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Big Chuck

May 21, 2012

Safety Patrol trip gave glimpse of inspiring sights

No matter how many times you witness it, you still get a lump in your throat.

I am talking about the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. I was there last week. Every Mother's Day I accompany the hundreds of area sixth graders from our area on their trip to our nation's capital for their annual Safety Patrol outing.

Eastern Travel/Oneonta Bus Lines has been putting these trips together longer than anyone can remember. My own trip was in 1959. Many others had already gone before me.

I remember that my Safety Patrol trip was the first time that I had been away from my parents for an overnight trip. It was also the farthest I had ever wandered from my hometown.

It was great fun being with all the kids my same age on a real adventure. My roommate was my classmate Billy Kent from Sidney. All of us were admonished to "not get into any trouble on the trip," and we adhered to that rule. Still, we made it one of the great experiences of our youth.

I can still remember the changing of the guard at the cemetery. The silence. The solemnity. The seriousness. It has stayed with me for five decades. I have seen this ritual a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to move me.

This past Mother's Day was a brilliant sun-drenched morning when more than 400 area school kids walked up the grassy slopes of Arlington Cemetery to the majestic amphitheater at the top.

Up they quietly walked past rows of identical white gravestones, looking left and right. Past the graves of President John F. Kennedy and boxer Joe Louis. Past the cenotaph of the departed astronauts who died in our space flights. Past the Medal of Honor winners and the privates.

I watched as they filed into the viewing area, dazzling in their multihued shirts, matching their classmates from each of the many schools. They proudly wore the white straps that denoted them as Safety Patrollers.

I watched as they dutifully put their little hands over their hearts and then observed wide-eyed as the crisp, clean-cut servicemen marched out their 21 steps ad infinitum for time immemorial. The students were respectful and in good order.

After, they all filed into the amphitheater where I addressed them about the significance of Arlington. I call it "The place where the bill for our freedom was paid in full."

They got it. They absorbed every word of my speech. I like to think I reached them about what it means to be an American. After, I escorted all 400 over to Audie Murphy's grave where I told his story to them. Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II, and his life story is inspiring.

The kids got it. They all took photos of this Medal of Honor winner's plain, white gravestone.

Eastern Travel has been the travel expert in central New York for decades, and no event shows this with more clarity than their annual school trip to D.C. The whole organization of the hundreds of kids, the various museums and venues they go to, the expert coach drivers, the accompanying sheriffs and medical personnel, the army of chaperones, the herding them in and then out of the restaurants, well, it is all done with precision, care and sensitivity.

And, of course, D.C. never fails to amaze. The Vietnam Memorial Wall is still sad, the Newseum is still one of the most interesting museums in the nation, the giant pandas never fail to entertain the kids at the Washington Zoo and the new Martin Luther King Memorial is as awe-inspiring as it gets.

Cam Morris, owner of Eastern Travel, is to be commended for coordinating this unforgettable trip of a lifetime each year for so many hundreds of our local youngsters.

And I thank Cam personally for allowing me the rare opportunity to come along each year and impart whatever words of wisdom I can on these budding young scholars at this hallowed and famous place. As unforgettable as the trip is for the kids, it is even more so for me as an adult.

Next week, President Obama will address the nation on Memorial Day from the exact same spot at Arlington Cemetery that I stood and addressed the hundreds of school kids on Mother's Day.

I like to think that I "warmed it up" for him!

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.

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