Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day, 2011

We've heard all the jokes--

"You play in a Navy band? What do you really do?"

"You guys sound pretty good--you could be professionals."

"It must be soft duty, just marching around and tooting your flute."

It becomes pointless to argue. People believe what they want to believe.

But we Navy musicians know what the job is. And we know that the job, like any other in the Navy, can be dangerous. All of Band 22 died at their battle stations on the USS Arizona. A contingent of the Navy Band died in a plane crash en route to Rio de Janiero. In war and in peace, in these places and in others, Navy musicians have made that which is so poetic and so heartbreaking: the ultimate sacrifice.

We are not proud of this. The tragedy that befalls a shipmate is never a cause of pride. To the contrary, it invites sober reflection on the fact that accidents and enemies don't care about the insignia on your rating badge; they will claim with equal disregard boatswains, pilots, gunner's mates and musicians.

On this Memorial Day, we remember the bandsmen who gave their all. Although we may never have met them, we have shared their history, their stories, their duties. In this, we can, indeed, take a measure of pride.

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the kid next door comes marching home

Oringinally published
Rock Island Argus
Moline Dispatch
May 19, 2011

I didn't mind playing for Navy ship arrivals. Of course, I would have preferred to spend the afternoon in the band's rehearsal hall, catching up on paperwork or working on a new march, but, given that Navy musicians have to earn their way, just like the quartermasters and gunner's mates, a ship arrival was cake, a skate job:

Form up on the pier. Play a few Sousa marches and "Home, Sweet Home" for the crowd of wives and children awaiting the husbands and dads they haven't seen in months. Play "Anchors Aweigh" as the ship docks and a few more ditties as the crew stampedes down the gangplank. Put the clarinets back in the cases, drive back to base and get on with the day's paperwork.

This afternoon, my neighbor, Cody Brown, an Illinois National Guardsman, returned with his unit from a tour in the Middle East. I've watched Cody grow up from a junior high kid to a high school football player to a 10-foot-tall soldier.

Aledo, Illinois, is a small town, so when a Guard unit comes home, it's a big deal. We gather in the downtown park long before they're expected to arrive. They're traveling in a caravan, so people with cell phones spread up-to-the-minute misinformation about the motorcade's progress through nearby towns:

"They just left Viola."

"They just arrived in Viola."

"Anybody know if they've reached Viola yet?"

Eventually, a distant siren wails. Far-off flashing headlights draw us to the roadside to watch the caravan of fire trucks, motorcycles, cars and pickups deliver our sons, fathers, sisters and neighbors. We cheer as they drive by, old vets salute the passing colors. The rolling parade turns into the parking lot and the soldiers pile out of pickups and SUVs. We greet them, shake their hands, hug them, take their pictures.

And we cry. At least some of us do; I won't mention any names because I don't want to embarrass me in print.

Oh, it would have been great to have a band, too. But we're not a big city surrounded by military installations. We're big hearts surrounded by cornfields. And because I was one of the crowd, instead of one of the tuba players, for the first time, I got to see what it means when Johnny comes marching home, whether on foot, on an aircraft carrier or in the bed of a Ford pickup.

All those long-ago concerts I played at ship arrivals were for strangers. I knew they were significant moments, but, somehow, I didn't really know.

Now I know.

We grow. Certainly, Cody Brown has grown, from a teenaged football player who once earned the applause of his fans to a man who has now earned the respect of his country.

But I have grown, too, at least in my understanding. Those guys in the fire trucks were volunteers. The motorcycle honor guard was a group of everyday Americans who believe soldiers deserve honor and give up their weekends to make that honor real. No one in that parking lot came out of obligation. We were there because we needed to be there. The only guy on duty was the town cop, and if it hadn't been his shift, he would have come anyway.

Certainly, every soldier deserves to come home to the fanfare of trumpets and piccolos, but we don't have military bands in every country hamlet.

What we have is big hearts. Today, that was enough.

I'm not as tall as Cody Brown, and I'm three times his age.

But I'm still undergoing growth spurts.

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Copyright 2011 Frank Mullen III