VALPARAISO | Well before Valparaiso's annual Fourth of July Blast kicked off at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, a smattering of residents had nabbed prime fireworks-viewing spots behind Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
With temperatures in the 70s and no threat of rain, the crowd grew quickly and lined up at vendor booths for ice cream, cotton candy and hot dogs.
Festivities began with the posting of colors by VFW Post 988, American Legion Post 94 and the Dunes Leathernecks chapter of the U.S. Marine Corps League.
The event also featured music by The Crawpuppies and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by students, educators and civic leaders.
A fireworks show by ACE Pyro was scheduled to begin at dusk.
Valparaiso residents John and Angie Catrino were among those who showed up early with their lawn chairs.
For John Catrino, who served with the U.S. Marines Air Support Squadron 5 during the Vietnam War, the celebration of the nation's Independence Day is a reminder of the cost that comes with keeping that freedom.
“Some of my buddies never came back,” he said. “Freedom is taken for granted, but it comes at a high price.”
The couple said they attend the Valpo Blast every year and enjoy seeing their friends there.
“Besides the music and the fireworks, it's all about getting together with the community,” John Catrino said.
“It's good to hear the patriotic music,” Angie Catrino added.
Brett Odle, 18, of Valparaiso, also showed up early to meet with friends.
A recent graduate of Valparaiso High School, Odle plans to join the U.S. Marines Corps this September.
He said the July 4th celebrations reinforce his commitment to serve his country.
“It makes me feel like I'm doing the right thing to protect it,” Odle said.
Many people came to the event decked out in patriotic garb, and the Zilinger family of Valparaiso was no exception.
Holly Zilinger was joined by her daughter, Helena, and grandchildren, Lily, 5, Holly, 12, and Matt, 16. All sported red T-shirts with the letters USA, and Lily wore a small U.S. flag in her hair, secured by a bright-red headband.
“We come here every year, Holly Zilinger said. “It's a nice place and a fun evening out.”