
I gave the protest a three-minute head start, in order experience it as an everyday D.C. commuter, and came upon green Dodge pick-up as it nearly rear-ended a black minivan in the left lane. The Dodge scurried into the middle lane and ran over an American flag that had blown off one of the trucks.
The libertarianism that inspired the protest was at work on 495. Rather than arranging lane assignments, organizers opted for the spontaneous order of allowing the trucks to do as they please. The slow down was nearly non-existent. At exit 33, I passed a Dodge Titan pick-up with Kentucky plates that was following a sky blue semi with a “Let’s Roll decal,” which followed an orange semi adorned with American flags. Lane three crawled at 45 mph, but the rest of the traffic zipped right along. Within 10 minutes I was at the head of the convoy.
Organizers also failed to map out a route. At every junction the protest got smaller as truckers wandered onto 95 South, 495 East, and Alexandria’s Eisenhower Avenue.
A black traffic van from 99.1 FM delivered “traffic and weather on the ones” in the midst of the protest. Truckers honked their horns anytime the beleaguered reporter went live. The protesters succeeded in harassing the reporter and a few commuters but failed to disturb the elites driving 65 mph in the express lanes.
Aside from the patriotic memorabilia, the only way to discern a protester from local drivers was by checking hazard lights—a tactic generally employed by funeral convoys. Truckers honked and swerved at any vehicle that dared to interrupt the procession.
I made my way back to K Street at 3, only to find 295 North and 395 South clogged. Drivers blasted their horns, cut one another off, and cursed their fellow locals. A black Mercedes forced me off the road near the 11th Street Bridge. Pedestrians jaywalked carelessly at each intersection, their chins raised high. Cars were parked with gaps large enough to guarantee them an easy exit, but too small for anyone else to park.
Pity the poor commuter.