Dacula celebrates Memorial Day with annual parade and a surprise fly over.
As printed in the Gwinnett Daily Post: Story by Curt Yeomans
Marvin Atherton expected the first-ever military flyover for the annual Dacula Memorial Day Parade would be big, but even he was left a little speechless.
Atherton, the parade’s organizer, had been trying off and on for two decades to get a flyover for the parade. His wish was finally granted when a C-130 from Dobbins Air Reserve Base flew at 1,000 feet over part of the parade route on Dacula Road as Katie Wolf finished singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
It proved to be a hit with the crowds lining the street. They cheered and waved small American flags in a show of patriotism as the massive cargo plane flew overhead with a load and powerful roar.
“Awesome. Awe-some. Can we see it again?,” Atherton joked to Air Force Reserve officials from Dobbins who were in the crowd.
Atherton did not know it at the time, but his quip — while intended to be a joke — proved to be a bit of foreshadowing.
As the plane flew off into the distance, it did something unexpected. It turned around and flew back along the parade route on Dacula Road for a second, unplanned flyover. It was heading in the other direction this time. The response from the crowd was even more delirious than the first time.
“Whoa, believe me ladies and gentlemen, that was not supposed to happen,” an astonished Atherton told the crowd through a loudspeaker. “That was a complete surprise.”
With that kickoff, the hour-and-a-half long parade was off and running. Thousands of residents of Dacula and the surrounding area lined the city’s streets to honor fallen service men and women in a sea of red, white and blue.
“If they couldn’t get here in cars, they’d walk. They would come because they don’t want to miss it,” Dacula resident Jerry Hill, an Army Reserve and Marine Corps veteran who helped get the parades started in the early 1990s.
The parade’s 154 entries ran the gamut from politicians, to beauty queens, to veterans, to solemn floats and a riderless horse. The field of entries also included cloggers, Dacula High School’s cheer leading and football teams, the Gwinnett Braves’ van-surfing mascot, antique cars, little league teams, a bagpipe player, motorcycle police, a fire truck and restored military vehicles.
World War II veteran and Lawrenceville resident Charles G. Mitchell served as the grand marshal. The 91-year old rode in a military truck in full dress uniform, held both of his arms in the air and simultaneously waved to the crowds on both sides of the street.
Despite the feel of a festive celebration, the realization that the event was being held to remember fallen service men and women was not far from the minds of organizers or attendees.
“Yes, having a parade and getting the C-130 is a big deal, but we cannot forget the reason we’re here today is to honor those who gave their lives for their country so you and I, and our kids, could be here enjoy the freedoms of public schools (and) having our barbecues,” a choked up Atherton told the crowd before the parade began.
Parades are not common on Memorial Day, which is why Buford resident Renee McCarty said she was pleased to not only see one held in Dacula, but to see a large crowd come out to watch it. It was her first time attending the parade, and she said it was nice to see the true meaning of Memorial Day has not been lost.
She said the holiday sometimes gets mixed up with Veterans Day, which is in November.
“It’s a time to remember the fallen,” McCarty said. “A lot of people get it confused and want to use it to honor today’s military, and while they should be honored too, we need to remember the sacrifices some made for their country.”
The C-130 double flyover generated a buzz along the parade route throughout the festivities though. Hill and Pexton said it one of their favorite parts of the parade.
A flyover at the parade was the one goal Atherton had for the event that was not fulfilled before Monday. He’d been trying to get one lined up since the parade’s early days, and he was still in awe of the second flyover an hour-and-a-half after his goal was realized.
“It was definitely worth the wait,” he said.