Veterans of the armed forces stepped off in practiced rhythm, Cub Scouts jostled for position and spectators cheered from the sidewalks as thousands marched along roadways across Long Island in early Memorial Day parades Sunday, a cherished prelude to the more than 70 parades to be held Monday.

In summer weather in Centereach, organizers estimated a crowd of more than 2,000 lined Middle Country Road for a parade that has been held since 1943. Marchers included members of the 423rd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit out of Shoreham that arrived in their 3-ton Humvees. They'd come to support parade organizers from VFW Post 4927 but some had personal reasons as well.

"My dad's a Vietnam veteran," Staff Sgt. Christopher Denicker of St. James said. "I come from a patriotic family."

The Humvees made them a hit with the younger set and picture-taking grown-ups. "We're pretty much treated like celebrities," said Staff Sgt. Todd Wilkes, 33, of Austin, Texas, an Army recruiter.

As the holiday commemorates those who died serving in the nation's armed forces, the weekend surrounding it takes on more expansive meanings. It is the unofficial start of summer; a time to thank the volunteers from the Selden and Centereach fire departments, and a chance for families in lawn chairs to cheer their Little Leaguers and their young musicians from Centereach and Newfield High School marching bands.

In this atmosphere, the Racing With Jesus crew with the Mercury Comet muscle car fit right in, as did the women of Lake Grove's New Village Church, dressed in colonial bonnets and ankle-length dresses celebrating their bicentennial; as did Lana and William Schaefer of Selden, parked near the parade's start in a gleaming sky blue '61 Buick LeSabre convertible.

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The Schaefers' job this year, as it has been for much of the past decade, was to ferry dignitaries, though shortly before step-off they still didn't know who they'd carry. William Schaefer boiled years of parade experience down to the essential: "Don't run anybody over," he said. "Go slow."

There were solemn notes, too. Dennis Sullivan, 64, who served in the Army in Vietnam and is a quartermaster for VFW Post 4927 in Centereach, said the ranks of older veterans once active in the post and in the parade are thinning.

This year 21 of the post's World War II veterans died; last year it was 13. "We're losing them," he said. "We're starting to lose our Vietnam veterans, too."

For a few minutes before the parade stepped off, older veterans mingled with younger on Henry Road. Among them were brothers Robert Wilson Sr., 80, a retired telephone company technician, and John Wilson, 78, a retired steamfitter, along with Robert Wilson Jr., 50, a neonatal nurse at North Shore University Hospital, all of Centereach and all Navy veterans.

"It's a time to show pride in the service, pride in the family and honor our war dead," said Wilson Jr. "We honor them by walking together."