OLD ORCHARD BEACH – With the sound of hundreds of motorcycles riding through the streets and a Vietnam War era helicopter flying overhead, the second annual POW/MIA Recognition Weekend began on Friday, Sept. 20 at The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach.
Organized by the Maine Heroes Fund and Old Orchard Beach resident Russell Warriner, the weekend-long event honors all of the nation’s veterans and their families for the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their country.
“It’s really just our way of honoring them and saying thank you,” Warriner said.
This year, the group also unveiled and dedicated an empty seat at the stadium. The simple black seat will remain permanently empty at every event as a way of remembering those who are still missing or have yet to return.
“I really didn’t know much about this, but the more I worked on it and the more I thought about it … all those who are still missing – I hope people see this and think of them too,” Fountain said.
There are other such seats at ballparks and stadiums around the country, but Fountain and Warriner believe this is the first one in Maine.
“I made the plaque and the stand out of material that will last a long time,” Fountain said. “I’d like it to be here forever.”
The seat was formally dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21 as part of the weekend’s activities and presentations.
“Last year’s event was special. It was the first,” Warriner said. “This year we tried to make it even better.”
Like last year, the weekend started with an escort to the ballpark. The motorcycle club, Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 Maine, based in Sanford, met at the end of the turnpike and together they escorted the helicopter to the event.
“We’re meeting at the York weigh station in the northbound lane at 2 p.m.,” said Tim DeCosta, president of the Maine chapter. “Anyone who wants to ride with us and honor the vets can meet there.”
Rolling Thunder is not charging anyone a fee to ride, but DeCosta wanted to make sure anyone who joined brought money to pay the tolls on the turnpike.
“We collect the money at the start, pay the tolls and then we go,” said Don Morin, a Biddeford resident and chairman of the board of Rolling Thunder. “We don’t stop until we get to the park.”
The motorcycle escort will ride north on the turnpike and get off at the Biddeford exit.
“We should be there by 3:30 or so,” Morin said.
From the exit they will make their way to Five Points, travel past the Biddeford fire and police stations, cross the river and head north along Main Street in Saco. The group will ride on U.S. Route 1 north to Cascade Road and then head into Old Orchard Beach.
“We should be in downtown Biddeford and at York Hill by about 3:45,” Morin said. “From there it’s just a few minutes to Saco.”
“We’d like to see as many people as we can along the route,” DeCosta said.
DeCosta and Morin both said the event is to honor the veterans in their group, and usually the first riders in the group are veterans and combat veterans.
“There are times when riders finish the event with tears on their cheeks,” Morin said.
“The ride was definitely emotional last year,” Warriner said. “The Freeport Flag Ladies were here. There were kids and adults of all ages along the route.”
There will be a number of political dignitaries at the event, including Gov. Paul Lepage and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. Each will speak and honor the men and women who have served and those still to return home.
By nature, Warriner is a soft-spoken man, but as he thought about the event he said, “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s important that we don’t forget.”