A mix of milieu at 4th Fest

UNIVERSITY PARK — Two military attack helicopters, high on the list of 4th Fest attractions this year, had to cancel their flight from Johnstown and didn’t make the celebration because of fog at their home base.

“Those pilots are wimps,” joked John Gibbons, Pennsylvania National Guard staff sergeant who was in charge of showing the 4th Fest public some prize military hardware that stays on the ground.

Gibbons, an Altoona resident based with the 56th Stryker Brigade’s Company C in Bellefonte, led his squad to 4th Fest and opened the doors and hatches and turned on the thermal camera of a $4.2 million Stryker, an armored truck that carries up to 11 soldiers into battle.

Folks young and not so young climbed around inside, ducking to avoid bumps on the head but highly impressed that a 22-ton, eight-wheeled truck can go up to 75 mph without a windshield to look through.

“When we’re completely buttoned up, he drives straight thermals — like a video game,” Gibbons said.

The brigade is scheduled to go to the Middle East in January, along with the Stryker that was displayed in front of Beaver Stadium on Friday. So 9-year-old Hope Diehl, of Huntingdon, got a front seat to history.

She got to sit in the driver’s seat, popping her head up through the heavy steel hatch for a photo captured by a friend, Heidi Dean, also of Huntingdon. Diehl came away with a wide grin.

“It was cool,” she said, “and it was dark.”

Both sides now

The military hardware on display also included a Humvee and a rough-terrain forklift, but the theme was not universally appreciated.

At a public issues forum on “Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public Role,” that was also part of 4th Fest, Brenda Black, of Port Matilda, told 18 other panel members that she thought the military presence was overdone.

“I’m very, very angry about what I see as the militarization of the 4th Fest,” Black said during the discussion in a Bryce Jordan Center room.

Later, apart from the panel discussion, 4th Fest Executive Director Bernie Keisling said he was “disappointed” the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters couldn’t make it and he defended the equipment that was on display.

“There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that they’re part of our history,” he said. “It’s not just a show and tell for the military.”

‘That’s the biggest thing’

One of the Pennsylvania National Guardsmen explaining the Stryker to curious passers-by on Friday was Chris Irvin, of Pleasant Gap, a 1995 graduate of Bellefonte Area High School.

Any thoughts on heading back to combat?

“I don’t mind going back,” Irvin said. “I signed up for it. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. I’ve got an 8-year-old boy, though. He’s taking it pretty tough. That’s the biggest thing.”

‘America at its best’

Sports also mixed with patriotism Friday.

The State College Spikes, in a 1 p.m. baseball game against the Vermont Lake Monsters, had Medlar Field decked out in bunting, staged a National Anthem sung by the Red, White and Blues Brothers and passed out an American flag to each and every fan that walked through the gates.

And all but one of the Spikes’ staff wore Independence Day T-shirts that intensified the identification of sports with patriotism.

Valerie Jarrett, of State College, a Spikes usher, wore her own version of patriotic garb, an elegant dress of covered with American flags that Jarrett’s mother made for her in 1993 when she was a social studies teacher.

“It hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 years,” Jarrett said.

Among the more than 4,600 fans in the stands was Tom Zelechoski, of Johnsonburg, Elk County, going to his first Spikes game since the season opener two years ago. But he’d never been to 4th Fest before. He came this year because a colleague told him he shouldn’t miss it.

Zelechoski, nosing around a 12-foot American flag cake after the game, said he liked the day.

“We went to the ball game, and what a blow-out that was,” he said. “This is what America’s all about. This is America at its best.”

A piece of cake

The queue for one of the 1,500 pieces of cake was long, making a thick line across the parking lot. But Mechelle Perigo, of Lancaster County, as she has for several years, waited near the end, a picture of patience, even under the graying skies.

Is a piece of cake worth the wait?

“How can you not participate in something like this?” she said. “It rained last year, and it was worth it. It’s going to rain this year, and it’s going to be worth it.”

Politics and patriotism

Strolling through the crowd was Joel Anderson, of State College, a clipboard in his arm and a question on his mind for those he came across: Are you registered to vote?

Anderson said he is a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, though he displayed nothing to demonstrate that and did not refer to either Obama or Arizona Sen. John McCain in his work to sign up new voters.

The Obama campaign believes more than half of newly registered voters will vote for Obama on Nov. 4, so it pays to register new ones.

Anderson worked a Spikes game with his clipboard two weeks ago and didn’t sign up a single new voter. They were more interested in the game. His efforts outside the ballpark Friday were more productive. He’d registered eight or more new voters by 6 p.m.

“Somehow you get people wandering around and they feel guilty,” he said. “They know they should.”

Mike Joseph can be reached at 235-3910.