CUMBERLAND -- Tears of fear rolled down Bonnie J. Mellon's cheeks as she stood on the sidewalk of South Mechanic Street yesterday morning and watched the convoy of U.S. Army vehicles roll by.
One of them carried her 20-year-old son, Jeff, a military police officer who may be sent to the Persian Gulf. And the farewell parade scene -- marching bands, thousands of people waving American flags, children handing yellow roses to soldiers passing by -- was almost too much to bear.
"I'm really scared," she said, gripping tissues to wipe her eyes as relatives and friends stood beside her. "This is really hard for us."
But at least 3,000 people from Cumberland and the surrounding tri-state region came out yesterday and put on their best face to say goodbye and good luck to the 175 U.S. Army reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company, which has headquarters in nearby Cresaptown.
The company was placed on active duty last week as part of the response to the Middle East tensions. Members left Cumberland yesterday for several weeks of training at Fort Meade and possible deployment to the Persian Gulf.
Business and civic leaders in this Western Maryland community organized the send-off, which included bands from Allegany and Fort Hill high schools -- archrivals that stood side by side on North Mechanic Street and played as vehicles carrying troops rolled by slowly.
Many of those vehicles bore chalk-written messages, "No Slack for Iraq" and "More Pain for Hussein" among them.
The convoy stopped at the corner of South Mechanic and Baltimore streets and saluted a color guard from American Legion Victory Post 155 of Westernport. Students from Westside Elementary School handed company officers a box of yellow roses for the troops.
As the bands played "God Bless America," the convoy edged through the crowds. It was a scene pulled right out of a time capsule, with a Saturday Evening Post cover wherever you looked.
"I'm so glad to see this," said Charles G. Zimmerman, 69, a Cumberland resident and a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II. "This takes me back 45 years."
Many observers noted the contrast between yesterday's festivities and the treatment of soldiers during the Vietnam War. Most of them criticized the reception given to returning Vietnam veterans.
"I think this is real nice, considering what they did to the veterans who came back from Vietnam," said Richard J. Cioni, 74, of Cumberland.
Spc. Steven Frederick, 39, of Berkley Springs, W.Va., stood in a downtown parking lot waiting for his segment of the convoy to venture out onto U.S. 48.
"They're showing us a lot of support, and I think it's great," he said. "I wish they had this kind of support when I came back from Vietnam."
As the convoy of 40 vehicles passed, relatives would run out into the street as they saw their loved ones and grab a hug or kiss. The tearful goodbyes continued in the parking lot. The convoy left the lot in small groups every 10 minutes.
"This is all very emotional." Specialist Frederick said. "It brought tears to my eyes."
It was an unusual birthday celebration for Sgt. Joseph W. Lechliter, of Cumberland, who turned 56 yesterday, the oldest member of the unit. "I was really surprised that they had so many people out here," he said.
His two grandchildren were in the crowd. "It gave me a pretty warm feeling," Sergeant Lechliter said.
Louis G. Giatras, 64, his wife, Alcea, 54, and his 22-year-old son, Gino, hoped that their contribution would make the soldiers feel warm. As the convoy drove by, Gino Giatras handed out 400 bags of hot dogs smothered in mustard and onions. The Giatras own Coney Island and Curtis' Hot Dogs in downtown Cumberland.
When Louis Giatras was a teen-ager, his father ran a confectionery in Cumberland. Mr. Giatras, who later served with the U.S. Navy in World War II, remembers himself and his brother handing out homemade candy to convoys of soldiers.
"We hope that this will do a little something to boost the morale of these soldiers leaving, to let them know that we care about them," Gino Giatras said.
Mrs. Mellon, from Wiley Ford, W.Va., was glad that her son Jeff and the other soldiers received such a heartfelt send-off. "I think this has been wonderful," she said. "It's really good for them."
But the cheering didn't allay the fears of the friends and relatives left behind. "It doesn't do much for the family," she said, clutching a sign that said "Hurry Home, Jeff."
NTCHD: CUMBERLAND GIVES TROOPS MOVING SEND-OFF
Patriotic parade bids farewell to activated reservists