In spite of the silence and solemnity of the moment, a movement in my peripheral vision catches my attention. My hand remains placed over my heart and I stand stock still, but I cut my eyes to the side to see what the movement is.
Moments before, I had laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Now, having rejoined the members of my chorus and the rest of the audience, we eagerly await the time-honored changing of the guard ceremony.
The silence is broken only by the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the marching soldiers.
But my attention has been redirected as surely as a hooked fish on a line to an area a bit below and to the right of the hill when the Tomb lies.
There is a short sidewalk that I did not notice on my last visit to this hallowed place. At the end of the sidewalk is a small concrete pad. And on that concrete pad is the one responsible for casting this mental hook from which I cannot escape.
He is barely over five feet tall. The wisps of hair that are still on his pate are the color of clouds. Though it is late spring, his skin tones are pale. His neck tie and white shirt seem out of place from the casual attire of surrounding summer tourists.
His only company is a woman younger than him. He turns to receive a coat from her. As he struggles to slide into the tight fighting garment, he brushes aside the woman’s efforts to assist him. He is in a hurry.
With his back to me, he buttons his coat and tugs at the bottom of it. He turns toward the Tomb as he takes a smaller item from his companion.
In one motion he slips on his hat and snaps to attention. The braids, medals and ribbons on his uniform silently announce to anyone who sees, “I Am A Veteran!”
There is the slightest stoop to his shoulders, but fatigue never shows as he remains as still as any of the statues in the amphitheatre behind me.
Then come the haunting yet simple notes of the bugler’s song – TAPS.
Even from this distance I see his eyes redden. The woman with him is dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
I feel the warmth of my tears as they run down my cheeks.
Not until the ceremony ends does he unsnap his hand from his salute. Doing a perfect about-face, he takes a few steps into the arms of his friend.
There is no hesitation on my part. I make my way down the hill. I have to meet this man.
I approach him slowly, not wanting to wade into the middle of any memories he may be swimming through. I’m within ten feet before either of them notice me.
I suddenly feel embarrassed at my own boldness in barging into this intimate scene.
I introduce myself and explain that I could not help but notice him during the ceremony.
His companion is more eager to speak than he. With pride in her voice she says, “This is my dad Steve Chomos. He is a World War II veteran. And this is the same uniform he was wearing when he was discharged.”
Steve shifts nervously, uncomfortable with his daughter’s crowing over him.
I tell them about my chorus and that we’ve spent the past few days singing to veterans and performing at historical venues. “But what I’d really like to do is have them sing for you, Steve, if that’s ok with you.”
His daughter stifles a cry and begins weeping again. “Would you really?”
Steve is uncertain I am sincere, thinking, perhaps, that my offer is only a token one. “You don’t have to do that for me. But I do appreciate it.”
“Listen you two. I’m as sincere as I know how to be. My group would be honored to give you the honor you deserve for defending our country.”
“Come on daddy. Let them do it.” His daughter is growing excited.
Steve finally agrees.
I lead the two of them up the hill and introduce them to the members of the chorus. It is clear by their expressions they, too, are awe struck by this soldier from The Greatest Generation.
The next challenge is to find a spot to sing this impromptu concert. We decide to go to the Memorial Amphitheatre that is behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
For the next thirty minutes we sing patriotic selections for this small man from Ohio. He and his daughter laugh, smile, hug, and cry – as do we.
This slight man defended my country before I was born. He could not have done it alone. But because he was joined by tens of thousands of others with like spirit, I enjoy the freedoms I do.
From the Battle of Bunker Hill to the sandy streets of Afghanistan our nation has always had Steve Chomos’s to step up and answer freedom’s call. They may have thought they were only fighting for themselves, but even more importantly, they were fighting for the generations to follow.
On this Memorial Day let’s be thankful for all those who have been brave enough to wear the uniform of service.