Monday, August 8, 2011

Hearts Of Heroes

My only desire for the evening was that I might honor a lady with a dance, but GOD had other plans.

“Every time I come here I'm wearing a tricorn,” I tell my other Sons of the American Revolution compatriots as we approached the entrance to the Desert Diamond Casino. I was referring to previous judging stints on Lucky Break, an anachronistic and offbeat but appreciated touch.

Tonight nobody will question of our Continental Army uniforms as we gather for the annual Purple Heart Ball. Our usual color-guard duties are assigned to a military unit, but our hosts want us to add historic color to the event. General George Washington, after all, created the honor.

The event sold out well in advance, so I know we'll have a great turnout. A military band plays smooth jazz to a front room filling up with people mingling and seeking the bar. The commander in charge summons us over for a run-through of what we're supposed to do during the presentation of the colors.

Every event is unique in its layout and staging. We have no one set way to carry in the flags and post them, so the standard for the standards morphs to the needs of the occasion. When we carry no flags at all, the process takes on a new wrinkle. This evening's plan calls for us to march in after the flags for the various armed forces and post ourselves on either side of the stage. Three of us will stand on one side of the stage without guns. Another compatriot and your humble servant will stand on the other side, with guns, ready to salute with our arms – a “present arms” – at the proper time when the color guard marches in with the national and state flags. The National Anthem will follow, then an invocation, and then we march out in reverse of the way we entered the room.

“Salute with your flat hands?” a compatriot asks.


The palm is facing outward, European style, instead of perpendicular to the forehead. That is certain.

The rest of plan is clouded in uncertainty as I hear it, especially in the din of the music. I'd like to walk through it at least once to visualize where I should stand, where I should look, what I should do. At least a hundred pairs of eyes are going to be on us, and I have only one shot at it. The real Continental Soldier would know what to do. My re-enacted persona can only get as close as possible and try not to blow it.

Another detail has yet to be determined: do we take our tricorns off during the Invocation?

“They're leaving their hats on,” someone says, referring to the color guard.

“Then we leave them on.”

I'm not comfortable with it. I put GOD first, and that means uncovering during prayer in respect. If some people uncover and others don't, it's not a uniform standard, and any ceremonial maneuver requires uniformity. I think of everybody else who will be uncovering, though, and that should include us. We need a definite answer, and our fearless leader sets out to get one.

For now, we'll go on with the other part of our mission: greeting the guests and interacting with them, the Purple Heart honorees. They flow in wearing suits or dress uniforms, or suits with their VFW-style hats. I spot a Marine decorated with three rows of medals. Sailors in pressed whites help escort a few old soldiers to their tables. Ladies in their cocktail dresses amass and chatter. I offer more than a few courtly bows to them as they pass by, and my compatriots soon imitate the gesture.

“They always like it, even if you don't do it exactly right,” one fellow Continental notes.

Cell-phone cameras emerge from purses and shoot off photos of us standing at attention with our muskets shouldered next to admiring guests, images soon to work their way onto Facebook. I spot a lady in a ball gown tantalizingly close to an 18th Century polonaise, and for three seconds I am back in 1776.

I approach a couple admiring the silent auction table. “Good evening, Good Sir!” I greet with a slight British accent. I bow to his wife. “Good evening, My Lady! So glad to see you here tonight.”

“I love your uniform!” the wife returns.

“You are well-dressed yourselves,” I return.

“Are you here to protect us?”

“Against a few redcoats or rogue Hessians.”

“Hello, Christopher,” sounds a voice behind me.

I turn to see Mike, Coach Mike, one of the guys I sit across from every Friday morning at Prayer Breakfast. He's wearing a Purple Heart ribbon. Neither of us knew the other would be here.

“Hello!” I greet, stunned. “I bet you've never seen me like this!”

“I've seen the hat,” he replied.

I quickly run into a few other guys from the Friday morning breakfast club, people I knew but didn't know like this, not in connection to the military – and their wives, whom I bow to.

We still don't know if we're supposed to uncover or not for the Invocation. Another compatriot goes to get an answer from somebody else. Meanwhile, it becomes clear we're not going to get a walk-through. I'm nervous.

“We'll make this work,” I say to the others and to myself.

Minutes before the start of the event, we finally get our answer: yes, we'll uncover.

The first members of the military march in and we follow. A fellow compatriot softly coaches me on how to shoulder the musket for consistency. I follow the others to the center of the room, where we're supposed to split and take the sides of the stage, only I won't know where to split until the others split first, so I must be ready to turn on a dime. Ceremonial marching requires both precision and style. Turning a corner means halting and snapping to a new direction instead of turning while walking. I snap-turn at least three times until I reach the desired position. It looks good. All is well.

