How we celebrate the Fourth: Modesto-area residents speak out

The Fourth of July means many things to many people. Our nation's independence. Patriotism. Fireworks. Charred meat and cold drinks. Ice cream and apple pie. An appreciation for all things red, white and blue.

Here's what residents around Stanislaus County are planning for the country's 233rd birthday.

Dionicio Cruz will don his gray slacks, white shirt, tie and Army hat and walk this morning in Modesto's downtown parade as part of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Cruz, 64, served a year in Vietnam as an infantryman exactly 40 years ago. He remembers arriving in Southeast Asia only months after the Tet Offensive, a battle in which many of the men who trained him at Fort Lewis, Wash., were killed.

"I think I'm very lucky to be here. If you were in combat, you understand that," said Cruz, a retired school principal in Modesto. "You appreciate this day a little bit more because of that."

Cruz said it's always nice to see the smiling faces and flags at the parade.

"The crowd is very appreciative. We hear a lot of thank-yous and clapping. For a majority of Vietnam veterans, we didn't hear that when we came home. Even 40 years later, that's nice."

In the spirit of patriotism, the family behind the counter at downtown Modesto's Taqueria Lagos will be hard at work feeding hungry paradegoers today.

Reynaldo Melendez will be at the stove until late into the afternoon, serving up burritos, tacos and quesadillas.

At his family's party in Riverbank, he'll also be the man at the barbecue, grilling carne asada and making tortillas.

There was a time when they had the luxury of closing and relaxing on Independence Day, but not this year.

"I need money for the bills," said Melendez's sister, Hilda.

Modestan Paul Crabill loves a good "staycation," which makes the Fourth of July his favorite holiday.

He doesn't have to travel or risk hurting the feelings of his extended family by choosing whom to visit, as on Easter and Christmas.

But a vacation at home doesn't mean there can't be a party, too. Nearly all the residents on Heritage Court, including Crabill, will cook their specialties -- chicken, ribs, steak and Spanish-style chili -- and set off fireworks.

Adding to the excitement is Crabill's new pool, finished just a week ago.

"I'm going to try to keep it down to 10 (people in the pool), but I know it will be more than that," he said.

For the homeless, the Fourth of July can often just mean another day of survival -- no money for fireworks or a special barbecue and painful reminders of not being with family and friends.

Jeff Woods, executive director of the Turlock Gospel Mission, said last year's holiday meal created a special memory for his homeless guests.

"A woman came up and said, 'This is the first holiday I have celebrated in nine years,' " Woods said. "We keep track of the holidays because our business is closed on that day. But if you're on the street trying to get by, you just lose track of the days."

Woods has seen more people, including veterans, coming for the free meals.

"We're having a lot of new faces," he said.

Volunteers normally rally to help around Christmas and Thanksgiving, so the Fourth of July can be one of the toughest holidays for the homeless, Woods said.

"It's not one of the ones where you typically think of feeding the homeless," he said.

Carlos Lombrana was working Friday afternoon to make sure his customers' hair was ready for the weekend.

Customers were lined up outside the door at his Talk of the Town barbershop on K Street in Modesto.

"Everybody is going to lakes and to family functions," Lombrana said. "People need to look good. People want to be looking fresh at the picnic at Graceada Park. They want to be looking good for the ladies at the nightclubs."

He said he had several servicemen stop by to get their hair trimmed just in time for family barbecues, so they look presentable.

"Some of them haven't seen their families for about a year," Lombrana said. "That's what it's all about -- a good time to unwind and enjoy the fireworks with your family and all that good food."

The Boling family spent Friday where they've been every day before the Fourth of July for 18 years: inside a Phantom Fireworks sales booth at Standiford Avenue and Prescott Road in north Modesto raising money for Modesto Four Square Gospel Church.

"For us, (the holiday is) about working in this booth," said Jim Boling. "It's all about working for the church."

It's the only fund-raiser the church has all year. The money raised pays for family camp, youth events and a fund for widows, widowers and the elderly.

"This morning, it's been very good," Boling said about fireworks sales Friday. "We're praying that business will continue to pick up today and tomorrow."

The family doesn't celebrate the holiday with everyone else because they spend Fourth of July night selling their remaining fireworks.

But the family does gather with others who volunteered at the booth for a barbecue and to set off some fireworks.

One profession never gets the Fourth of July as an off-day: professional baseball players.

The Modesto Nuts played in front of a sellout crowd at John Thurman Field on Friday night and tonight will help the San Jose Giants celebrate the holiday in front of their fans in San Jose.

"The Fourth of July always means big crowds, like we'll have here and in San Jose," said Modesto relief pitcher Matt Reynolds. "You come to expect that, and it makes playing on that day really nice. It brings a lot of excitement to the ballpark."

After the games, when home teams typically have fireworks shows, players often try to leave the clubhouse quickly to beat the crowd.

"But last year in Asheville (N.C.), the whole team sat out and watched the fireworks after the game," said Reynolds, who played for the Asheville Tourists then. "We won, so we were in a good mood, and watched the fireworks going off over the downtown and at the ballpark."

Bee staff writers Brian VanderBeek, Merrill Balassone and Rosalio Ahumada and Bee managing editor Dave Lyghtle contributed to this report.

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