Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Day of the Parade

In 1991, Carson City, Nevada wanted some Desert Storm veterans to be in their 4th of July parade. A buddy in my Navy unit in Fallon, about an hour's drive east, had been aboard the USS LaSalle in the Persian Gulf, so he was issued desert BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform) for the occasion and three of us accompanied him to Carson City on the day of the parade. There was Mike, who was driving, despite his case-of-beer-a-day habit. There was John, who had been my roommate in a trailer on what had become known as the Rattlesnake Ranch. There was Willie, who was in the parade. And there was me, 33 years old and loving my life more than anyone could ever have known.

The state of Nevada consists of two gambling meccas, Las Vegas and Reno, and open range desert so empty that the U.S. Navy's air warfare ranges, with enough air space for pilots to go supersonic, are located there, in Fallon, which was my excuse for being there. The capitol of Nevada, Carson City, isn't exactly a one-horse town, but it's one of those places where men can be seen wearing cowboy hats because they actually raise cattle and horses. The 4th of July parade route was about ten blocks long, so it was only supposed to last about an hour.

We ate breakfast at Wendy's, only because Fallon didn't have one. Willie used the restroom to change into his desert BDUs. Since the weather was cool on that summer morning, he didn't bother to roll up his sleeves. They put him on a float with some other men and women in uniform, but he stood at the front and was the star attraction. The crowd seemed sparse, but I supposed it was average for Carson City. There was enough pride, though, to make us feel like we were all in the parade.

Later in the afternoon we attended a picnic in the local park, where the fireworks display was going to be staged after dark. It didn't get dark in the high desert until after 9, so we weren't intending to stay. There was the usual barbecue food and plenty of beer. It was early for us, and we had that hour's drive back to Fallon to think about, but we helped ourselves to the offerings anyway. Willie was still wearing the borrowed BDUs. The rest of us were in street clothes, but our haircuts must've given us away.

Some men came over to us, dressed in blue jeans and jean jackets or vests, their hair long and gray, along with their beards. They all had medals on their chests from another, older war. It didn't take me long to guess that they were Vietnam vets who had been in the parade, not up front on the float with Willie, but walking together behind it. They smiled at us and reached out to shake our hands. And one of them said, "Thanks for getting us back in the parade!"

A short time later we were back on U.S. Highway 50, known as the Loneliest Road in America, heading east to Fallon. Mike had just installed a multi-disc changer in the trunk of his new Mustang and I took over the wheel when he crashed in the back seat. The high desert is alkali instead of sand and resembles, in places, the same landscape I'd seen in so many American road movies. As we entered a particularly long stretch of open road, the first unmistakable guitar chords of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" came over the car speakers. It was the perfect music for the moment, just the sound of the music and the desert all around us. Except instead of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding their hogs into America's heartland, with their fuel tanks lined with dope, we were four sailors heading back to a hick town to enjoy the rest of our long weekend.

Some months later, my unit was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for its training of carrier airwings before the war. We dubbed it "nothing done in '91".

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