The color guard from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base marches in with tight precision.
“Present arms,” my fellow compatriot whispers. I'm glad somebody's calling orders, because nobody else is. I'm trained to take commands, not anticipate or give them.

The National Anthem brings all to their feet and my musket out in front of me, held high and parallel, dividing my face in half.

Another whisper from my compatriot, and he nudges me to the steps of the stage, where we take our positions for the Invocation. There's no set-up before the prayer, so I hastily uncover and give Thanks. The march-out proceeds according to plan, and relief washes over me. It's time to eat.

Our hosts are spreading us out so we can mingle with as many tables as possible. I end up at Table 8, a sparsely-populated location in a corner of the banquet hall. A gentleman and a couple are already there sipping iced tea. I bow and greet and take my place, removing my tricorn as per protocol. Moments later, a group of four sailors joins us. Another sailor at a table next to us sees us, and I displace myself to make room for all of them to sit together.

I find out that sailor is a naturalized American citizen from Panama.

“I studied your history for my tests,” he says in his accented English. “It is very interesting, the battles.”

I wager he knows more military history than I can get my hands around.

“You've probably heard of the Battle of Cowpens,” I say. “It's the one where the militia draws the British in, and the Continentals are over the hill waiting for them. It's in the movie The Patriot.”

He probably knows – he just can't remember it.

On my right side is a woman with a soldier son. She wears a button with his picture, and I know what it could mean.

“Where is he serving?” I ask.

“Afghanistan,” she replies. She tells me his journey from student to combat duty, passing up a baseball scholarship for the sandbox before his death at the hands of a makeshift bomb, or “IED” as they call it officially.

“We were invited here,” she says, telling how she has been trying to honor his memory.

“We honor by doing,” I reassure her.

Salads come and go, followed by the steaks and regulation rubber chicken. It's good for banquet food, but that's not the point. An empty table for sits in the center of the room, in memory of those soldiers still missing. Remember, we're told.
As the feasting winds down, the emcee introduces a 14-minute clip from an upcoming documentary on Purple Heart veterans. The rest will come soon on television somewhere in Arizona. The segment begins with a mine worker who went to war and came home to fight another one for equality. But its second subject stops me cold.

Before me are photos of Coach Mike, as he goes off to Vietnam as a sharpshooter... and then comes home to an ungrateful nation. An interview clip shows him recalling the time, and the pain is all over his face. Either he doesn't need to say any more, or he doesn't want to. Instead, the narration advances to his present life on the basketball court and his feelings about a current generation who have never known the full brunt of war. To his admiration, they are still able to commit to serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, without a draft.

I never knew any of this. All I knew was a man who coached basketball and shared his struggles at the Friday morning breakfast table. I knew he hunted “the bird of peace,” as he joked. I didn't know where that aim came from. He had told me not to be afraid of reporting what really went on in the world as part of my job, as much as it might get under peoples' skins. Now I knew where the attitude came from.

I had just shared with the soldier mom how I never knew that much about Grandfather Francis' role in World War II, how he worked with the team that monitored the Enigma machine, and how much he took to the grave with him. I never really saw him as a serviceman until the day we laid him to rest with a 21-gun salute. Now, here I was learning another soldier's story – only this time, the soldier was still alive, and sitting one table next to me.

Our emcee made more presentations, going through a list of families who had lost a loved one to war. The mother next to me was on that list, receiving a purple heart memento in trible to her fallen son...

...whose first name I heard for the first time...

...and it happened to be Christopher.

Now, everything was clear. GOD wanted me at this banquet and ball, not merely for appearance or to honor others but to see and hear what I heard. GOD had two messages for me this evening. HE wanted me to remember why I put on Revolutionary War outfit, if I ever had any doubt. And HE wanted me to continue doing it. Sometimes GOD warns us, but all the time HE guides us, and if we are willing to see it, HE encourages us.

The big band Memories burst out the Glenn Miller standard “In The Mood,” and the ball portion of the evening commenced. It seemed almost out of place after such an emotionally draining prelude, but our hosts reassured us our fallen soldiers would want it that way.

“We're leaving you without adult supervision,” a fellow compatriot called to me as he left for the evening.

For the next two hours I went in search of a lady who might afford me a dance. I found no unattached fair ones, or anybody with that longing look. But that wasn't the point.

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