Paul Pizzuta remembers attending the annual Memorial Day Parade when he was a youngster growing up in Weehawken.
"I always enjoyed going to the parade when I was a kid," Pizzuta said. "With all the World War II veterans that were there. I loved to talk to those guys and listen to their stories about being in Paris and Rome. It was a very big day for me."
Monday morning, when the annual parade steps off from Highpoint Avenue at 9:30 a.m. and begins its 1.9 mile journey through the township, Pizzuta will be one of the most honored people in the parade route.
The 37-year-old Pizzuta, a veteran of the Gulf War who served in the United States Marines, has been selected as one of the two Grand Marshals for the annual parade, along with Fred Hartshorn, who was a member of the Air Force during the early stages of the Vietnam conflict.
Both Pizzuta and Hartshorn were shocked yet honored that they were chosen by the parade committee to serve as this year's grand marshals.
"I didn't even know," said Pizzuta, who was in the Marine Corps for four years (1985-1989) and served two years in the Marine Corps Reserves, before becoming a member of the New York City police department. "It is a great honor. I used to look up to the veterans during the parade, and now, people will be looking at me."
"It's a great honor to be selected," said the 56-year-old Hartshorn, who served in the Air Force from 1966 through 1968 and has served as the commander of the American Legion Post 18 for the last decade. "Memorial Day is always the most important day on the American Legion's calendar. It's the one day of the year that we all set aside. The day has such an important meaning to all of us. It's a nice honor and I'm very proud."
The parade will begin at Highpoint Avenue and will travel to Hudson Place to Maple Street. The parade will then make a right turn on Maple Street, then a left on Ridgeley Place to Park Avenue. It will continue north on Park Avenue to 49th Street, then east on 49th Street to Boulevard East, where it will continue south to the Soliders' and Sailors' Monument.
It will come to a close with ceremonies there around 11:30 a.m.
Chuck Barone, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War and a member of the Weehawken Veterans of Foreign War Oulton-Kraft Post 1923, has been asked to serve as honorary parade chairman this year, in place of James Hams, who ran the parade for almost 60 years.
"We're going to try to make the parade larger than most this year," said Barone, who also serves as the township's recreation director. "Over the years, the importance of the parade sort of diminished. But in light of recent events, like the 9/11 tragedy and the war in Iraq, there was been a resurgence of Americanism and that is good to see. It's good to see the American flags flying outside the homes once again. I think it's long overdue."
Added Barone, "It is a day that we should remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country."
Barone said that he personally lost some friends and colleagues in combat in Vietnam.
"Guys I served with and others whom I met through the different stages of my military career," Barone said. "I've been to the Vietnam Memorial a few times and it's been a very moving moment for me, to see their names on the wall. I've never lost sight of how important the day is and was. I've been active in the parade since I returned home 30 years ago and I've tried to help keep the tradition alive every year."
Barone said that he didn't want to make any radical changes in the format that Hams so meticulously kept for many years. Now in ill health, Hams will be honored with a plaque for his many years of service during the ceremonies at the end of the parade at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument on Boulevard East.
Barone said that there will be a full contingent of marchers and participants to enhance the festivities. Both the Weehawken and Memorial High School marching bands will perform, as well as a Dixieland band and the famed Mummers from Philadelphia, weather permitting.
The Emerson High School Marine Corps ROTC Color Guard will march, along with members of the U.S. Army's 50th Battalion Reserve Unit.
Weehawken's two Gold Star Mothers, namely Virginia Dabonka and Rose Cemelli, women who lost sons in battle, will once again grace the parade route.
Other township groups, like the Weehawken police, the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue, the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad, the Weehawken Elks, Weehawken Recreation, Girl Scouts, as well as representatives from both the VFW and the American Legion, will participate.
But there will be other aspects to the parade, according to Barone. Clowns will be spread out along the parade route, along with balloon-animal creators.
"We want to make it a festive event, as well as a way to remember," Barone said.
And make it an event that the two honorees will also remember.
"When I went to the parades as a kid, I never thought I would be honored like the other veterans," Pizzuta said. "Another officer in my precinct (the 46th Precinct in the Bronx), John Gogarty, is also from Weehawken and he comes to the parade every year. It means a lot to him and it means a lot to me, especially this year."