By By Michael Norris, Pentagram Assistant Editor April 12, 2013
WASHINGTON - One of several events making up the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival, took place along the Washington Channel in Southwest Washington, D.C, April 6.
This was the 10th anniversary of the waterfront festival and 101st anniversary of the gift of cherry trees to the American people by the government of Japan. The festival included a large military presence from Joint Base Myer-Henderson-Hall. JBM-HH is a member of the Washington Waterfront Association, a neighborhood organization that co-sponsors the event each year.
An armed forces color guard was part of opening ceremonies, which included a performance by the U.S. Navy Band and speeches by city, neighborhood and festival organizers, including: Jay Nickerson, president of the Washington Waterfront Association; Diana Mayhew, National Cherry Blossom Festival president; and Andy Litsky, the District of Columbia's Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commission chairman.
Noting the elevated platform and great view from the Kastles' Stadium stage, JBM-HH Commander Col. Fern O. Sumpter joked to the crowd upon taking the podium, "For once I have a platform that fits my stature."
Sumpter talked about how the installations making up JBM-HH have "historically and proudly served the National Capital Region." She also touted the components of The U.S. Army Band that would be playing at the festival later that evening - Downrange and the Army Blues - and alerted the audience to the presence of service members from the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) and Single Marine Program, who had set up tents along the waterfront selling snacks and refreshments to festival goers.
Sumpter then addressed the unifying theme of the gathering.
"I'm not sure if you know this, but 20 of those original [gift] cherry trees were planted at Fort McNair," she told the audience. "And through the years, we have added to our cherry tree population, so I am proud to say we have our own beautiful grove of cherry trees that line the Washington Channel just across from Haines Point.
"It's a tremendous honor to be here with all of you today," Sumpter concluded. "I can't think of a better way to help usher in springtime in Southwest Washington, D.C."
Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Commander Navy Capt. Anthony T. Calandra followed, riffing on Sumpter's storied surname. "Sumpter is a hard act to follow," he said, being "the only living servicemember to have a fort named after her." For the record, South Carolina's Fort Sumter is spelled without a "p" and is famous for being the starting point for the Civil War, somewhat predating the JBM-HH commander's birth.
Calandra continued in a lighthearted vein, scanning the audience and noting the presence of several swashbuckling, eye-patched privateers in the audience. "Having pirates in the area makes Sailors uneasy," he said to laughter.
Calandra talked about how some of the original cherry trees brought to Washington succumbed to disease, necessitating a second planting. He said each plant is representative of military service and the solidarity of the armed forces.
Sgt. Maj. Tony Nalker, pianist and group leader of the U.S. Army Blues, said the Blues performed some Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes, as well as some Marty Paich jazz arrangements at the festival, including the Duke's "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing." The group also performed several songs associated with Ella Fitzgerald, with Sgt. 1st Class Christal Rheams from Downrange joining the Blues for vocals.
Nalker said the piece that received the most applause that evening was a Quincy Jones-arranged instrumental version of "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Sgt. Maj. Mercy Diez, a vocalist and group leader with Downrange, said there was a large crowd in attendance at the festival. She said Downrange performed James Brown's "Living in America," Aerosmith's "Cryin'," "Katy Perry's "Fireworks" and a song associated with "American Idol" contestant Chris Daughtry, "Home," among other selections. Diez said the audience showed its enthusiasm for the music by giving Downrange a standing ovation.
There were so many soldiers and Marines manning BOSS snack tents that volunteers were able to take shifts, allowing military personnel to circulate around the festival site and enjoy themselves. LeRoy Harris, BOSS supervisor, credited JBM-HH Command Sgt. Maj. Earlene Y. Lavender with marshalling the troops for the effort.
According to Christina Darensbourg, chief of business operations at JBM-HH's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, BOSS doubled the amount of money raised last year. She said the money would be fed back to BOSS through FMWR programs.
Capt. Levi Howze, a volunteer from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), said BOSS offers a great way for soldiers to network and "make friends that will last a lifetime." "We have enough people [working] so that we can leave the tent, go out and explore," said Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Boloyan of the Single Marine Program at Henderson Hall, which, along with the USO, assisted BOSS with concessions at the festival.
"I'll probably go out and try all the food vendors before the day is done," said Pfc. Devian Crane of The Old Guard, who assembled cones of cotton candy at one of three BOSS tents.
While not exactly a single Soldier, Katie Vanderhalf was at a BOSS tent with her husband, Sgt. Ryan Drobney of Headquarters and Headquarters Company. She said BOSS was more than a social organization; that it also functioned like a service fraternity helping out with community projects.
Marine Sgt. Ottheia Searcy, president of Henderson Hall's Single Marine Program and a festival volunteer, said BOSS and the Single Marines hope to schedule more joint events together. "It's a great organization," she said. "There are so many opportunities to go places and do things."
The waterfront festival concluded with a fireworks display above the waters of the Washington Channel. Multicolored streamers and starbursts shot from cannons on a barge illuminated the night sky.
As Andy Litsky noted with pride earlier in the day, "It's the only homegrown fireworks festival in our nation's capital."
"We are honored to be part of such an incredible event every year," said Leah Rubalcaba, JBM-HH community relations officer. "Our military involvement has grown every year. This year, we had 125 military personnel representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard who volunteered to work the event, and they were absolutely amazing. The National Park Service reported this year's attendance at 60,000 and, thanks to our great military partners who all volunteered to help. The festival was a great success."