OTTUMWA — Wednesday morning was hotter than that day 12 years ago, but you could see echoes in the bright blue sky over southeast Iowa. At least you could until the clouds moved in.
The clouds didn't worry Joe Meola, vice president of the area Blue Knights chapter. So long as they stayed ahead of any rain they'd be just fine on their ride to Coralville.
At a glance, the Blue Knights don't look all that different from most motorcycle clubs. Black leather is more or less standard. The patches and rockers follow the same patterns; anyone with basic familiarity can read them with ease. Many of the members are as heavily tattooed as any biker on the roads. Several of the license plates had variations on “sixer,” a reference to the chapter's number.
But the Blue Knights have a different purpose. It's a combination of motorcycle club, business social and public service organization. Members are sworn law enforcement officers and, on this day, they were riding in remembrance of one of the worst days in American history.
The plan was to ride to the state's firefighters' memorial. Jeff Box, an Ottumwa firefighter and a reserve deputy for Wapello County, had an Ottumwa firefighters patch to deliver. Meola said next year they'll visit the police memorial — if they can get more police officers than firefighters on the rides.
Current duty in law enforcement matters less for the Knights than whether you've served. Retirement doesn't mean a cop quits being a cop. It just means you aren't putting on the uniform every morning.
“It's strictly law enforcement. We have retired state troopers, reserve officers, deputies, reserve deputies, police officers,” Meola said. “With our jobs, it can be hard to get out and enjoy everything.”
That's a big part of the bond for the Blue Knights. No one knows what an officer is facing like another officer.
Todd Evans, a Wapello County deputy and the chapter president, said the group started about 18 months ago. Thirteen members were part of the original group. Membership “has grown pretty good since then.”
Evans started riding motorcycles five or six years ago. He was drawn to the club by “the love of motorcycle riding and the values of the Blue Knights.”
“They're a family-oriented club,” he continued. “Children are always welcome at any event we do. And there's the charity, too.”
That's a theme Meola was quick to return to: “We're always looking for people looking for donations.”
Wednesday's ride could help with that role, albeit indirectly. Members hope that as people hear about the group the reaction will change from “Who are you?” to “I know you,” when they ask for donations for a raffle or fundraiser.
Meola made sure one other point was made before the group headed out. The vests identify the group and, whether they're wearing their patches or the uniform, they remain law enforcement. If you need help, he said, they'll help.
After 18 months, the club seems happy with having grown to about 22 members scattered through Ottumwa, Fairfield, Centerville and other southeast Iowa cities. It's still early, though. And as the last few bikers trickled in for Wednesday's ride, there was the sense that there was more to do.
Part of that was quite literally the road ahead. Everyone was ready to ride out. But it was also the sense of a group just getting on its feet and reaching for more. Some officers have changed in the past 18 months. One traded his “Iowa VI” rocker for membership in the “Heaven” chapter.
Things are changing, but that's what growth is.