In a few weeks, our little town will have its annual Crazy Days (which is something akin to a city-wide sidewalk sale). I had never heard of this tradition until my family moved to the Midwest. While the sales are fun to participate in, my personal favorite has always been the kiddie parade. My kiddos have been participating in them since Reed was three years old. Our streak has been a fun one. One year, we had the boys, two neighborhood friends, another friend, and Sister who all wanted to join in the fun. Oh my goodness! Thoughts of “Oh my!” and “How am I ever going to put a theme together for five boys and one tiny girl?” swirled in my head for days.
Cleaning up the toy room one evening, I had an “AHA!” moment. Sitting in the dress up bin were my Papa’s police shirts. My Mama had let me have them because for ethical reasons they could not be donated to a thrift store, should someone have nefarious reasons for purchasing one. Our parade unit would be a tribute to 9/11. Some of the boys were police officers, some were soldiers (uniforms courtesy of my sweetie), and Sister was Lady Liberty!
I can tell you that even though my Papa enjoyed the festivities from heaven, he was extremely proud. Law enforcement runs deeps in my family. My Papa and both my uncles Gene and Donnie were LEO’s. Growing up with a scanner running in the house was just something that happened on the Noles side of my family.
As the granddaughter and niece of police officers and sheriff’s deputies, Sawyer’s invitation to the graduation of the 56th Training Academy by the Chief of the Minnesota State Highway Patrol was a pinch-me moment. I know to him it was an incredible honor as well. We were escorted to and from the event by the lead investigator from our darkest day, and we have considered him our friend for a very long time. Our journey to the Mariucci Arena coming one day after our Sister’s major knee surgery; so, only Sawyer and I were able to travel to the ceremony.
Our lives first crossed paths in a meaningful way when Trooper L came to our home to interview our children about their accounts of the bus crash. I remember his quiet and understanding nature allowing them to tell their memories of the day. I could not imagine the pain he had to feel collecting the stories of the children whom he had worked to help. He offered his phone number and told us we could contact him anytime. His was the number we called when the friend of Reed had a vision of where Reed’s glasses could be found on the bus. And he was the one who reverently returned the small lens back to us.
Our travel time was filled with lots of stories, the kind of catching up old friends do when they haven’t seen each other in a while. It was a beautiful time, another healing moment ordained by God. There were many poignant moments at the ceremony, each causing tears to pool in my eyes. The first being when we were escorted to our seats. The seats were marked with papers saying “Reserved for Dignitaries”. The Boy Wonder and I exchanged glances. Are we really supposed to sit here? Oh, my goodness! Papa, are you seeing this? There were real dignitaries in attendance, but to the troopers we were more than a young man and his mom. Our neighbors in the next seats were a delegation from the Wisconsin State Troopers who were present on a mission of remembrance and appreciation to this class of graduates for honoring their fallen comrade. Their sorrow was palpable, beating in their hearts under their badges. Watching the families, often multi-generations be a part of the badge ceremony moved me to tears, especially the ones who were repurposing a badge that was once worn by a father, grandfather, or great-grandfather. Just like in my own family, the pride of the profession runs deep. The messages given by the speakers were touching, but each of them gave profound advice – use your training to come home safely. When the Chief gave his address, he ended with the words written by my son. He asked Sawyer to stand and shared who “these dignitaries were”, and said he had struggled with how to end this year’s speech . . . until a letter arrived from a young man from Marshall.
The Chief read these words as the closing of his commencement remarks. He began by saying the cadets had chosen a noble profession: one that truly makes a difference. If they ever doubt that, remember the words of Sawyer.
As the bus lay upside down on the highway, it wasn’t strangers that helped get every child off the bus; it was the heroes of my community. The paramedics, firemen, policemen, and state troopers that I had known as my neighbors and members of my community who came to help me and my class mates in our darkest hour. People, who, to this day, I encounter almost on a daily basis, are real heroes. The frigid Minnesota winter afternoon of the crash, these men and women left the warmth of their families and jobs to come and save many lives, including my own. They came expecting nothing in return from those who were on the bus. They simply saw the children they had always known who needed their assistance. Even to this day the humility possessed by these local heroes is astounding. Instead of taking pride in the many lives they saved that night, they take pride in how well I and the other children have been able to recover since the crash. I do not believe that you can become a hero by chance or by simply showing up. Heroes are the people who have a desire to help and make a difference and the compassion to truly be there for those in need. A hero is a person who does what it takes to help those in need regardless of the personal risk or cost.
I couldn’t hold the tears back. The pride bursting forth that we were blessed to have this young man in our lives. The joy barely contained because he had come so far and his life was impacting the lives of others. The honor of being invited to an amazing event left me humbled.
In the final oath of office, the newest troopers standing right before us, I bowed my head and asked God to please keep them safe as they work to serve and protect others. We took the time to congratulate each one, and even more tears accompanied by big smiles when several thanked Sawyer for the words of encouragement. I saved my commencement bulletin; so that it would be a visual reminder to pray for them throughout their careers.
As we were leaving swirling in my thoughts were the core values central to the mission of the Minnesota Highway Patrol: respect, integrity, courage, honor, all the things that we have tried to instill in our young man. The same values his Papa and Grandpa Earl lived by are what his Granpa Junior and Dad model every day. I was overcome with emotion. What a day! One I will never forget. Frankly, this was one of the coolest things I have ever done. If I thought that long ago parade would have made my Papa proud, this day would be the pinnacle of all he embodied. In the wind I could almost hear him whisper, “You done good, Gal. You done good.”