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May 22, 2013

Safety Patrol D.C. visits never get old

Big Chuck D'Imperio
The Daily Star

---- — I asked Cam Morris, head of Eastern Travel/Oneonta Bus Lines, how many years her company has been handling the Safety Patrol trip to Washington, D.C.

“I honestly don’t know, Big Chuck” she said with a laugh. “More than 60 is about as close as we can come.”

I have written about this in my column before, but having just come off another memorable weekend in our nation’s capital I wanted to share it with you all again.

I went on my Safety Patrol trip around 1960. A whole bunch of us from Sidney went. It was a big deal then, and I suspect it is to today’s kids, also. It was the first overnight trip I ever took without my parents. It was my first trip to a big city and it was the first trip where I was in charge of my own money (“Twenty dollars, and come back with some change,” I was told).

My roommate was Billy Kent, a friend from my old neighborhood. His folks owned the big department store in Sidney. We had a blast on the trip. On the way down we stopped at the Gettysburg battlefield. I remember sitting in the dark, witnessing the dramatic unfolding of the Electric Map. A deep-voiced announcer intoned the progress of the advancing armies upon the town of Gettysburg. Little red lights snaked across a giant panoramic map of the area representing the Confederate army. Blue signified the Union troops.

We sat in hushed silence as the “voice of God” told us about the backdrop of the war, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and the Union general at Gettysburg, George Meade. The suspense as the red and blue lights got closer and closer was unbearable. When the battle was engaged all the little lights on the board began to flash on and off and a great sound of crashing cymbals filled the room. My pounding heart almost burst through my chest it was so exciting.

I was 11.

Fifty-three years after that event I am still going to Washington every year with the Safety Patrol. Several years ago, Mrs. Morris invited me to accompany the group and speak to the youngsters at Arlington Cemetery. I jumped at the chance and have been doing it every Mother’s Day weekend since.

Last weekend, I watched hundreds of school kids from all over our region tramp up the hill at Arlington and gather in silence at the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. I looked over the sea of faces of the youngsters from Oxford and Unadilla Valley and Oneonta and Milford and from all the other little towns in our region. They stood wide-eyed as the stoic soldier marched off his 21 steps. They held their little hands over their hearts at the playing of Taps. They were told not to move a muscle, and they didn’t. They made us all proud.

“Without a doubt Arlington is something these children will always remember,” Mrs. Morris told me. It’s quite a sight to see 300 kids all coming together in such an orderly fashion. To say that Eastern Travel handles this annual event with precision and professionalism is a monument to understatement. When it comes to these trips, Eastern Travel/Oneonta Bus Lines wrote the book on them!

After the changing of the guard, the throng is ushered in to the historic Arlington Amphitheatre. Here I address them about the place they are visiting. The stories. The legacy. The heroes. The solemnity of it all. My speech is titled “Arlington: Where the price of our freedom is paid in full.” They get it.

I relive a little of my youth every year when I go on this trip. I remember being in Safety Patrol. I remember the white belt and badge I wore with pride. I remember I liked being in charge of my corner (West Main and Pearl Street) and I remember how I shouted “OFF!” with great authority when my shift ended. To see these hundreds of local boys and girls running around Washington wearing their white belts and badges just like Billy Kent and I did in 1960, well, it just takes me back to the black and white days of my youth.

Unfortunately for these students, however, the Electric Map at Gettysburg is now a memory. It was shut down in 2008 and sold off at auction. No more red and blue blinking lights. No more “voice of God.” No more cymbals crashing. No more heart pounding through chest.

That’s OK. I doubt if today’s kids could have handled it.

I’ll catch you in two …

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.