A few years ago, I interviewed a local high school graduate who enlisted in the Marines after 9/11. He and I met in front of his alma mater, and as he posed for a picture by the school sign, a woman pulled up to the curb, handed our photographer $100 in cash and told him to give it to the serviceman.
That's the effect a military uniform can have in this day and age — and rightly so, considering that our servicemen and women take risks that few others could even fathom.
Still, anyone who was alive 40 years ago can attest that America's troops didn't always get that kind of esteem. Take Bill Siddall, for example.
Siddall, who lives in Fountain Valley, is a member of American Legion Huntington Beach Post 133. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed in Europe, and a few years ago, he found himself fighting tears when he walked by a cheering crowd for the first time in Surf City's Fourth of July Parade.
I met with Siddall and other legionnaires Friday to ask their thoughts on Memorial Day. For many of them, the modern festivities feel like an overdue reward. At one point, Siddall told me about the time in 1967 when a man attacked him outside a pool hall in Inglewood for wearing his military garb.
Siddall and his fellow legionnaires — and many other veterans I've met over the years — remember the Swinging '60s partly as a time when returning servicemen endured taunts, demonstrations, even assaults. And that makes the respect they've gotten in recent years all the more heartening.
Monday, Post 133 will co-organize Huntington Beach's annual Memorial Day ceremony at Pier Plaza. I attended last year and found the pier loaded with spectators and not a protest sign visible. This year, the legionnaires expect more of the same.
"What has been interesting the last few years is the crowd keeps growing," said Don Lowe of Huntington Beach. "There had to have been 4,000 people last year. Even some of the volleyballers stopped when they did the national anthem."
I have asked myself sometimes if I would have liked to live through the '60s. Parts of them must have been exhilarating. Who could resist hearing the Beatles' music as it first hit the airwaves, thumbing a ride to Woodstock or watching one social restriction after another collapse?
But even if the art and discoveries of that time have become staples of our culture, it's hard to argue that we've grown wiser since then. And the absence of vitriol directed at our troops, regardless of our thoughts about the government's policies, serves as proof of that.
So if Surf City's annual remembrance set an attendance record last year, I hope it tops that mark this time. And $100 donations won't be necessary. For many of our former warriors, a simple thanks will suffice.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Where: Pier Plaza, Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach
When: 11 a.m. Monday
Information: (714) 536-3855