Hundreds of spectators crowded in front of stores, restaurants and between parked cars in downtown Bel Air Friday morning to watch the first Veterans Day parade the town has seen in more than 50 years.
The crowd, which, at times, looked like a sea of waving American flags in a cold wind, was a good mix of young and old. And, though the parade was relatively short, many attending said they were impressed with what they saw and with the turnout.
Children, many from nearby Bel Air Elementary School (county schools did not have the day off Friday), stood and sat along Main Street's curb, holding their flags and chanting "USA!"
Veterans, while relatively quiet as they watched, could be picked out from the crowd by the hats they wore, several donning caps with "United States Marine Corps" or "Korea Veteran" stitched on the front.
Maj. Kirk Pietsch, serving on active duty in the Maryland National Guard, was at the parade with his son, Max, a third-grader at Bel Air Elementary School, and many of Max's classmates.
Pietsch has served in Iraq twice, one in Desert Storm and again in 2003, and has lived in Bel Air for six years.
"It really represents the sacrifices the soldiers make, especially the younger ones," Pietsch said of what the Veterans Day celebration meant to him, adding that he's especially moved when he sees young veterans who have returned disabled from serving overseas.
Friday morning for Pietsch was all about celebrating the servicemen and women of Harford alongside his son.
Sandra Sann, 73 of Jarrettsville, said she came to the parade to see her great-niece and granddaughter, who attend Bel Air Elementary School, and to accompany her friend, Dean Rueckert, a Vietnam-era vet.
Rueckert, 67 of Bel Air, joked about how the military sent him to Germany during the war, where he served from 1969 to 1972, because he spoke the language and was part of an intelligence team.
Looking at the number of young children in the crowd, Rueckert remarked, "It's great to think they understand how costly our liberty is."
"We had to shed our blood for that," he added.
Rick Roberts, a civilian working for the Coast Guard, accompanied his grandchildren to the parade.
"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have this country," Roberts, 53 of Joppa, said of the veterans.
While he's never served, Roberts has friends and co-workers who have. "It's a day to honor them all."
The parade began near the Harford County Courthouse on Main Street and ended a couple blocks north at Lee Street, with onlookers waving and cheering along the entire route.
Several local high school marching bands played patriotic songs between groups of veterans in cars and military vehicles, which got the loudest cheers from the children.
Armory exhibit, ceremony
Following the parade, veterans who had participated or watched lined up in front of the Bel Air Reckord Armory for a ceremony.
County Councilman Jim McMahan, an Army veteran, read "In Flanders Fields," written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, what McMahan called "one of the most memorable war poems ever written."
Harford County Executive David Craig spoke about the veterans who've contributed so much to Harford by serving in the military and risking their lives.
Craig spoke of all the relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers and co-workers he's known over the years who served in the military and "sacrificed parts of their lives so we could have days like this."
Rededicating the armory as a community center, Craig, members of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners and the late Gen. Milton Reckord's granddaughter, Betsy Herrmann, did the honor of cutting the red, white and blue ribbon draped in front of the armory's red front doors.
Inside the building, tables were set up for the historical society's luncheon, with memorabilia dating from the Revolutionary War up to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lined up on tables around the room.
Former Bel Air director of planning Carol Deibel, who worked with the historical society to put the celebration together, pointed out her favorite items in the exhibit.
"We wanted to make sure we showed all of the different things," she said, as she pointed at the table dedicated to the Maryland National Guard.
Photos of Gen. Reckord, a Harford native who served in World Wars I and II and was also state adjutant general, sat in front of his ceremonial punch bowl, which is made of Maryland silver.
"There always needs to be a punch bowl," Capt. Matt Deener, who works at the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion for the Maryland National Guard, joked about the number of events Gen. Reckord threw and attended. Deener added that the bowl is kept in a vault because of its monetary and sentimental value.
Deibel also called attention to the wedding gown of Lt. Mary Ellen Smith, who served as nurse in the Philippines during World War II, and married Lt. William Hurley, who was also stationed there.
She explained that the Filipinos made the dress out of a parachute and hand-made the lace embellishments.
Uniforms from every branch of the military were represented around the room, displayed on mannequins.
Photos were shown on poster boards, including little-seen shots of Vietnam battlefields. A picture of a very young Senior Assistant County Attorney Richard Herbig, who is active with the historical society, was among the photographs.
Never forgetting that the event focused on Harford's vets, Deibel also showed a photo of Gen. Reckord walking with a man and woman down what was then an unpaved Jarrettsville Road.
Members of the Baltimore United Volunteers, a group that does re-enactments of the War of 1812, showed curious people how pistols and rifles from that period worked.
Ken Hunt, 66 of Dundalk, explained the conditions the soldiers dealt with in defending the U.S. from the British invaders, including having only one uniform and not being able to bathe for months.
Hunt, who also does World War II re-enactments, said soldiers would walk around, sometimes without shoes and with torn clothing, some wearing their uniform jackets with no shirt on underneath.
"You have to think out of the box," he commented about the lack of awareness the general public has about what soldiers from that generation others lived through. "This is how they really lived."