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Pepperell’s Fourth of July celebration on Saturday, July 3 featured its biggest parade ever with a lively and colorful mix of marching bands, antique vehicles, creative floats and bright red fire trucks.

Spectators lined the streets to get a view of the annual parade, which began at Town Hall and ended at Nissitissit Middle School.

In keeping with long-standing tradition, the day’s activities emphasized appreciation for men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces. According to Fourth of July Committee Vice President Carol Gates, the number of active service personnel from Pepperell is 32 and growing.

“Of those 32, eight are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Carol, “including my own son David, who was deployed to Afghanistan last week.”

The military were well represented at the start of parade by a VFW Honor Guard from Pepperell VFW Post 3291. Marching with the guard were Rob Campbell, an Army lieutenant colonel from Pepperell along with four active Army servicemen: Sgt. Tim Hurley, Sgt. Paul Dorski, and SFC Eric Vogelsang, all of whom just returned from Iraq the previous Saturday. Staff Sgt.. Casey Reed, who is being deployed to Afghanistan in August, also marched with them.

Vogelsang, who grew up in Westford and has lived in Pepperell for 17 years, was happy to be there after spending nearly a year in Iraq. He has 24 years in the service.

“It feels great to be home,” he said. “We made it back just in time for the celebration.”

There was an especially poignant moment during the parade, when it stopped at the rotary to make a special presentation to Pepperell veteran, Randall Charles Heisler, a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served during the Korean War era as a communications instructor. Heisler is ill with cancer and confined to a wheelchair. However, that does not deter him from standing up on his front porch every day and saluting when his favorite radio station plays the Star Spangled Banner at noon.

Heisler was saluted and presented with an American flag by Lt. Col. Campbell. Militia in Revolutionary War attire fired their muskets in the air.

Following behind the VFW Honor Guard came a dazzling array of marchers, with Grand Marshall Michael Tikonoff, retiring principal of Nissitissit Middle School, seated in a bright red antique Jaguar. The Northeast Marching Navy Band played rousing patriotic music and several local service organizations, including Friends of Pepperell Seniors, the Pepperell Women’s Club, and the Covered Bridge Committee marched in step. A tall clown on stilts entertained the crowd, and kids rushed into the road to scoop up candy tossed by the folks cruising on floats.

There were too many entertaining sights and sounds to mention. The Mariachi Mex-American band played tunes with a Mexican beat and sported huge sombreros. The Bektash minicar patrol from Concord, N.H., zoomed around in circles; boys on unicycles weaved in and out; and gymnasts from Pure Energy Gymnastics did cartwheels in the street.

Cathy Forrest, an administrator with the Pepperell police department for 29 years, was there with her 8-year old grandson, Andrew Grigas.

“The Pepperell parade is always wonderful,” said Cathy. “And it gets bigger and better every year.”

Andrew, who lives in Amherst, N.H., and has been to the parade every year since he was a baby, agreed.

“I like the fire trucks best,” he said, then added, “and the tractors, too.” Four town fire trucks, horns blaring, along with a “kiddie truck” brought up the rear.

The parade was just the start of a full day’s activities on the town field that featured live music, pony rides and various demonstrations. Families streamed in after the parade to enjoy the fun and some barbecue.

Abigail Dagenais, 10, and her sister, Madison, 8, came from Billerica to see the parade.

“My favorite part was the horses,” said Abigail, referring to the Clydesdales pulling an old-fashioned wooden cart holding the Hollis Dixieland Band.

Her sister Madison likes horse, too. “I thought the people dressed as horses was the best part,” she said, referencing the Pepperell Horse Association. It was the sisters’ second Pepperell parade, and they want to come back again.

The day concluded with a special ceremony of appreciation for U.S. service personnel followed by fireworks. Sgts. Hurley, Dorski, Vogelsang and Reed presented local VFW Quartermaster and Marine Corps veteran Tony Saboliauskas with an American flag that had flown at Camp Taji in Iraq earlier in the year. The four Army men then took turns lighting Howitzer cannons during the 1812 Overture.

This year’s fireworks display was truly spectacular, and was Sgt. Hurley’s favorite part of the day. He is from Lexington, and serves in the headquarters and Headquarters Attachment 211th Military Police in Lexington. He has seven years in the service.

“The fireworks this year were the best yet,” he commented.

The fiery display definitely delighted the crowd, especially the finale, which twinkled red, white and blue at a low level with huge star bursts hovering higher in the sky. The flash and crash seemed to explode just overhead. Audience members talked about it as they exited the field through a narrow wooded path.

“The fireworks were great,” said Bernie Hall, from Maynard. “That was the closest I’ve ever been to a big fireworks show like that.”

Sgt. Hurley is about to take on a more proactive role in the annual Fourth of July celebration. He is joining the Fourth of July Committee along with four other newcomers, who will be stepping into the seats vacated by outgoing members Linda Leland, Julie Bernier and Jannine Kraus, who moved to New Jersey this year, but returned to town for Saturday’s festivities. Other new members include Candy Forney, Janice Portlock, Beth Dunn, and Terry Ruff.

About his new role on the committee, Hurley commented, “I will work with other committee members to maintain the ongoing tradition of honoring our country’s military service personnel.”

The Pepperell Fourth of July Committee works all year planning for the special day. Over the last 12 months, the committee held several fundraisers to finance the event.

The committee will be sponsoring a Halloween party on Oct. 30, fall and spring carnivals, a Mardi Gras party, Ladies Night at the VFW, a raffle, and possibly a golf tournament for next year’s parade. This year’s raffle prize of $491 was announced just before the fireworks began. It went to Carol Ferguson of Townsend.

“Fundraising is so important,” commented committee V.P. Carol Gates. “We have to book the bands in early spring and need funds available then to make deposits. Right now we’re still a few thousand dollars short, but hope to make up that difference from the today’s activities and the raffle.”

Pepperell’s “Small Town Big Bang” has grown to be a truly patriotic 4th of July tradition for townspeople and visitors from near and far.