Earl Wood spent the final months of World War II on Okinawa, preparing to invade Japan.
"Then they dropped the bomb, and we didn't have to go in," the 86-year-old Modestan said.
Wednesday, he watched from the sidewalk as the Veterans Day procession went past him — physically and symbolically — up I Street and then down 14th to Graceada Park.
Past him, because with this parade the Veterans Day torch officially passed from the World War II generation to those who fought in Korea and Vietnam.
A few World War II veterans marched. Others, most in their mid-80s, stepped to the sidelines as age and declining health has turned them from participants into spectators.
"There's so few of us left," Wood said, elated that the parade has been re-energized — by desire and by necessity — by the next generation. "If they don't do it, it goes away."
The good news is that the parade isn't going anywhere except up I Street and over to Graceada Park again next year, the year after and so on. The Korea and Vietnam vets will see to that, with the Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan war vets after them.
"It was breaking new ground for us," said Steve Lawson, director of the Modesto Vet Center, which was instrumental in staging the parade. A Vietnam veteran, Lawson served as the grand marshal. The center has served more than 600 veterans, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, providing counseling for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The vast majority of the center's clients, though, are Vietnam vets.
Some returned from Southeast Asia only to be scorned by an American public that had turned against the war and took its collective frustration out on those who fought it. They endured insults. And virtually all of them struggled to re-adjust to civilian life in a country so different from the one they left.
Wednesday, they finally could bask in the appreciation of a public that either no longer blames them for the war or is simply too young to remember it. Many of the Vietnam vets participated in a Veterans Day event for the very first time, some 34 years after the war ended.
The mood and the event were completely different than Veterans Day parades of the past. It once ended with a ceremony at a cemetery on Scenic Drive. Now it journeys to Graceada Park, where organizations set up information booths, followed by speeches and music in Mancini Bowl. Organizers succeeded in turning the event into a celebration of the living veterans rather than a duplication of Memorial Day, which so appropriately honors those killed in wartime. Most Americans, including many in the media, don't understand the distinction between the two.
In fact, the problem now would be apathy — not antagonism.
"My generation ... there's not enough patriotism," said Army vet Brian Stutzman, who survived 33 roadside bomb attacks while serving two tours of duty in Iraq.
The 34-year-old Hilmar resident joined the parade to remind others his age of the role the military plays in the nation's security.
"My girls know what the colors of the flag mean," he said.
They are in the minority. On a day when the schools, banks and government offices closed in the veterans' honor, 1,000 to 1,500 people lining the streets meant others slept in, played video games or simply enjoyed a day off. So be it. That's yet another one of the rights these veterans fought to protect.
Those who stayed away missed a re-energized event that only promises to get better, and a chance to say "thank you" to a new generation of veterans who, in many cases, have really been there all along.
The World War II vets remain beloved and revered even as they dwindle in numbers. The stories of their heroics and experiences are priceless and still need to be told.
But the responsibility to keep alive the Veterans Day parade now belongs to the next generation.
A number of World War II veterans, Wood among them, proudly saluted their successors from the sidewalks.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org