Everybody loves a parade. So goes the adage. But does everybody love walking in a parade? Specifically, does a 77-year-old man love walking in a parade?
That was the question I asked myself the morning of Nov. 4 as I prepared to walk in the Los Banos Veterans parade.
I had been to all the previous veterans parades in Los Banos over the years as a spectator. This year would be the first one I had agreed to be a participant. After all, the theme was “Salute to the Air Force,” and I had served in the Air Force — long ago and not very remarkably — during the Vietnam War.
I had served, maybe simply “worked” would be a better term, as an enlisted man during the Vietnam War assigned to the personnel office at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater (after basic training in Texas and technical training in Mississippi). I had been issued not a gun but a typewriter. I never rose beyond the rank of airman first class. Not very remarkable
I’m currently a member of the Los Banos Veterans group in Los Banos, and I talk with fellow veterans my age who were in heavy and intense conflicts in the jungles of Vietnam. Those are the people who truly deserve the recognition of a parade.
But I was indeed in the Air Force, and the 2023 parade was saluting that military branch, so I said to myself “What the heck” and signed up with Patricia McCoy, the hardworking Air Force veteran who chairs the Los Banos parade.
I wanted to keep my parade experience simple and under the radar, so I signed up as a solitary “walker.” I would simply walk from the start of the parade at Sixth and J Streets, up Sixth Street, left on I Street, right on Fourth Street, right on F Street, left on Sixth Street again, then right on E Street several blocks to the Veterans Memorial Hall.
I found in the back of a closet my old fatigue uniform shirt that I wore when I served at Castle more than 50 years ago. I tried it on. I couldn’t button it, but I could get my arms through sleeves, so I could wear it as a kind of vest, with an olive-green T-shirt underneath. I also could wear my cap which says, “American Legion—Air Force.”
At 10 a.m., after having a tasty breakfast served by the Los Banos Veterans Auxiliary at the Veterans Hall, I walked to Seventh and I Streets, where a kind and efficient volunteer gave me a small piece of paper with “D-5” on it (my place in the parade line up), which I needed to pin on my right sleeve.
At 10:30 I found my parade place, behind a golf cart with three other veterans, who were just behind the Pacheco High School marching band. (I was glad I was not behind the Merced County Sheriff’s Posse riding their horses, for reasons I think my readers can guess.)
Behind me were a troop of Cub Scouts who had made cardboard airplanes with a hole to put their head through.
At 10:55 I was in place and ready to go. The last time I was in parade was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where airmen marched in formation just about every day wearing combat boots. This time I was wearing tennis shoes.
At 10:59 a.m. I asked myself, “Was I crazy to do this?” After all, I’m 77 years old and it’s a long route to walk. And I needed to look somewhat military, with an upright posture and solid walking style. Recently, however, my left leg had been bothering me, to the point when I woke up I walked with a limp. No limping during the parade, I told myself.
Well, it turns out I enjoyed being in the parade. Would I go so far as to say I “loved” it? Maybe not. Would I do it again? No. But for one bright and shining morning I was IN a parade.
Not only did I enjoy it, I gained a much greater appreciation for everyone else in the parade and for the Los Banos Veterans who put so much time and effort into planning and organizing the parade, especially Patricia McCoy, who starts planning for a parade the day after the previous parade is over.
Patricia and her parade-planning team first have to get people and organizations to sign up for the parade, then organize the entries in some sort of order, then write a script for the announcers to read as entries go by, then get judges who decide which entries should get awards, then make sure (with the help of many other veteran and non-veteran volunteers) that all entries are in the right places before the parade starts.
Those entries include bands, floats, cars, trucks, military vehicles, organizations, and individuals, including an old veteran walking alone. And each year the parade comes off like a well-oiled machine. And on top of everything else, Patricia was able to arrange a military plane to do a flyover this year.
As a parade participant, I developed the utmost respect for Patricia and the dozens of other people who work with her to pull off the parade.
As far as my experience walking in the parade, I did make it to the end, without in any way collapsing. I was helped by being near the Pacheco High band. The talented band members played with verve, boosting my energy.
I was also fortunate that I wasn’t attacked by any of the airplanes behind me. The Cub Scouts had fun pretending they were pilots, zooming along the street, in what I would call not “tight” but “free-style” formation.
I also was impressed by the many spectators, standing or sitting along the parade route, waving at the parade participants. I felt proud to be a part of the parade and proud to be a veteran.
Maybe I didn’t exactly “love” walking in the parade, but I certainly developed new appreciation and respect for the Los Banos Veterans who make it happen each year.
P.S. After the parade I asked Los Banos VFW Commander Mike Hughes if he had a parade trophy for me for being the oldest veteran walking. He said something under his breath that I couldn’t quite make out, but it wasn’t “yes.”