It took a recent resurgence in pride in the U.S. military and nearly 40 years of waiting before Baltimore natives Robert Wilson, William Zollenhoffer, James Macijeski and Donnal Smith got the recognition they have been waiting for since the Korean War.
It finally came yesterday when the four men rode in style as grand marshals of the 52nd annual "I Am an American Day" parade in East Baltimore, their names written in big letters on signs hung from the sides of fancy automobiles.
"This time, we'll ride. We won't march," said a proud, 59-year-old Mr. Zollenhoffer. He, Mr. Macijeski and Mr. Smith each spent 2 1/2 years or more as prisoners of war in Korea long before any of the children -- and many of the thousands of others who lined the 1 1/8 -mile parade route up Bank Street and around Patterson Park -- were even born.
"This [parade] shows that patriotism has never died, and never will die in Highlandtown," said Mr. Wilson, 60, resplendent in a white sports jacket with a three-peaked red, white and blue handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket. Mr. Wilson lost his right arm and was also wounded in the eye and leg in battle on Sept. 13, 1952.
Earlier this year, Mr. Wilson, now retired from Bethlehem Steel Corp., was instrumental in the placement of a Korean War Memorial in Baltimore and was rewarded with a position of honor in the parade.
The recognition, city politicians seemed to agree, reflects the patriotic felling toward veterans and the military that has been building in Baltimore since the U.S. military buildup began in Saudi Arabia last month.
"The military should be real popular here today. There's a high feeling of patriotism going on, and support for what's going on in the Middle East," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, who regularly hears the sentiments of area workers in his East Baltimore tavern. "There are guys [who come into the tavern] who say, 'If they'd take me, I'd go.'"
If an abundance of stars and stripes is an accurate gauge of patriotic fervor, the beer-drinking crowd along the parade route matched the senator's description.
On a cool, overcast day, there were flags of all sizes in the hands of people of all sizes, some of them wearing stars and stripes shirts or stars and stripes hats. Flags were draped from the sides of row houses and on cars, hawked by vendors, and waved by old politicians and young children.
And, as always, there were plenty of politicians: the governor, the mayor, both U.S. Senators, at least two congressmen, the state attorney general and comptroller, state senators and delegates, city council members, Democratic Central Committee members (if there were any Republicans, they were not easily identified), and even would-be politicians.
Benjamin A. Neil, a 39-year-old lawyer running an uphill race for a House of Delegates' seat against the entrenched Democratic organization in the 46th District, was passing out hand-sized American flags and hoping to pick up some votes in the exchange.
"This is one [event] where all the elected officials say it is a 'must-attend' function," said Senator Miedusiewski. "It's a good way to see maybe 30,000 to 45,000 people. ... And, to be seen."
But Delegate Anthony M. DiPietro Jr., D-Baltimore, who inherited the job of putting on the "I Am an American Day" parade after the death of Sen. Joseph S. Bonvegna, said if corporate and public donations do not increase, next year's parade could be the last.
Less than $10,000 was raised this year, about half the amount Mr. DiPietro said is needed to put on a large parade. He said the parade is organized completely by volunteers, with the money going primarily to bands.
And bands there were, from high-kicking, gyrating, drum-inspired community bands like the Golden Angels of Baltimore, to the more traditional, Sousa-playing military bands of the Army and Navy.
The girls of the Whitelock Marching Band, dressed in white blouses, mint-green skirts and white go-go boots, strutted their stuff to the bone-rattling beat of five guys on drums.
Some of the military units showed off their weaponry. A long flatbed truck was converted to a mobile battle scene, with nine soldiers from the Maryland National Guard's 29th Infantry Division arrayed around a bed of sandbags, their rifles and machine guns pointed menacingly toward the crowd.
As the U.S. Naval Academy band launched into an up-tempo rendition of "Anchors Aweigh," applause spread through the Patterson Park crowd like a breeze. Anthony Miller, 70, of the 4400 block of Belair Road, leaned on his cane with one hand and doffed his white sports cap in respect for the passing color guard with the other.
"Being an American, this kind of gets you gung-ho for everything," he said. But as a veteran of the fighting in the Pacific in World War II, and as someone who lost two brothers in that war, the buildup in the Middle East seems ominous.
"I don't like war," he said. "I have grandchildren who are just ripe for war, and it scares me."