"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is one of my favorite movies of all time. Not the Johnny Depp monstrosity that came out a few years ago, but the original - the one I remember being shown almost every Thanksgiving from ages 5 to 9. Obviously, Roald Dahl wrote an amazing story, but what makes the movie is the way Gene Wilder played the lead role. Of all the madcap geniuses every portrayed in the movies, Wilder did it the best.
But I suppose I need to get to my point, rather than digress further into an analysis of what the Oompa Loompas symbolically represent. There is a scene in the movie when the five winners of the golden tickets are standing outside of Wonka's factory, waiting to go in for the tour. The town has gathered outside the factory gates, a band is playing and people are waving flags. Seemingly, everyone, for that brief moment, is excited about the exact same thing. Nothing else matters.
That's how it felt Wednesday evening in downtown Albert Lea, Minn., during the welcome event for the third leg of the 2010 Legacy Run. Leo Carey Post 56 pulled out all the stops, chaining off a parking lot across from the post in the downtown city of 18,000 people, bringing in the Albert Lea Community Band to play patriotic songs, and cooking up grilled pork chops.
People lined Main Street and Bridge Avenue to welcome the riders and then turned out in large numbers for the welcome event itself. Many riders said it was the best welcome event they've been a part of in five years on the Run - a comment that meant the world to a very animated Bill Goette, Post 56's commander. "Hearing that can make me cry," Goette said. "We expected big things for this event. All of my volunteers really cooperated, the five other posts in the county helped, and the community really supported us."
Support was the key word for Tuesday; it was an impressive display across the board. Legionnaires and non-Legionnaires alike lined the overpasses of I-35 throughout Iowa, waving American and Legion flags and applauding as the group traveled underneath. People lined the streets of Johnston as the riders arrived at Iowa National Guard Camp Dodge in Johnson, Iowa. My SUV arrived in advance of the riders both in Johnston and Albert Lea, and I felt like I should have been throwing out candy and giving a royal family wave to parade viewers on each side of the street. Yeah, there were that many people waiting.
In Decatur City, Iowa, 11 Legionnaires from Post 78 traveled 80 miles from Bloomfield to stand on the overpass holding American and Legion flags while saluting the riders as they passed by. "We wanted to support the cause that they're riding for," said Post 78 Legionnaire Don Jones. "It's great that people are out to recognize these guys and support their cause."
Non-Legionnaires also showed up. Lois Slade, who lives five miles away in Leon, was there to see her neighbor - Legion Rider Dale Scott - drive by. "It's his third year on the run, but it's the first time we've had a chance to see him go by," Slade said. "We're proud of him. It's a very neat cause. And to think that people came all the way from Bloomfield to watch them - that's really nice."
It was a display of support that left the Riders who witnessed it sometimes struggling to explain what it meant to them. "I really don't know how to describe it completely," said Jim Cowley of Post 45 in Galva, Ill. "I thought that was awesome. It really makes you feel a great sense of pride that people took the time to applaud you for doing this ride."
Wayne Blawat, a rider from Post 406 in Big Bend, Wis., and a three-year Run participant, started to get watery eyes when I asked him for his reaction to the people on the overpasses. "To me... I get emotional. I feel proud," Blawat said. "Just about every overpass had people on it. I think it was terrific."
The day included an emotional ceremony at Camp Dodge, following a lunch of pulled pork, coleslaw, potato salad and pickles. After lunch, Iowa's Five Star Freedom Riders conducted a fallen heroes ceremony that brought some viewers to tears and ended with a standing ovation from the packed room of riders and Guardsmen alike. The ceremony also included words from National Commander Clarence Hill, Department of Iowa Commander Jerry Sebben and Johnson Mayor Paula Dierenfeld.
Also speaking during the ceremony was Brig. Gen. Stephen E. Bogle, assistant adjutant general - Army, Iowa National Guard, Camp Dodge. Bogle revered the previous heroes who had stood in the same room where the ceremony was taking place - those men and women who trained at Camp Dodge before being deployed elsewhere in the world - and the heroes standing there now: the men and women of The American Legion.
"What you do to honor the children of fallen heroes - I ask each and every one of you to stand up and give yourself a round of applause," Bogle said.
Wednesday was one of those times when the stars aligned. Incredible support all the way around, AND I got a chance to return to my home state - albeit briefly - for some walleye pike (the best freshwater fish in the world) and Old Dutch potato chips (see previous parentheses but replace "fish" with "chips").
Not a bad day.
Today, after breakfast sponsored by Post 56, we head to lunch at Post 326 in Boyd, Wis., followed by an evening meal hosted by Sentry Insurance in Stevens Point, Wis. It's funny - after the opening day, Thursday's finish to the run felt six months away. But after we pull into Stevens Point today, we are just 192 miles from Milwaukee. Momentum is building.