RUSK — Little Alyssa Anderson, 7, was all smiles Wednesday as the normally quiet town square in Rusk morphed into a sea of cheering, clapping parade goers and peppy patriotic tunes.
The historic downtown seemed to be awash in red, white and blue as the Rotary Club of Rusk rolled out its annual Independence Day “Patriotism on Parade” celebration, featuring military veterans as guests of honor.
“Parades are really fun and exciting,” the girl said, waving a small American flag. “You get to see fireworks and everything.”
Although the child was not fully aware of how the occasion touched the hearts and minds of those in the parade, some veterans said the spectacle was something they will never forget.
“This means a whole lot,” said Vietnam veteran David Stampley, 72, of Palestine, one of scores of service members celebrated during the parade. “This is something we did not see back then — we are very proud.”
“This is simply a celebration for the veterans,” he said. “It's also a great way to instill memories in the kids, to teach them about the importance of freedom.”
The Color and Honor Guard of the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 991 of Palestine helped kick off the parade, which featured World War II veteran Houston White, 99, as grand marshal.
White, who served as chief petty officer for the U.S. Naval Air Corps, is recognized as one of the oldest Rotarians in the world and founding member of the Rotary Club in Rusk.
The occasion also included a public prayer on the town square and Pledge of Allegiance, concluding with the annual Gauge Lankford Memorial Firemen's Competition.
Organizers said about 300 people joined in the parade while another 700 showed up to cheer them on.
Vietnam veteran and Color-Honor Guard member Roy Boyd, 65, of Palestine, was caught off guard by the outpouring of patriotism and kindness. He served in the Navy from 1967-1970, delivering supplies.
“This meant a great deal to me,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I had tears … still do.”
Current service members also were honored, including Zachary Walter, of the U.S. Navy, who was paraded down the street ahead of a lineup of law enforcement vehicles, fire trucks and vintage vehicles.
“Freedom is not free,” the mayor said. “We are the best country in the whole land and we owe so much to them (veterans).”
Kelli Evans, of Rusk, and son, Triston, 14, came to celebrate July 4 and cheer on her daughter, Adrianna, 7, a T's Tumbling All Star.
“We've only been here four years, but we come to all the parades,” Ms. Evans said. “Love the parades.”
Her son agreed, “I like it because you get to see the whole community out here. We're very grateful for the freedom and the community we're in.”
Proud grandma Jacqueline Griffin of Rusk watched the parade from the tailgate of the family truck, alongside her young granddaughters and daughter.
The family was cheering on Mrs. Griffin's husband, VFW Post Commander Emerson Griffin, a veteran of the U.S. Army.
“I'm proud of the country,” she said, watching her grandchildren wave tiny American flags.
Daughter Ebony Griffin, 14, added, “This is important — not enough people show gratitude for the people who served our country.”
Betty Calk, 65, Palestine, a former Navy storekeeper who served during Vietnam, couldn't seem to stop smiling.
“I'm still amazed,” she said. “We had a wonderful party. Everyone was so friendly. They made us feel right at home.”
Patricia McClure, 72, showed up to honor her late husband, Thomas Alexander Patrick McClure Jr., a World War II veteran.
“I'm here because of him and because of the Vietnam vets, to support them,” she said. “People here really know how to support a parade.”
“Just the fact that we have the right to enjoy a parade is what this is all about,” he said. “We can do what we want today, that's what this parade meant to me, that we can enjoy freedom. I can't wait until next year.”
Rusk's Independence Day parade was immediately followed by the annual Gauge Lankford Memorial Firemen's Competition, pitting Rusk, Alto and Gallatin firefighters in a friendly bout of skill versus the clock.
The object of the competition was to see how fast the various departments could assemble and man a hose line without springing a leak.
The event honors Rusk Fire Chief Donald Lankford's son, Gauge, 5, who died in 2008 of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
“This keeps him in our memories,” Lankford said, expressing appreciation for enduring support from firefighters and the community. “He's in our hearts and in my mind every day. He was up at the station so much it was like he had a bunch of firemen for uncles.”