What I Learned from a 10-year old Patriot, a Group of Teenagers, and an Old Soldier
My husband and I, led by our excited 10-year old grandson, filed into the elementary school auditorium along with all the other parents and grandparents there to honor our veterans on Veterans Day. Many in the crowd were wearing jackets with the names of where they work emblazoned across the back, while others were decked out in military jackets or caps covered with service insignia.
Evansville, Indiana, its busy factories and smokestacks lined up along the Ohio River, is a city of hard-working Middle Americans. It is also a city with strong ties to the military. During WW II most of our transport ships were built here, including the ship that led the D-Day invasion. Many families today have ties to those proud ship-building days, so patriotism runs high here. This was Veteran’s Day, an important holiday in Evansville.
For four years, during the Vietnam War, my husband was a Captain in the Air Force. We spent most of those years in California, but he is a war hero to our grandson, and “Papa’s” presence at his school’s program was a dream come true for him.
Our grandson, Nate, had been eagerly planning this day for months with back-and-forth phone calls making sure we know exactly what we were supposed to do. One night he called to prepare us for the playing of Taps at the close of the ceremony. “I get tears in my eyes every time I hear that song so I want to warn you that you might cry.”
He wanted everything to be just right, and, with his help, we managed to make the 10-hour drive from Northern Michigan to get to this very special program. He had gotten special permission from his teacher to sit with the veterans rather than his class and to attend the cookies and juice reception with his grandfather following the program.
As we entered the auditorium, photos of relatives who had served in the military were looping on a giant screen. Decades-old formal portraits of serious-faced servicemen in dress uniforms and snapshots of Vietnam-era soldiers in camouflage gear standing by troop carriers were mixed with current photos of children proudly posing with grandparents and great-grandparents who had served. Each photo was labeled with the name and rank of the person and the students they were related to.
We found seats as close to the front as Nate could get us, and we sat behind a young soldier sitting next to a dog who was wearing a jacket identifying him as a U.S. Army Service Dog. Then the children filed in. Many of the little girls had red, white and blue bows in their hair and a number of the little boys sported t-shirts covered with stars and stripes. The first graders waved tiny American flags as they made their entrance.
As the children stood and sang the songs of each branch of the service, the soldiers in the audience who had served in that branch stood proudly at attention. When they played Taps at the end of the ceremony, most of the soldiers were wiping their eyes.
Our grandson, completely captivated, barely moved during the entire program. He smiled proudly at his grandfather every time he heard something particularly meaningful. He was thrilled with the entire program — except for the Milk and Juice Reception afterwards, which, he grumbled, should have been “fancier” for the veterans.
The next day we went to the Veteran’s Day Parade in downtown Evansville. We had no trouble locating the parade’s starting point, as it was marked by a gigantic American flag suspended from a towering crane. We parked and found a good spot to watch our granddaughter’s high school choir, who were performing in the pre-parade ceremony.
This group of kids, wearing black dress shirts, black pants and colorful ties, looked quite different from the group in the elementary school the day before, but they were every bit as excited to be celebrating Veteran’s Day. Their high school is a small charter school for students looking for a tough, rigorous school experience. The choir is a diverse group, as parents of many of these teenagers have come from countries around the world to work in Evansville’s global corporations.
There was a lot of nervous giggling, hair arranging, and tie straightening as the choir got ready to perform. Our granddaughter looked over at us and rolled her eyes telegraphing “I’m so nervous!” And then they began to sing.
The crowd listened attentively as the patriotic songs soared into the air. The students may not have appeared on the surface like a group who would throw themselves into this kind of concert, but they did. Their hearts were in it and it was beautiful. There was a catch in my throat as I watched those kids from so many different backgrounds and such a variety of cultures and experiences singing together. Like the children the day before, they enthusiastically sang the signature songs of each military branch and those in the audience who had served in that branch tapped their feet in rhythm and proudly sang along.
In the middle of Anchors Aweigh I spotted three people approaching the singers along the sidewalk. An older couple were pushing an elderly man in a wheel chair.
The old man in the wheelchair carried a poster-sized photograph of a handsome young soldier. The soldier in the photo had a confident smile and steady eyes. His military hat was set at a jaunty angle. Many years later that same soldier still wore an army cap, although it was pulled down to shade his face as he slumped in his wheel chair. His eyes were firmly fixed on the teenage singers as he listened intently to the military tribute.
He sat totally still as God Bless America rang out over the street. The scene was freeze-framed for me as I watched, moved by the picture of the future and the past caught in a moment of time. The three listeners were alone on the sidewalk and it seemed that the choir was singing directly to the old soldier holding the photo of himself at their age against his blanket-clad legs.
The choir ended their show and we drove home, passing under the gigantic flag still flapping in the wind on the top of the crane. But I couldn’t get either the memory of my grandson crying through Taps or the scene of the old soldier out of my mind.
My grandson loves the military. It isn’t the battles or the weapons that he loves. What he loves is the code, the commitment, the higher purpose. He is kind-hearted and gentle. His dream is to someday be a soldier so he can serve his country.
He is a deeply-committed Cub Scout. He works hard to earn the badges and has memorized the oath which he recites proudly. “On my honor I will try…” are words he takes seriously and he believes that being in the military is an honorable calling. His idealism touches my heart.
My granddaughter wants to be an aeronautical engineer — at least at this moment. She is smart and steady and has strong opinions about right and wrong. She stands up for what she believes. She and her friends are a diverse and unique group who will be part of the molding and developing of our changing country.
These kids are our future and I can’t help but think the old soldier knew that as he drew close to the choir. I have no idea where we are headed as a country. I worry about the challenges that face us and I am frightened about the world we are leaving for our grandchildren. But, for a brief time on a main street in Evansville, Indiana in the shadow of a crane-lifted flag, my heart was touched by something that felt like patriotism — and hope.