Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a colleague — a WPSU radio producer — to Bellefonte to capture a beautiful tradition. Since the Civil War, local soldiers have marched to Bellefonte’s train station before deployment. Although the train is no longer in operation, the National Guard unit made the historic march before leaving for Iraq.
Cynthia suited up with her audio recording devices and I slung the camera over my shoulder and we headed up the hill to the Armory Building. Along the way, I snapped photos of Victorian homes draped in American flags and patriotic bunting. As we walked by the high school, we heard the marching band warming up. (They led the parade down Bishop Street.)
When we arrived at the Armory, we caught the tail-end of the Sergeant’s instructions to his troop. He reminded the men that they needed to remove their cars from the grounds since they would not return for a year. That’s when it hit me — these young guys were leaving home for a full year. And I emphasize “young.” Most appeared to be my age or younger. And I noticed wedding bands on a majority of the hands.
Soon the soldiers stepped into place and the parade began. In front of the band, motorcycles and a color guard cleared the street; fire trucks followed behind the soldiers. I rushed ahead to capture the community members who lined the street.
Construction workers took a break to acknowledge their peers. Employees from Weis Market and Burger King held signs that said “We Support Our Troops.” An elderly man struggled out of his wheel chair to salute the men. Students and teachers and administrators stood in the school’s lawn waving flags and chanting “We Are … America.” Small children from the Christian Academy — dressed in red, white, and blue dresses and trousers — stood with their hands on the hearts. As I entered the downtown area, I noticed fully robed judges who had walked down from the Courthouse and a pit bull with a patriotic handkerchief tied around his neck. At some points the crowd was four people deep. And the closer I got to the train station, the more signs I saw that read “My daddy is my hero” and “We’re proud of our son.”
The camouflaged men marched to the entrance of the park where ladders from two firetrucks formed an arch with an American flag soaring against the bright blue sky. The Sergeant ordered the soldiers to face him and then said, “I now release you to your families.”
Mothers in red cable-knit sweaters and fathers wearing veteran hats and jackets embraced their sons. A little girl with a blond ponytail ran to her father; her hand painted t-shirt said “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Another father scooped up his baby boy who was wearing a camo onesie and cap. Wives who looked younger than me locked arms with their husbands.
Slowly everyone moved into the park. The marching band formed a semicircle around the gazebo, which was draped in bunting. A folding table was filled with chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies baked by the high school home economics class. Several speakers addressed the large crowd, including the Mayor, a State Representative, and a Vietnam Vet.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of one soldier who sat removed the crowd with his wife and young daughter. He bounced the little girl on his knee and let her bare feet touch the cool grass. I couldn’t help but think that the next time he saw her she’d be walking and talking.
I have so much respect for military families. Not only do soldiers risk their lives to fight for our freedoms, but spouses and children and parents and siblings sacrifice, as well. I left Bellefonte that day in amazement of the pride displayed by one small town. More of us should take the time to honor our soldiers and offer support to their families and communities.