When the moment came, I chose not to stand.
Out with friends and a raft of new acquaintances with their arms full of food they were hell bent on sharing with everybody, I take in for the first time an Indianapolis ritual that—frankly—until this year never held much appeal.
‘Indy’ is a town full of hidden gems. Two of these—the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and nearby Conner Prairie—mingle their magic every fourth of July weekend in an outdoor concert of patriotic music that is a fixed point in several of my friends’ calendars.
I don’t like John Philip Sousa. I played lots of marches in high school, marched to them, even whipped my trombone section into marching shape in the cause of straight lines and well-pressed movements at football games and cavalcades. But dear ol’ John Philip—a virtual god to those who love such stuff—never grew on me.
Fortunately, on this gorgeous evening in Conner Prairie’s amphitheatre there was more than jaunty marches. Much more.
It is too easy to smile condescendingly at group experiences tatooed with the awkward adjective ‘patriotic’. One almost expects sub-par quality in exchange for an excess of sentiment. Yet such a perverse exchange was not present in this evening’s mix.
Part of the enchantment of a July evening on Conner Prairie with the ISO under the friendly and accessible baton of Alfred Savia is the flesh-and-blood company of men and women who have served, as the operational term is so exquisitely put. In such a fellowship, the uncomfortable suspicions of things martial struggle unsuccessfully for a foothold.
As a guest of Centurion’s Watch, I was surrounded by such folk at table, engaged by them in generous conversation, invited to devour the obscene mountains of food they had brought with them for the enjoyment of both friend and stranger. I heard the stories of more than one of them, always spoken with a kind of reticence, as though verbal plaudits might be forthcoming but they’d really rather not.
A civil war veteran’s heart-rending letter to his lady back home just after Bull Run and a week before the death he anticipated reduced us to moist eyes that wanted to overflow in tears. It was read by a Civil War enactor while the ISO lingered over Randy Edelman’s unspeakably poignant music for film Gettysburg set the mood. Then, hard on its heels, comes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, arguably two hundred and seventy-one of the most enduring words ever penned at a sitting. They end, of course, with a most burdensome and enlivening summons:
… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It is impolitic, in these most timid of days, to refer to race. Yet I must. At the conclusion of the Address, my eyes met those of Martha and Damon in meaningful embrace. I am a white boy. Martha and Damon are African-American. Beyond all this, we are Americans, hopeful that the eccentricities of our nationality might still have meaning in a world gone crazy and more confident than usual—on a night like this and with all necessary caveats—that they just might.
I watched in solemn astonishment as veterans mouthed the words of Lincoln’s Address. It is not inconsequential that they have assigned Lincoln’s lines to that portion of memory where birthdays, anniversary dates, casualties of war, and perhaps a Bible verse are treasured against the onslaught of age and its depletions.
Then comes the moment when members of each military branch are asked to stand at the playing of their official song. I had been told, or so I believe to be the case, that it was proper for to me to stand at the playing of the Army Song. I am the father of two sons who in the space of the last six week have been graduated from university and commissioned as Second Lieutenants into the United States Army.
This was not a predictable course of life for Christopher and John, raised in Costa Rica and England. Yet in the four years of college life in which they have flourished as ROTC cadets and on into the moving ceremony under which they have taken pledge to lead men and women in uniform into and through adversity which their civilian father can imagine only remotely, I have watched them grow strong, principled, and decisive.
‘You can stand, because you raised two patriots’, my friend the Elster—go-to source for all military curiosities—had assured me. Yet I sensed he was making a concession, as one who had served, to a good-natured soul who had not. I had thought that I might just rise to my feet in honor of these two sons who, against many odds, had chosen what I have come to consider without reservation to be a most honorable profession.
My sense of bemused admiration of my sons is captured in this week’s Wall Street Journal by means of an article entitled ‘While My Son Serves‘. We have gone some way, perhaps, in raising sons who could make these choices. Yet they are not our decisions. We can only honor, support, and pray.
In time, the ISO worked its way to the Army Song and applause erupted from an appreciative audience for those who stood to acknowledge service in this branch, as it had for those who had worn the uniform of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force.
I was still in my seat, unable to share the honor of two sons who have made this decision alone. It is entirely theirs, not mine. I will always on such occasions be here in this chair, eyes moist, hands clapping together, heart praying that we in these United States might in our strength and prowess always find ourselves on the side of the angels.
They shall stand, if fate is kind to them. I will look on from my chair, astonished that such frail and vulnerable giants are still astir in this land and world of ours.