VERNON - After Sunday's last mass, when the serene parade of sedans and SUVs cleared Our Lady of Fatima Church's parking lot, what sounded like muffled thunder rumbled down the street and refilled the empty parking spaces. A parade of motorcycles soon followed, filling the lots. Engines idled and then stopped. It quieted down; the riders dismounted. All passersby saw was a sea of black leather washing against islands of chrome and bright paint. But if one had taken a minute to stop and talk to the chaps and jackets and boots they would have realized that these people were more colorful than the Harleys and Hondas and Yamahas and Suzukis they rode in on. They had come to Highland Lakes, this hairy horde, to be blessed. For Sunday was Our Lady of Fatima's third annual Biker's Blessing. The blessing, with appropriate splashes of holy water, was performed by the church's Father Bob, a gentle man with a manner that suggested Mr. Rogers in a clerical collar. Most of the bikers were from Vernon and the surrounding areas, but Stillwater's Red Knights Chapter 13 were there as well as Hackensacks Ironworkers Local 483. Jim and Vicki Lang, friends of the Bianco family, which helped organize the event, rode 300 miles to attend. Jim Lang said he came to represent Vietnam veterans, of which he is one. They weren't much for personal details. "Al from Clifton" was all the name one guy needed. Yet they all acknowledged that the real reason for the gathering was the sense of brotherhood that brought people from near and far together in the belief that strangers are friends who have not yet met. The mood was warm while everyone waited for the ceremony to begin. Bikers and their ladies - or in most female riders' cases, their men - milled around the lot, eating, laughing and chewing the fat until a burst of feedback from the microphone brought their low roar down to a reverent silence. John Denver's words echoed over the damp asphalt n "Live free and ride with the wind
" A few more words were said before the actual blessing, including a brief story about one Ellie Rose, a four-year-old girl whose brain, because of a disease she has that was identified only as "too long to pronounce or remember," stopped developing when she was about nine months old. A collection was taken to help the girl's family pay for various forms of therapy, and it seemed that no one had any qualms about giving - fives and tens falling from the hands of those who were present. The words spoken and the looks on people's faces showed that none of the gifts were false charity; those who gave really did care. As afternoon rain began spattering the pavement the procedure sped up a little bit. There was the Pledge of Allegiance, a Gospel reading, then a Biker's Prayer. Father Bob and a young water-bearer, Alex Cawley, made the rounds, sprinkling holy water on the already-wet bikers and their machines. There were more than 100 bikes on hand. Event coordinators, including Dave and Cindy Gallaugher, Linda and John "James" Bianco, John Cawley, and Bob Maggio, said that last year there was a better turnout, about 160 people, with drizzly weather holding down this year's crowd. Maggio thanked everyone who helped publicize the event, then talked about why so many came. "People think bikers are bad or something," he said. "We're not. Ever hear of honor among thieves? Well this is kind of like honor among bikers. It's like the Marines. We would never leave another one behind." Whether people believed in that deep camaraderie (as most did) or came simply for the fun of it, everyone seemed to have fun. After all, as one person joked, "It's nice to get out and come up here once in a while instead of just riding around from bar to bar."