PALM HARBOR — With every chair taken, more than 250 people rose Monday to sing America the Beautiful.
The seats filled up well before the Memorial Day service at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens began, so many people stood throughout the observance.
Small flags flew at each grave, placed by Boy Scout Troop 434 as a testament to the sacrifice of the dead.
And on the lips of each speaker were two words: honor and remembrance.
As she drove through the cemetery, Clearwater retiree Bertha Stephens thought of her husband.
Howard, a Korean and Vietnam War veteran, died about 20 years ago and is buried at Curlew Hills. She has come to the service every year since.
"I'm saddened, but I'm honored," she said.
Her three children also served. Several nieces and nephews are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I just feel honored that our family has collectively spent over 200 years in the military," she said.
The Boy Scout
Diego Pinzon, 11, looked alert and stood at attention. He had a big job: presenting the colors with the Marine Corps League.
He's been at Curlew Hills each Memorial Day since first grade.
"It's something I respect," he said. "It gives me a goal to look to."
Diego, who goes to Garrison- Jones Elementary School in Dunedin, said he might join the Marines when he gets older. His father, Jairo, said they would talk when the time came, but he's proud of his son's contribution.
"I feel happy to be an American," Diego said.
Diego said he enjoys hearing his grandfather's old war tales.
Soldiers like him did something to be proud of, he said.
Bob Steyer was so moved that he couldn't keep quiet.
"It makes me so proud," said the Dunedin resident.
His father was in the military. Steyer remembered when his father was deployed in 1968.
"I was 4," he said. "I cried, 'Daddy, get off the train.' "
His father did, but only briefly. Steyer said he understands his dad's sacrifice.
"I think we should all respect people in uniform every day," he said. "Not just today."
Keenan Knopke directs people and greets veterans as they arrive. But something else weighs heavy on his mind.
As he drove across the Courtney Campbell Parkway, he saw scores of people picnicking.
"Do they even know what this day is for?" he wondered.
Knopke, president of Curlew Hills, said everyone should spend their Memorial Day thanking troops and veterans for their sacrifices. "Even to this hour, they're being wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "A lot of times, we don't even remember that."
Retiree Tom Montgomery of Clearwater donned the crisp uniform of the Fleet Reserve Association. Memorial Day means only one thing to him: patriotism.
Montgomery joined the Navy at 17 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He would be stationed on four ships, travel to places like New Zealand and Antarctica and later serve in the Vietnam War.
The return home from Vietnam was "not very good," Montgomery said. "It was almost like we weren't there."
Montgomery doesn't like seeing news of soldiers dying but it's part of the military way. He hopes troops in combat stay safe, and if he could say anything to the troops now deployed, it would be brief.
"Hang in there."
Jackie Alexander can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]