I’m told that Knoxville doesn’t have the biggest Veterans Day Parade in the country. If true, that would come as quite a surprise to the people who gathered on Gay Street last Friday. The very large, festive crowd of thousands that gathered at 10:45 had begun to fray around the edges by 11:45. After noon and with no end in sight, more left and by the end, right around 12:30, about two-thirds of the crowd were gone. We love our veterans, but it appears we love them best if they are early in the parade.
The massive American flag suspended over Gay Street set the patriotic tone and hundreds of flags were in evidence through out the crowd. Most of them were American, though one large flag moving along the street was a confederate battle flag. I asked the gentleman why he paraded it on Veterans Day and he said because he had at least eight ancestors fight under that flag and they were veterans, too. Any irony that they fought against the military being honored didn’t seem to dissuade him.
Mayor Rogero walked the length of the crowd from the City County building, along Gay Street, to the grandstand area. Citizens dressed in red, white and blue waved along the way. Later Mayor Burchett would join them handing out flags, as is his tradition. Lots of children lined the curbs waving flags and smiling, some of them dressed in military attire. Families displayed the names of their loved ones serving or having served. The happy buzz enveloping the crowd turned to cheers as the parade started.
Marching bands played patriotic tunes between extended solos by the drum corps. Mothers angled from the sidewalk for photos of their majorette, trumpet player or other participant. A range of veteran-related groups joined in. A motorcycle group, the Patriot Guard Riders, dedicated to making sure veteran funerals are treated with respect (a response to Westboro Baptist Church), joined the parade.
Most moving, to me, were the veterans themselves. Some rode in open-air cars, including Grand Marshall Joe Edelman who served as a marine in the Pacific during World War II, while others rode the backs of flat-bed trucks or small floats. To see, particularly the world war two veterans – and there were more of them than I would have expected – served as a reminder that these men experienced great horrors, likely lost friends and were impacted for the remainder of their lives in order to fight fascism in the name of our country.
Of course there were also all manner of car groups and enthusiasts displaying their vintage cars of various sorts. Go carts did figure eights in the street. Moonshine stills were mounted on the backs of some Model A vehicles. And there were lots of motorcycles. I’m not sure the connection, but vets and motorcycles seem to have a strong relationship. It’s primarily Vietnam-era vets and I don’t know that it’s been true before that generation. If so, I never noticed it as a child.
This was the 91st rendition of Knoxville’s Veterans Parade, or maybe it’s slightly older – sometimes it’s hard to put a starting point on something that evolves in its early years. As always, Jack Neely has an excellent article about the early recognition of veterans in our city. It’s hard to imagine that these elderly men, veterans from World War II were babies or young children themselves when the first parade was held. Among the elderly population of the city at that time would have been veterans of the Civil War.
World War I veterans and Armistice Day set the course for the modern celebration. And it’s always been on Gay Street headed north, which Neely points out was the same direction as those, “who marched north toward the troop trains waiting at the Southern Railway station at Gay and Depot,” as they entered World War I.
On this particular Veterans Day, my thoughts turned to the election earlier in the week and to the new direction our country seems to have turned. When pondering the implications of this election for the veterans, those currently serving and those who will in the near future – including many of the fresh-faced, parading children in their ROTC, Boy and Girls Scout and Cub Scout uniforms – the path ahead is, at best unclear.
President-elect Trump did not serve, using multiple deferments to avoid the draft. Veterans groups, I believe, generally supported him and he said he would “take care of the veterans,” though he also called decorated war veteran John McCain, “a loser,” for having been captured and engaged in a week-long twitter war with a couple who lost their son in the military.
Like most campaigns, details were sparse. As for the current military, he has assured us he, “knows more than the generals,” and regarding ISIS, he would “bomb the shit out of them,” then destroy their oil wells and refineries, build them back with Exxon and take the oil for himself. He expressed clear support for torture. Reportedly he asked why we couldn’t use nuclear bombs, suggested other countries need them and then said he didn’t say that. Confusing at best.
Those gathered Friday were there to honor those who had served and recognized the great sacrifice many of them made on our behalf. Let us all hope and pray that sacrifice will be honored going forward, that great care will be taken before committing ourselves to conflicts which put our soldiers in harm’s way and that the world we hand over to these fresh-faced babies in this parade is a safer one.