They walked slowly to their seats across bricks engraved with names of the dead.
Side by side, men bowed by time and wars sat with youngsters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with military units and motivating slogans.
They sat upon marble benches engraved with the memorialized names of those who died in an ongoing tradition of sacrifice.
“We, as Americans, enjoy the freedoms of peace, prosperity and independence. Ideals that bind us together as a nation,” intoned Ken McCoy at the annual Memorial Day Service at Veteran’s Park on Monday.
“Today we pause to remember that freedom comes at a great cost.”
A stately, curving line of star-spangled banners whipped over the heads of hundreds of observers who came to acknowledge the service of the men and women of the armed forces.
Steve Marshall, a social studies teacher at Manatee School for the Arts, attended as a model to reinforce a lesson to his students: “Coming here brings perspective to all the freedoms and opportunities we have in this nation. It humbles me to know that men and women have died for this country, and I thank them for it.”
Sheila Cassidy, a slender woman in the Kirby Stewart Post 24 honor guard, gripped her flag with hands encased in white cotton gloves as she waited for her cue to march.
“To see all these lovely young boys and girls with their ribbons, it kind of scares you,” said Cassidy, a Coast Guard veteran, of the future dangers they may face.
“We’re here to honor those serving,” said medal-bedecked Bayshore JROTC member Constantine Paleologos. “I grew up without a father, and my colonel was always there for me, regardless of the situation. That’s why I want to be an Army Airborne Ranger like him, he’s a huge example to me.”
Tina Fields, clutching the hand of a small boy wearing a large button bearing a boot-camp photo of his father, Lance Cpl. Ryan Fields, wiped tears as she talked about her son’s service.
“Right now he’s training for his second deployment, this one to Afghanistan. Two weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, my nephew, Lance Cpl. Matthew Schultz, was injured by a roadside bomb. Sometimes it’s hard to understand, I’m ready for ’em to be home,” said Fields, as she tried to smile and planted a kiss on the cheek of her grandson.
Gradually, voices joined Marianne Barnebey as she led the group to sing “America.”
After a final benediction from Robert Eldridge and the mournful sound of “Taps” dissipated into the humid air, people rose from their seats to continue their Memorial Day celebrations.
Two young Marines, Pfc. Dino Murges and Pfc. Matt Haynes, struck up a conversation with a salty ‘Gunny’ as they prepared to leave.
“This is our culture now, it’s our heritage,” said Murges. “These Marines are our family now,” he said as he gestured to retired Gunnery Sgt. James Smith and other elderly Marines leaving the service. “We look up to them, we’re all bonded.”
Said Smith, “These young Marines here are following in our footsteps, and we are very proud of them. Right now there are Marines in the front lines in Afghanistan. They don’t get much publicity, but they’re there.”
Murges and Haynes reached out to shake Smith’s hand.
“Marine Corps all the way! Ooh Rah!” shouted Smith as Murges chuckled, “All right, Gunny!”