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Child gets first glimpse of fabric of America

Teetering along the curb of Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills Sunday morning, young Waylon Lai waved a large American flag with one hand while clasping a red plastic bugle in the other.

From the bugle he emitted wails that sounded more like a honking goose than the sober notes of Taps. He waved the flag haphazardly, allowing the red, white and blue fabric to furl and flap as it sliced through the thick air of an overcast day.

Waylon, 4, probably did not understand the symbolism behind the objects he was clasping, nor could he explain what inspired the spectacle of brass bands, vintage cars and uniformed troops that marched by with varying degrees of synchronization.

If his father has his way, however, it will not be long before Waylon and his young sister come to see beyond the bright colors to recognize the deeper meaning of Memorial Day.

“It’s going to be a family tradition from now on,” said his father Hing Lai, 36, a plumber who only discovered the parade last spring after having lived in Forest Hills for nine years. “I want my kids to be proud of their country.”

Though by name it is an occasion for remembrance, to the countless young faces dotting Metropolitan Avenue, Sunday’s Memorial Day parade in Forest Hills was a day of learning, a chance to hear about sacrifices made in wars that played out long before they were born.

It also provided a stage for political performance, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani marching alongside probable Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg, Queens Borough President Claire Shulman and City Councilwoman Helen Marshall (D-East Elmhurst), who is running for the borough presidency.

City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democratic mayoral candidate, marched by earlier in the procession with state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans).

Although Giuliani lended implicit support to Bloomberg’s mayoral candidacy by marching with him, he stopped short of officially endorsing the media mogul when he spoke at a news conference following the parade.

“That shouldn’t be a sign that I support him or don’t support him,” Giuliani said. “I do think that Michael Bloomberg has an advantage in that he has not spent his entire life in politics.”

According to Dr. Tom Doyle, a local doctor who cheered the veterans from the sidewalk, the parade began modestly 37 years ago with a Boy Scout troop and a single band.

The symbolism of the flag was not lost on Doyle and his wife. While waiting for the first division to pass by, Betty Ann Doyle clasped two flags she and her husband would later rest on the tombs of two American veterans — John Ford, a relative who had served in Battle of the Bulge during World War II, and Monsignor William Higgins, a neighbor “so close that he was family.”

Beyond the carefree march of toddlers and the reflective glances of the elderly stood spectators who had their own reasons for taking their place at the annual parade.

“I like the Army clothes,” said Samantha Montanaro, a 12-year-old student at PS 190 who wore a camouflage outfit that looked more Gap than Army issue. “I just like the style.”

Although the wars make up a distant chapter of American history to Montanaro and her friend Kelly Oppedisano, a 10-year-old who attends PS 144, seeing uniformed classmates marching past brought the notion of war a bit closer to home.

“The teens dress in uniforms like the war, and I’ve never seen teens dress like that,” Oppedisano said.

Among the teenagers so dressed was Delia Niles, a 16-year-old student at Franklin K. Lane High School who marched as a member of her school’s Junior ROTC program.

Only a few years older than the girls who marveled at her outfit, Niles nevertheless saw well beyond the exterior trappings of the parade.

“If we had lost the wars that we had won, perhaps we wouldn’t have the same freedom as we have today,” she said.

Veteran Bill Murphy, 52, elicited his own share of respectful applause as he rode in a wheelchair alongside other members of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.

He lost the use of his legs in a military helicopter crash, but Murphy could only pass the crowd’s praise onto the comrades who made even greater sacrifices.

“A lot of people want to come up to honor us, but we’re here to honor the guys who aren’t here,” Murphy said. “We’re here to honor those who gave all.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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