Thousands of people turned out Monday for the town's Memorial Day Parade, a crowd that First Selectman Michael Tetreau called a record for the annual event.
This year's parade theme honored veterans of the Korean War and the town's 375th anniversary. Judge of Probate Daniel Caruso, the parade's emcee, linked the two themes by saying South Korea has remained independent since 1954 when it was freed by the same spirit of independence borne on Fairfield's Town Hall Green in the 1600s.
Russell said 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities between South Korea and North Korea, but he feels the Korean War was largely forgotten because it came on the heels of World War II, which claimed more casualties and sacrifices by more people.
Jeff Ransden, who helped to build a float that honored Korean War veterans, said he thinks the Korean War was known as the nation's "Forgotten War" because it came between World War II and the Vietnam War and "sort of ended up where it started."
"The [Korean War] ended exactly where it started -- the 38th parallel," Ransden said.
Dozens of groups representing Fairfield's public schools, civic organizations, Police and Fire departments and military groups marched in the two-hour parade, and Caruso recognized all of them, offering accolades and anecdotes about the groups as they marched past the reviewing stand in front of Old Town Hall next to the town's Honor Roll.
Margaret Poulsen, a 65-year resident of Fairfield who was seated near the reviewing stand, said she's come to the parade for many years and that her brother, Charles Ertle Jr. of Stratford, served in the Korean War. But Poulsen said many of her relatives also wore the nation's uniform in battle, including her husband, Carl Poulsen, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II; her son, Carl Poulsen Jr., who served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War; her father, Charles Ertle Sr., who served in World War I; and her grand-uncle, Joseph Culligan, who served in the Spanish American War.
"That's why I don't miss any of these parades," she said. She said used to watch her husband, who died five years ago, march in the parade. "Sometimes, he'd be in one of the cars because he wasn't able to walk so well when he got older," she said.
For Meghan and Jeff Tang, who live in Bridgeport's Black Rock section, Fairfield's Memorial Day parade is about continuing their tradition of paying respect to the fallen and also starting a tradition for their 15-month-old son, Alexander. Meghan, who grew up in Fairfield, said she marched in the parade as a member of the Girl Scouts and marching bands from Fairfield Woods Middle School and Fairfield High School. She said she wants her son to also have memories of the town's Memorial Day Parade. Jeff said Alexander liked his first parade in 2013, although not so much "the loud noises."
"He had to cover his ears," Jeff said.
Some of the thousands of people who lined either side of the Old Post Road came a long way for the parade.
Shannon Blaisdell, who marched in past parades with marching bands from Fairfield Woods Middle School and Fairfield High School, said she came back to her hometown from Virginia so her children, Jaxson, 4, and MacKenzie, 2, could enjoy the parade. "I love the parade," Shannon said. "I'm glad I could bring them to see it. It's been a couple of years and our newborn's a good traveler so I thought I would give it a shot," she said.
Retired Fairfield Police Sgt. Jim Wood, grand-uncle to Jaxson and MacKenzie, served in the U.S. Navy aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid in the 1970s and said he used to work the parade while his children marched in it. "My own kids are all done walking the parade and now we've got a new generation. They came all the way up from Virginia," he said.
Barbara Carriero of Fairfield said the parade is "a wonderful way to honor our veterans" and was "our family tradition."
Carriero said her sons had marched in past parades as members of Fairfield Woods Middle School's and Fairfield High School's marching bands and that she now enjoys seeing the Shriners in their tiny cars, as well as the classic cars that pass by.
Carolyn Rende of Orange, Carriero's friend, said she likes St. Paul's Episcopal Church's pancake breakfast, the marching bands and Stratfield School's "Parade of States," where children are dressed to represent each of the nation's 50 states.
A float built by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which depicted the British burning of Fairfield in 1779, won first place, while a float by Cub Scout Pack 95 from North Stratfield School that depicted the Korean War Memorial in Battery Park, N.Y. won second place.
Noonie Baisley, 11, a fifth-grader at Stratfield School who was among several children on the DAR's float, said she enjoyed riding on the float past all the well-wishers. "I thought it was exciting and very enthusiastic. I thought it was a great float," she said. Noonie said she had never been on a float before, but marched in last year's parade representing a state in Stratfield School's Parade of States.
Matthew Chrismer, 19, also was aboard the DAR float after moving here from Texas only a few months earlier to attend St. Vincent's College in Bridgeport with his friend, Lisa Szudora, the daughter of a DAR officer. "It's different history," Chrismer said in comparing Texas and Fairfield. "There's a lot more historical areas kept here. There's a lot more historical facts here, a lot more areas to see."
"There's a lot of military in Texas still, but seeing it out here is pretty nice," Chrismer added.
Ransden said the Korean War float was built in his backyard and garage over three weekends and that nearly every member of his 47-member Pack helped out. In addition to the replica of the Korean War Memorial in Battery Park, the float also had the flags of all nations that fought in the Korean War and a message on either side of the float.
The first message read, "Forgotten War Forgotten No More," and the other read, "Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." Ransden said the latter message was a quote on the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. "We kind of mixed memorials," he said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the guest speaker at a ceremony on Town Hall Green following the parade, thanked everyone for attending. He said many people celebrate Memorial Day by going to beaches, barbecues and shopping malls, which he said was fine. But, he added, "Memorial Day is about keeping faith and remembering." He said Americans could keep faith with "brave warriors who have given their lives by caring for their comrades."
Blumenthal touched on the Veterans Administration scandal, with veterans enduring long waits for medical care and doctored paperwork to mask those wait times, by demanding more accountability and reform. "They ought to get the best quality care when they need it -- not weeks or months afterwards," he said.
Blumenthal said he believes veterans who died in battle would want Americans to enjoy sunsets and sunrises they never saw, children they never had and the freedom to worship and assemble together. "They would have wanted us to enjoy life ... but also to preserve and fight for those liberties," he said. "They would have wanted us to honor our veterans -- not only the fallen on Memorial Day but the reason they fell ... which is America."
"I think we need to remember those freedoms are always fragile. As the saying goes, `Freedom is never free.' Every generation pays the price," Blumenthal said.
Richard Gribko, a retired teacher in Fairfield's public schools, said he has come to the town's annual tribute to veterans killed in battle since he was a Cub Scout in the 1940s at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fairfield's Southport neighborhood. He said the parade was "Americana at its best."
"Everybody marches in it, and, on a day like this, you can't beat it. Plus, the Old Post Road, it's a beautiful setting we're in. You can't beat this," Gribko said.
Caruso said Memorial Day was originally known as "Decoration Day" and was "a uniquely American holiday, established not by the government, but by ordinary people like you and me."