Talk to any police officer and the chances are he or she will tell you their jobs can be boring, stressful, and frustrating, with occasional moments of excitement and fear.
But one local officer recently had an experience that was the highlight of his 10-year career—and one that touched him to the core.
Earlier this summer, Fort Frances OPP Cst. Mike Golding thought he had reached the pinnacle of his policing career when he was selected to the OPP’s elite “Golden Helmets” precision motorcycle demonstration team.
But that proved to be merely a prelude for something even better—and far more important.
On Aug. 18, Cst. Golding and the “Golden Helmets” left Toronto and rode their police-issue motorcycles across the Peace Bridge into the United States and on to Somerset, Pa.—site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
They were there at the invitation of America’s 9/11 Ride Foundation—a non-profit corporation founded in 2003 and based in Leesburg, Va.
The foundation’s website says it is dedicated to supporting the men and women of the nation’s police, fire, and ambulance services who place themselves in harm’s way.
Over the next few years, it plans to establish college scholarships for the families of those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The trip was an experience Cst. Golding described as “phenomenal.”
“We drove the whole way with our lights flashing,” he recalled last Thursday when he dropped by the Times office.
“As we crossed each county line, the local police closed every single road for us and escorted us to the next jurisdiction, where a new police force would pick us up,” he added.
What awaited them in Somerset was even more phenomenal. There they met up with 2,000 other riders, including 500 police officers from all over the U.S.
The rest were civilians who, for the most part, had some personal connection with the events of 9/11. Some were family members of the victims; others friends or colleagues.
There was a ceremony of remembrance for the victims of that ill-fated flight and Cst. Golding had a chance to tour the memorial that has been erected there by some local citizens.
He found the degree of devastation caused by the impact to be extremely moving.
“I talked to one fellow who arrived at the crash site shortly after it happened,” Cst. Golding related. “He told me he couldn’t believe a plane had crashed there. There was just a great big hole.”
That hole has since been filled in, but there now is a marker and an American flag at the point of impact. There also are rows of flags bearing the names of the passengers and crew who perished that day.
Then the entire entourage mounted up and headed for Washington, D.C. Once again, they had clear roads and police escorts as they made their way to the nation’s capital.
The line of motorcycles was 22 miles long.
When they entered the property of the Pentagon, they picked up a new escort—U.S. Secret Service agents on motorcycles and armed with MP-5 submachine guns.
Once at the Pentagon, the “Golden Helmets” put on their famous precision-riding show for the benefit of the officials and the others in the group.
“We made a point of being as sharp as possible all the time,” said Cst. Golding. “Every time we parked, we did it the same way as we do in a show.”
From there, the riders proceeded to the Capitol building downtown and once again the “Golden Helmets” put on a demonstration—this time before a large audience of civilians as well.
Cst. Golding said he was awed by the history he saw around him everywhere. That history even extended to their accommodations. “We stayed at the ‘Hinckley’ Hilton—the place where President Reagan was shot,” he grinned.
Cst. Golding noted all the expenses, including hotel accommodations and gas for their motorcycles, were picked up by the foundation.
Furthermore, he found he was almost overwhelmed by the reception they received from the civilian population when it was revealed they had come all the way from Canada to support their fellow officers.
“We were treated like rock stars,” he remarked.
But the treatment they received in Washington paled in comparison to the reception they received in The Big Apple.
On Aug. 21, the group set out for the third and final site—“Ground Zero.” Up to this point, things couldn’t have gone more smoothly, but as they headed north, they had two accidents.
“It had been raining hard and some of the roads were slick,” Cst. Golding recalled. “One officer [not OPP] went into a skid at the bottom of a hill and into the ditch.”
That officer escaped with minor injuries, but another was not as fortunate.
The officer was riding alongside a civilian, who apparently looked down to adjust something with his foot and inadvertently swerved into him. Both bikes went down hard at highway speed.
The civilian was not seriously injured, but the officer had to be airlifted from the scene to hospital.
For Cst. Golding, it was a sobering reminder of how vulnerable motorcyclists are. “There’s no room for error on a motorcycle,” he stressed.
Apart from those two incidents, the ride into New York City was uneventful—the long line of motorcycles proceeding with their lights flashing. But as they entered the Holland Tunnel, something spontaneous happened.
“I don’t know who started it and it certainly wasn’t planned, but as we went through the tunnel, everybody hit their sirens.
“It was absolutely deafening,” he laughed.
But the best was yet to come. The citizens of New York lined the streets and cheered as the motorcycles drove through the streets with their lights flashing.
“Everywhere, people were shaking our hands and asking for autographs,” Cst. Golding noted. “Everybody treated us with the utmost dignity and respect. It was almost as though we were ambassadors for all of Canada.”
He said the same thing happened in New York as on the highways—police cordoned off their route as they drove through the streets, but nobody seemed to mind the disruption.
“When we pulled in, we shut down New York City,” he remarked. “In Times Square, there was a police officer every 50 yards. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
At “Ground Zero,” things were more somber. Since he was a police officer, Cst. Golding was allowed into the area around the site to which civilians are not permitted.
He said construction is now well underway on the new Freedom Tower, which, when complete, is supposed to be even taller than the original twin towers.
Before leaving, the “Golden Helmets” put on one more performance in Harrison, N.Y., about 20 minutes from the city. Then it was time to start the long ride back home.
But the “Golden Helmets” didn’t leave Manhattan empty-handed. As part of the tour, there was raffle for a brand-new Harley-Davidson Police Special, valued at $30,000 (U.S.)
As luck would have it, from 500 possibilities, it was the name of one of the “Golden Helmets” that was drawn.
Cst. Golding said that bike will be brought up to Ontario, given a special paint job, and will go back down next year for the 2005 America’s 9/11 ride.
He also noted the “Golden Helmets” already have been invited back next year—and he does not intend to miss it for anything.
“It was, by far, the best experience I’ve had as a police officer,” he enthused.