Independence Day has always held a special place on Raymond Valdez Jr.'s list of noteworthy holiday celebrations.
The 92-year-old World War II Navy veteran believes it serves as an important reminder of the enormous price our forefathers paid to found a nation built upon freedom and the unalienable rights of all its citizens as defined in the Declaration of Independence, a time-honored document drafted and signed in 1776.
The East Tampa resident especially delights in the opportunity to attend Brandon's annual Fourth of July Parade, where for many years he's made it a practice to salute every man and woman in military uniform who's played a part in keeping our country a place where freedom still reigns.
Valdez, a widow and father of two grown daughters, generally watches the parade from the sidelines with his younger daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Marc Rodriguez, but this year he got the opportunity to view it from a completely different perspective.
He was an actual parade participant and, according to his friends and family members, he was a standout among the event's 90-plus entrants. Outfitted for the occasion in a U.S. Navy cap, he and his driver traveled the two-mile route in a sporty and shiny white convertible, complete with banners on each door panel identifying him as well as a pair of American flags mounted inside the vehicle flying freely in the breeze.
"It was beautiful and I never saw so many people in all my life," said Valdez, who'd been told that Brandon's Independence Day parade is the largest of its kind in the state.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," he added.
Marc Rodriguez is the person credited with helping to create those memorable moments for a man he calls a "great father figure," filling the void of his biological dad who died when he was just 2 years old.
Following last year's event he sent a written request to parade chairman Marie Cain, noting his father-in-law's WW II Navy veteran status, his love for his country and his longtime tradition of attending Brandon's 4th of July event.
Rodriguez's wish was soon granted and on Father's Day Marc broke the news to Valdez.
"He was just so excited and I was excited for him because he loves the parade and he loves his military people," Nancy said.
In the days leading up to the parade Valdez called to inform and invite several of his friends to the event. On the morning of the parade, he awoke at 5 a.m., even though he didn't need to be in the lineup until 8:30 a.m.
"He was the life of the party as people all along the parade route were saluting him," Marc said. "It was awesome and something he'll never forget."
For Nancy it was an occasion she, too, will always remember.
"It brought tears to my eyes to have everybody say how much they admired him," she said.
Valdez graduated from high school in 1941 and shortly afterwards attended an aviation school in Corpus Christi, Texas. The following year, at age 18, he joined the Navy.
He recalls flying Squadron 52 seaplane missions over the Panama Canal Zone and being shot at on a few occasions.
"The Air Corps forces in Panama worked in unison with the (U.S.) Navy during this period and the fact that Raymond was bilingual made him a perfect candidate for the job," Marc said.
His father-in-law recalled that he also periodically helped transport the deceased bodies of his comrades from Hawaii and Germany to New York.
"I didn't like that, but it had to happen," said Valdez, who served for four years as a flight engineer.
Unfortunately, his time in the Navy was cut short due to his loss of sight in one eye when acid fluid from a battery accidentally splashed in it.
Following Valdez's discharge, the longtime Tampa resident landed a job as a mechanic in an Ybor City garage, a business he later bought and operated on his own.
Every Saturday he opened and closed the shop early in order to provide a free barbecue luncheon for his customers, neighbors and even the mailman.
"My dad would give you the shirt off his back with no hesitation, and my dad was and always is there for his daughters," Nancy said.
Valdez's wife Aida, a Cuban immigrant to whom he was married for almost 55 years, died in January of 2016.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]