Hundreds of families congregated on the streets, their faces pointing to the cloudy sky as five synchronized fighter planes soared over 10th and Monterey streets to kick off Monday morning’s Memorial Day parade in Gilroy.
“We live in a world of superheros,” parade announcer Mike Sanchez said, as a caravan of local veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korea passed by, waving to the crowd with white gloves from the passenger seats of classic cars. “You don’t have to look further than these guys right here.”
The parade began on a somber note, with bugler Mark Butler standing alone in the middle of 10th street playing “Taps” – the melancholy ceremonial tune that’s been used at military funerals since the 1800s.
The parade was filled with a colorful smattering of 68 small town floats that Gilroyans look forward to each year – Gerry Foisy in his trademark “Mr. Garlic” dress costume, the newly-crowned queen of last week’s highly anticipated Garlic Festival pageant, Olivia Echeverria, who sat perched and smiling from the backseat of a classic convertible, Police Chief Denise Turner cruising by in an armored SWAT unit, Native American tribal dancers decked out in feathered headpieces and a troop of Mexican-style dancing horses.
Gilroy’s festive Memorial Day procession hasn’t changed much in two decades, according to a 21-year-old spectator named Alex, “but I keep coming back,” grinned the local, who declined to give his last name.
Alex said on Memorial Day, he thinks of Pete Garcia, a WWII veteran from Gilroy who participated in Monday’s parade while riding in a red, white and blue-tinseled sports car. Garcia worked as a campus security guard when Alex was a student at Mount Madonna School, located at the top of Hecker Pass Road.
“He was a guard at our school, but he took the time to get to know us and just talk to us,” he said. “So I clapped extra hard when he went by (in the parade).”
Other wide-eyed onlookers, such as 8-month-old Brayden Ferrara, were out and about for their first-ever parade. The infant waved around (and chewed on) a tiny American flag as his family toted him around.
“It was a great moment to be with my new son out here,” said Brayden’s dad, Ryan Ferrara. “All the smiles brightened the cloudy day, and it’s just a great time to honor our veterans.”
Ryan’s wife, Tia Ferrara said the bevy of dancing horses especially impressed her.
And she wasn’t the only one captivated by United Riders, the San Martin equine performance group showcased in Gilroy’s Memorial Day parade now for many years. The crowd gave a lively applause when the sombrero-donning Hispanic riders trotted by on their mounts, showing off their steeds’ ability to dance with perfect timing to a live mariachi band.
“They know how to bring the party, folks,” exclaimed announcer Sanchez. “It takes years and years to train these horses to dance this way.”
Gilroy’s oldest living World War II veteran, 95-year-old Alfred Angelino, also enjoyed the festivities with his 64-year-old daughter Judy Dean. Angelino relaxed in a fold-up chair on the corner of 10th and Eigleberry streets.
“And he still fits in his jacket,” Dean bragged, patting Angelino’s military coat bedecked in medals, pins and award patches.
Angelino beamed when a passerby thanked him for his service.
When asked how he’s feeling as his 96th birthday approaches in two months, Angelino smiled.
“Good. Just feel me,” he said, squeezing his left bicep.
Meanwhile, Joshua Bondurant, an 8-year-old boy with big front teeth, said he loved seeing the “cool, old cars” that the veterans drove and rode in during the parade.
Bondurant’s sister, 10-year-old Angelina Bondurant, fancied the horses and members of the Garlic Pageant court. The queen and her four princesses sported sparkling tiaras and matching outfits, waving to the crowd.
The parade wrapped up as its final entry – a truck with a large stone tablet tied to its flatbed – completed the route. The tablet was engraved with a list of all the 79 fallen soldiers from Gilroy, from WWI to Afghanistan.
“It was really a wonderful time,” said Albert Lambert, who has organized the parade with the Gilroy Community Organization since 2009.
The parade began in the mid 1990s but lost steam for a few years until 2002, when a few Council members, including former Councilman Bob Dillon dedicated themselves to the parade’s resurgence. It has been going strong ever since.
“The thing about the parade is that people go expecting to have a good time. So they do,” Dillon said.
Earlier Monday morning, American Legion Gilroy Post 217 led about 100 community members in a Memorial Day remembrance at St. Mary Cemetery.
The ceremony that honored Gilroy’s fallen war heroes had a somber feel, perhaps aided by the morning’s chilly fog. Mayor Don Gage was listed as the featured speaker for the event, but did not make an appearance. Later that morning, Gage said over the phone that he had planned a vacation for this week months ago, and told the American Legion that he would not be able to attend the event.
Tears filled many a veteran’s eyes as Detective Stan Devlin of the Gilroy Police Department played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.
“Don’t forget to thank a veteran today,” said U.S. Navy veteran Al Schmidt, after closing with a prayer. “That’s what Memorial Day is about.”