“Bill!” I shouted, racing past the tiny hallway store.
“Where you goin’ Mr. Important?” Bill called from his stool, cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Hey, Bill, I’ll be back later. I’ll see you then,” I yelled over my shoulder.
It started with an unexpected phone call a couple minutes earlier. “You doing anything today?” the deep voice said, knowing the answer as the question was asked. A familiar voice, somebody who I’d come to know and appreciate when we both worked on a difficult assignment. That assignment lasted just over 72 hours. I was just back from a cross-country trip to LA, actually Beverly Hills, to solve a problem. There was one close call when a member of our team of specialists went missing. We needed him, found him wandering along Figueroa Street stinking drunk, but that’s another story.
“No sir, I’m free,” I said to my caller. Never a good idea to turn down any headquarters request. Always a quick learner, that’s me.
“Car will be picking you up in 10 minutes.” He hung up. The conversation lasted under two minutes.
I looked at the pile of urgent stuff on my desk, stood up, stretched and prepared to go to the main entrance.
Pushing the heavy oak door I walked out into the sunshine, and looked at the rows of cars, including one impossibly shiny deep blue staff car. The driver looked and me and asked without emotion, “Ready, Sir?”
I nodded. He opened the door with a flourish and I was inside. It seemed as if we made the trip in record time, that the lanes were all cleared for us to cross the Potomac, that every light turned green.
We glided to a halt in front of the Capitol. A member of the Army’s Old Guard pulled on the door handle, and introduced himself as my escort. I sheepishly left the car, following this fellow, trying to keep up, as we walked through the marble corridors to the other side, the West Steps, the place where inaugurations are held. Glancing furtively to a small piece of paper in his white-gloved hand, the soldier pointed to a front row seat, center, with my name on it.
Clear, deep blue skies and bright sunshine made me squint, even through my dark aviator sunglasses. I had to make sure. The folding chair was hard, unforgiving, but mine for the moment. I was not going to sit down, but it seemed that there were plenty of others waiting for me to make a move, and I needed to cooperate. Some of them were wearing the distinctive pleated pale blue ribbon around their neck, the Medal of Honor. John McCain was talking with them. Each shook my hand, thanked me for being there. It was my honor I said.
The crowd swelled behind us. Many older men stood in uniforms that used to fit, and some still did, standing as straight as their age and health would allow. As I turned I could see rows and rows of chairs behind us, stretching back toward the Lincoln Memorial. I squirmed again.
The Senate Chaplin gave the invocation. There was a profound stillness in the air while we bowed our heads. When he was done, he looked to the sky. Small dots on the horizon got bigger. Soon, overhead almost close enough to touch, five jets roared over the Capitol dome. One pulled up and away--the missing man formation.
Maybe it was the noise, the feel of heat from that jet exhaust, the day, the sky, the place, but I had a hard time not weeping silently as I watched, eyes turned skyward. I looked around; there were a lot of others in the same predicament, some weeping openly.
Back at the building, I was wondering who to impress with the day’s happening. It came down to a toss up between co-workers and bosses.
As I walked by his little shop Bill was busy with a customer. His head close to the till he was making change. I waited. “Hey, Bill, I said, let me tell you about my day.”
He stared blankly at me; after all he was the legally blind proprietor of the Blind Man Stand near my office. I gave him the best description I could. As I got to the part about the fighter jets, he raised his head, and said softly, “I see ‘em.”
He didn’t see the tears in my eyes. I patted his shoulder, said goodbye and walked back to my office, sat there quietly a couple hours. It was a day for heroes in America. A truly Memorial Day.