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Trio of friends take ride on wave of patriotism

The Bayshore Patriots, as they've come to be known, say they'll wave flags on a Tampa corner each Friday until the war is over.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 29, 2002


[Times photos: Thomas M. Goethe]
Julie Whitney waves two flags at Bayshore Boulevard and Bay to Bay Boulevard recently. She and two friends, known as the Bayshore Patriots, meet every Friday at the intersection.
BAYSHORE GARDENS -- Life isn't all step aerobics, worrying about teenagers and interior design. Not for these three women. Not since Sept. 11.

The morning after that tragic day, they sat on the carpet at their 6 a.m. aerobics class, depressed, thinking.

"Let's do something," said Linda Alfonso, the instructor.

"What?" asked Julie Whitney, longtime member.

"Let's go and wave flags," responded Alfonso.

The idea was so simple. Already a group had formed outside MacDill Air Force Base on the southern end of Dale Mabry Highway, doing the same thing.

The women from aerobics -- Linda Alfonso, Julie Whitney and Julie Sargent -- claimed Bayshore Boulevard near Bay to Bay.

Six months later, they have become the Bayshore Patriots, a familiar sight every Friday from 4:30 p.m to 6 p.m. They wave flags, and not small ones. When it rains, they huddle under an umbrella, still waving.

The women could have stopped by now. Other groups have yielded. But other women are not Linda, Julie and Julie. Women of action. Women who wake for a 6 a.m. aerobics class. Women who have sons of "draftable age," as Whitney puts it.

photo
Linda Alfonso, carrying a sign supporting American troops, is joined by her father, Bill McMullen on a recent Friday afternoon.
Women who don't want history to repeat itself.

At the start of the Vietnam War -- and these 50-somethings remember it well -- the tide of patriotism was high. After the war, some vets were spat upon.

"Their lives have been disrupted," Sargent said of the military personnel overseas and the victims of Sept. 11.

"Our lives haven't," Alfonso said.

They say they are going to wave flags until the war ends. And that could be a long time, they know.

The stoplight at Bayshore and Bay to Bay Boulevard is excessively long. The women have a captive audience. Drivers honk. Walkers on Bayshore wave back.

One walker kissed his hand, touched his heart and saluted.

Another man, in a car, tossed out a black beret. It had a gold leaf on it, a major's emblem.

But the biggest surprise came in December when two black Suburbans pulled up on the grass. Men in dark suits and sunglasses -- just like the movies -- stepped out.

"We thought, maybe we are in trouble, maybe they don't want us out here," said Whitney.

A car door opened and out stepped U.S. Army General Tommy Franks in desert fatigues.

"He's got this big smile on his face," said Whitney. "And he starts walking toward us with his arms open, stretched, and he goes, 'You girls are what America's all about.' "

He put brass medals embossed with an American flag in each palm. The medals are now worn by the women on a red ribbon.

No, the Bayshore Patriots don't come from a military background. No, they don't know loads of military people.

Whitney is an interior designer and a former St. Petersburg debutante.

photo
Six-year-old Madison Fox, hoisting an American flag, joins the Bayshore Patriots for a recent afternoon of flag waving.
Alfonso has taught aerobics for 17 years and works at the Davis Island gift shop, Serendipity.

Sargent is a stay-at-home mom who attends a prayer group regularly.

They all have sons around the same age: 17, 18, 19. And they all have been going to Just Fit Aerobics & Wellness on Bay to Bay Boulevard for more than seven years.

Anyone can join the women on Bayshore Boulevard during Friday rush hour. And dozens have -- among them, Bill Hamblin, 55, an ex-New Yorker, former Vietnam Vet and former Tampa police officer, who now works with computers at Verizon.

"It gives me a feeling I'm accomplishing something," said Hamblin. "I felt very frustrated after Sept. 11. I'm not a soldier anymore. I'm not a policeman anymore. I really wanted to do something."

Next Sept. 11, the women plan to line Bayshore Boulevard with flag wavers as an anniversary tribute. They have started organizing, alerting the public.

Will they get the response they want? The women hope so, although already they have noticed a change.

Two weeks ago, just before leaving Bayshore, teenagers packed into two cars made an obscene gesture, Whitney said. It was a first.

"I just want to say to them, 'Is there another country you'd like to live in?' "

-- Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or on the Internet at persaud@sptimes.com.

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