Coming Home To A Place I’ve Never Been Before

dongrad

It’s homecoming weekend at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, CO.  The first class was graduated from the Academy in 1959.  Construction wasn’t complete yet when that class entered the Academy, so they began classes at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.  By the time my husband, Don, passed through the gates in 1965, the all-male cadet wing was thoroughly ensconced on the Academy grounds.

In all the time we were married, Don never took me to the Academy.  I asked.  He was a member of the AOG – the Association of Graduates.  Eventually, we did go to some local chapter functions, which was nice, but he never wanted to go to one of his class reunions. So I’d seen pictures of the Academy, and I’d heard Don’s stories, but I’d never been here.

When Don died, I notified the AOG.  They put a notice out to his classmates, and I got a few sympathy cards from them.  They published a notice online, and they’ll be putting his obituary in the printed newsletter.  They also gave me a membership in the AOG, so now I get all the notifications – I might go to the Air Force – Navy tailgate party.  It is football season now, you know.  Which brings me to homecoming.

During homecoming weekend, the Academy has a ceremony in which they remember all the graduates and cadets who’ve died in the last year.  Twenty-year-old and I flew out to see Don honored in this way.

As I was starting my internship at my new church this past week, at first I thought I wasn’t going to be able to come, but people encouraged me, so I asked my supervisor who said, “Of course you should go!”, so I made arrangements.  I’m so glad I did.

By the time I decided to make the trip, I’d lost the paper invitation that came in the mail, so I called the AOG.  Jean at the AOG was so great, as all the military folks have been all along with me, and sent me an e-mail copy and answered all my questions.  Today I got to meet her in person, which was nice.

So, off we went.  Twenty-year-old and I flew to Denver yesterday, I rented a car, and we drove south to Colorado Springs.  It’s about a million degrees here right now, I think.  Just so you know.  On our drive down we got to see some nice thunderstorms in the distance – she had never seen them like that – with the big open plains.  We drove through some of them, too.  Today, though, was all sun.  ALL sun.

We headed over to the Academy mid-morning, got our special name tags that allowed us access to the cadet area, and took the shuttle bus over to the cadet area.  The Cadet Chapel is the focal point of the area, and it’s beautiful.  We walked around in the chapel some, sat and prayed for a bit, and then decided to see what was going on outside.  It was shortly before noon, and the Academy Band (which is an Air Force Band stationed at Peterson Air Force Base across town) was getting ready to march the cadets to lunch.  Apparently this happens about twice a week.  So of course we stayed to watch.  We walked down to the terrazzo, which I had heard so much about from Don.  We could see the freshman running on the lines (freshman are required to run on the lines of the terrazzo – they may not just stroll across.  I remember Don telling me about this – much hasn’t changed).  We watched as the cadets got into formation.  Then the band began to play, and the marched off to lunch.  We didn’t know it at the time, but we were standing right by Don’s squadron.

After the cadets went to lunch, we decided to, also, so we headed back to Doolittle Hall (that would be Jimmy Doolittle) where we ate with the classes of 1993 and 2003, and some of the other next-of-kin.

We walked around the visitors’ center some and enjoyed the air conditioning, and then headed back to the cadet area, where someone reminded us of the reception for the next of kin.  When we got to the reception, we met Jean, who was worried that we hadn’t been assigned cadet escorts yet, so she decided to take care of that.

Jean introduced us to two sophomore cadets, Steve and Colin, who escorted us for the rest of the day.  I told them that Don had once rolled the Commandant of Cadets’ car down a mountain, and their eyes opened wide, “I think I’ve heard about this!”, Steve said.  I confess that made me happy.  It’s good that Don has become legend at the Academy, even if it’s for something a bit, um, infamous.  Just then, we were joined by a colonel who is the head of the Academy’s prep school, so I told the whole story for them.  They were suitably impressed and amused.  I hope they continue to tell the story.

After the reception, it was time to go to the ceremony, but Steve and Colin gave us a brief detour tour first.  We picked up a program at the reception, and it had all the photos of the graduates and cadets who were being memorialized, listed by squadron (which is how we knew what Don’s squadron was).  All the photos were the graduation photos (or, I suppose, in the case of cadets, the most recent yearbook photo), so they were all immortalized at about 22 years old or so.  It also listed the class year, and rank of active duty and retired graduates.  Don was in the 23rd squadron.  As it happens, our two escorts are both in the 24th – right next door in formation, and right upstairs in Vandenberg Hall.

As next-of-kin, we were given seats facing the band.  The cadets all stood in their formations around the terrazzo.  The deceased ranged from old generals to young cadets. There were 116 dead honored today.

During the roll call, each graduate’s or cadet’s name was read out, by squadron, and after all the names for a given squadron were called out, the squadron leader answered, “Absent, Ma’am!”  (The current superintendent of the Academy is also the first woman superintendent at USAFA).  It was far more moving than I anticipated.  There is continuity in this.

There was a 21-gun salute.  Two buglers played taps.  A wreath was laid at the war memorial.  It was lovely.

I felt such a connection, even though I’ve only ever heard about this place.  The Academy was so important in Don’s life.  This ceremony has been going on since 1964, and has been happening on the terrazzo since 1965, the year Don entered the Academy.  Now it was these cadets’ turn to honor him, and I was so glad I could be a part of it.

Next year, I might go to his 45th reunion.  Maybe I’ll go to the Air Force – Navy tailgate party.  I can’t stay for the football game tomorrow, but I’ll be cheating from the airport.

That’s my mite.  It’s all I’ve got.

 

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4 thoughts on “Coming Home To A Place I’ve Never Been Before

  1. Pingback: USAFA Part II: How To Roll a Car Down a Mountain and Other Stories | The Widow's Mite-y Blog

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