Somber moments before freedom-filled fun

Jenna Fortino (left) Haley Whittaker and Stephanie Hahn wave

– As U.S. troops conduct the mop up and peace keeping efforts
arising from this nation’s most recent war, record crowds turned
out Monday in Gilroy for three rounds of Memorial Day celebrations
honoring the men and women who died serving our country.
GILROY – As U.S. troops conduct the mop up and peace keeping efforts arising from this nation’s most recent war, record crowds turned out Monday in Gilroy for three rounds of Memorial Day celebrations honoring the men and women who died serving our country.

Garlic town celebrations starting at 9 a.m. and wrapping up at 4 p.m. gave Gilroyans a chance to pray for those who gave their lives in battle, show off some of the best this town has to offer and enjoy food, music and games amid a backdrop of luscious middle-of-spring weather.

“I was able to walk the whole route when the parade was going on, and I said to myself, ‘Wow, look at all the people who turned out,'” event chairman Russ Valiquette said. “I think it’s a combination of people feeling a little extra patriotic this year and the fact that Gilroy is in a growing phase.”

A Remembrance Ceremony attended by California Assemblyman Simón Salinas, County Supervisor Don Gage and Gilroy Mayor Don Gage kicked off Memorial Day celebrations Monday with a somber ceremony held at Gavilan Hills Memorial Park. The annual Hometown Parade, which started down Monterey Street and concluded at Gilroy High School on 10th Street, followed. And the day wrapped up with three hours of food, music and games at Christmas Hill Park.

Although formal attendance figures are not kept at any of the three Gilroy events, organizers estimate that more people turned out for Monday’s celebrations than in prior years.

About 120 organizations had entries in the annual Hometown Parade, roughly 20 more than last year, event co-chair and City Councilman Bob Dillon said.

“We had about 100 entries last year and that’s including all those last-minute entries,” Dillon said.

Last year, organizers had to scramble to add the late entries to the emcee scripts that are read over the mic as the parade marches by. This year, parade script writer and City Councilman Craig Gartman came prepared.

Organizers set up a motor home, compliments of Guaranty RV Centers of Gilroy, at the parade’s staging area. Inside, Gartman set up his laptop computer. As late entries arrived, Gartman only had to add the names and descriptions to the script he had on file inside his laptop.

“It went a lot smoother this time,” Dillon said.

Gartman was not the only prepared person on Monday. Parade watchers came ready, too. Elizabeth Duran of Morgan Hill-based Learning Services brought four brain injury clients to her 10th Street corner home. Sitting on lawn chairs under an umbrella, Marc Foxx and Paul Ross cheered the parade marchers and floats.

“We’re just Americans honoring our American freedoms,” Ross said.

The only hiccup to Monday’s festivities was the absence of the CALSTAR helicopter which traditionally flies over the parade route before marching starts. Event chairman Russ Valiquette said the chopper had a cracked windshield that needed repair.

“I heard over radio traffic Bob (Dillon) and Craig (Gartman) asking if there were any glitches yet,” Valiquette said. “Other than the helicopter, there were none.”

Even without the helicopter Gilroy skies were not empty. Vintage World War II P-51 fighters based out of Hollister kicked off the parade with a fly over. The sound of their engines was matched only by the winner of the Best of Parade award, the Indian Motorcycle company.

More than two-dozen Indian Motorcycle bikers rode their classic riding machines down Monterey and 10th streets. As they maneuvered in circles, the leather- and blue jean-clad bikers revved their engines, bringing their machines and the crowd to a roar.

For a trio of young Gilroy girls, the loud motorcycles were not even a distant second favorite. Instead, quiet convertibles carrying Garlic Queen Melissa Noto and her court were these girls’ favorite entry.

For Paige Petersen, her sister Heidi and friend Jenni Sigl, Monday wasn’t just about play, business was involved on this nearly 80-degree day, too.

Walking along 10th Street with a small wheelbarrow of paper cups and a cooler filled with lemonade, the girls sold drinks for 25 cents. When the drinks sold out, the industrious girls went to sales plan B – ice for 10 cents.

“We’re raising money for Disneyworld,” Sigl said.

Sigl and the Petersen girls will join elder sister Keri Petersen in Florida this summer as she competes in a Junior Olympics Tae Kwan Do championship. The proceeds from their mobile lemonade sale will go toward spending money for the trip.

Although a bright sun, a clear sky and smiling crowds dominated Gilroy streets Monday, Gilroyans spent time contemplating the meaning of the May 26 holiday. The Remembrance Ceremony at Gavilan Hills Memorial Park served as the focal point of that contemplation.

Prior to the traditional laying of the wreath at the cemetery’s flagpole, the Gilroy High School chamber choir sang the national anthem, Supervisor Gage read the names of Gilroyans who perished in war, and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post conducted a gun salute and Taps ceremony.

“I’ve been coming to Memorial Day celebrations for more than 75 years,” longtime Gilroy resident Sandoe Hanna said Monday morning. “I’ve been in parades back when I was in the National Guard, and with the Boy Scouts before that.”

Hanna, 91, attended the Remembrance Ceremony with wife Mildred, 89. The Hannas, married for 69 years, said they regularly attend Memorial Day celebrations and place flowers on the graves of their loved ones, despite never losing anyone in battle.

Sandoe Hanna saw two brothers go off to fight in World War II with the Marines.

“They came back safely,” he said.