LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Dominic Abbas, age 3, wanted to wave an American flag Sunday during the sixth annual Tribute to Heroes Memorial Day Parade in Lakewood Ranch.
But the Parrish youth, who sat on crowded Main Street with his mom, didn't have one.
Then, an extraordinary thing happened.
Joe Carro, a veteran who lives in Lakewood Ranch, was waving a small American flag in the parade while riding in a hot rod car. He somehow noticed Dominic's forlorn look and motioned for him to come get his flag.
But the parade had to move on and the two lost connection without making the handoff.
Then, the parade stopped again and, summoning all his courage, Dominic unexpectedly ran out of his mom's
arms to Carro's car, took the flag from his hand and ran back.
"That was awesome," Carro said after the parade. "That young man really wanted to wave the American flag."
Many said everyone in the crowd could feel the patriotic vibe in the air. The crowd, estimated at 4,000, cheered 45 floats this year, up from 42 last year, all there to honor those who are serving and have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"The whole parade was lovely," said Helen McRanor, who is from Scotland. "Happy smiling faces all led by marvelous cadets."
McRanor was speaking of the Sarasota Military Academy cadets in the parade.
Junior Mallori Cesario, a Lakewood Ranch High School Junior ROTC, started the day with a rousing speech. Cesario told the crowd about what Memorial Day meant to her and mentioned the poppy flower, a symbol of remembrance.
Sharon Lee Ruckle delivered a stirring rendition of the national anthem and topped it off by singing her own composition for American troops, "Tribute -- A Military Anthem."
Donations of nonperishable food, snacks and supplies such as socks and razors for the troops overflowed a table set up by Manasota Operation Troop Support.
For three Vietnam vets who live in Lakewood Ranch -- Benjamin "Benji" Brinkofski, Ernie Freedman and Lenny DeRasmo -- the day was wonderful and a far cry from what it was like for them back in the 1960s.
"We were instructed to fly home in our civilian clothes due to the protests," said Freeman, who landed in Chicago after serving in Vietnam in 1969 as a U.S. Navy medic.
In April 1968, Brinkofski flew home on a commercial flight from Hawaii to an airport in Oakland, Calif. He said he was stunned by protesters waving signs as they entered the terminal.
"We looked at each other said" 'What's going on? You got to be kidding. They're protesting us?'" Brinkofski said Sunday.
"We had been too busy over there to really know what was going on at home," said the 68-year-old Brinkofski, who graduated from Harry Snyder High School in Jersey City, N.J, He now is a member of VFW Post 12055 in East Manatee.
"A lot of us went into the bathroom at the airport and took off our uniforms that night," Brinkofski said. "We didn't want people to know we were in the service. We felt we had to hide. In fact, some guys brought plane tickets so people wouldn't know we were military and could fly for free. We realized people didn't care for us back home."
What a difference 46 years makes.
"It's absolutely better now," DeRasmo said. "Most people now recognize our service."
"I think the light just went on," Freedman said. "The older people got and the more they matured, they realized we were not the bad guys."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.