In our cynical world, it’s difficult to pull off any corporate celebration that doesn’t seem commercialized and self-serving. It’s a fine line between something being well-planned or contrived. But when it comes to capturing the pulse of America, no one has a better-tuned ear than the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Harley let its riders and products do the messaging in an unchoreographed procession through Milwaukee’s historic downtown on September 2, a Sunday.The parade rounded out the 5-day, 115th anniversary homecoming celebration that re-energized the company amidst recent turbulent headlines.
To pigeonhole the “typical” Harley rider is a mistake, just as it is to underestimate the company’s cultural currency and global impact. Politicians and pundits do so at their peril, even as the company stays above the fray.
Milwaukeeans love parades — the short summers and cold, dark winters will do that, so they turn out in droves to watch, cheer, and interact with the riders.
For logistical reasons, the parade was limited to 6,500 entrants from the tens of thousands of motorcyclists in town for the celebration. Still, it took the about three hours to make the 8-mile crawl down Wisconsin Avenue from the Miller Park baseball stadium to Veteran’s Park on the lakefront.
There were no celebrities in attendance, and if there were VIPs they went unnoticed. This was about as random a cross-section of everyday society that you might find.
Riders from around the world participated. Groups from Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and elsewhere displayed their home nation’s flags in a feel-good procession that was reminiscent of an Olympics closing ceremony. Crowds cheered loudly for each group of riders wearing traditional ethnic garb along with leather biker vests.
Children lined the street eager to slap hands with passing riders and passengers from around the world. One man stopped his Harley to let a little girl rev the bike’s throttle.
Firefighters waved to bikers under a giant American flag hung from two aerial ladder trucks. A makeshift memorial to fallen comrades — boots, helmet and a folded jacket — stood nearby.
A bride and groom on their motorcycle — complete with bouquet, best man and maid-of-honor — were cheered on by the spectators.
Riders stopped to shake the hand of an enlisted military man in dress uniform. Those who saluted him were returned in-kind with crisply snapped salutes.
A Milwaukee woman offered to take a picture of a Chinese couple on their bike, although neither spoke the other’s language.
A family of riders dressed as Caped Crusaders mugged for a sea of cell-phone cameras in what surely must be the king of all “What I did last summer” school writing assignments.
These are the unscripted moments that define our country. It was an emotional and memorable experience for everyone involved; one that transcended a simple parade and took on a deeper meaning given the divisive times we live in.
Leave it to the quintessential American motorcycle to bring out the American in all of us.