Park Avenue and Laurens Street were lined with people on Saturday for the 17th annual Aiken Memorial Day Parade, presented by the Marine Corps League's James L. Hammons Detachment No. 939 of Aiken and the Aiken Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
The parade, which is one of only three in the state along with Charleston and Florence, is the largest of those three, according to director Joe Featherston. This year's event included nearly 100 entries and began at Park Avenue and Union Street, turned onto Laurens Street and ended at Edgefield Avenue. The grand marshal was Regimental Command Sergeant Major Ronald Pflieger of the U.S. Army Signal Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon.
Some people were setting up their chairs or tailgates more than an hour before the parade began.
Over the strains of a band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the honking of vintage cars or the cadence of military groups marching in step, applause and “Thank yous” could be heard as soldiers marched or rode past onlookers. Some active soldiers and veterans watching the parade saluted them as they passed.
Vardell Hunt, who's lived in Aiken since 1965, served 21 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 1982 before working another 27 years in the civilian workforce.
“I spent some time in Europe … two tours in Vietnam, and I spent a lot of time at Ft. Gordon and in Alabama,” he said. “I've been all over this country, man.”
Hunt said he's been to “quite a few” Memorial Day parades in Aiken.
“They've grown a lot. Things have changed, but it's been for the better,” he said as a band playing “God Bless America” marched past.
Hunt said Memorial Day is all about respect.
“It's respect to the people that gave their lives for this country and are still giving their lives for this country,” he said. “Soldiers need a lot of respect, because it takes a special person to go out into combat and put his life on the line for a country, knowing that he may never come home again.”
Hunt's son spent 10 years in the Army.
“He never got to see any combat. I think I've seen enough for both of us,” he said.
American flags danced in the air as the units moved down Park Avenue and Laurens Street. Other people made patriotic signs or banners, and many wore outfits of red, white and blue.
Children jumped, covered their ears and cackled as the fire engine from Aiken Public Safety blew its big horn.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to honor all the people that have served our country,” said Cristi Williams of Aiken, who came with her son Charlie. “We thought it was great. We loved the bands and all the vehicles. He was very impress with the truck that detects the metal and also with the old fashioned cars.”
Mark and Heather Pelicone and their son Nicholas have been coming to the parade for a number of years.
“We always come out Memorial Day to see our troops and this beautiful weather. This is probably our fourth or fifth time,” Mark said. “It's just getting everybody together and celebrating the holiday and seeing our veterans. We wish them all the best.”
• Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.