A sea of faces, many etched by time, looked up at the stage, expectant, waiting for the annual Veterans Day tribute to begin.
Many wore the marks of retired military — from ball and special service caps to a full uniform or two. Off to the side of the main seating in the Payson High auditorium three wheelchairs from Rim Country Health were occupied by some of the oldest veterans and somewhere from the depths of the hall a baby’s chortles and squeals could be heard. It was a day of celebration and remembrance for all ages.
There were cheers, applause and tears.
Bill Sahno, of the hosting Payson Patriotic Events Committee, came to the stage podium to open the event and announced the plan to pay special tribute to a single branch of all the armed services in the next few years. The first to receive individual recognition: the United States Merchant Marine.
Jim Muhr, who served as a Merchant Marine, made the presentation, sharing the branch’s history. The Merchant Marine — private ships serving the U.S. in both war and peace — traces its origins to the American Revolution before there was a U.S. Navy.
Owners volunteered their ships to stop foreign vessels, board them and discover if they were carrying goods and materials that could aid the British against the colonists. The foreign ships were escorted into harbor and there was a hearing to determine if the cargo was to benefit the British. If it was, the Colonial Army took half the spoils and the other half went to the owner of the Merchant Marine ship (the privateer).
The Merchant Marine served the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783 and is still recognized as one of the branches of the U.S. military.
The program featured the joyful, heart-lifting “Little People” waving, singing and signing — and one even bowing, under the direction of Darlene Daniels. Decked out in matching T-shirts with a modified design of the U.S. flag, the youngsters did their best to belt out “This is My Country,” “God Bless America” and “America (Oh Beautiful).”
“This is what it is all about,” Sahno said as he sat beside me watching the youngsters on the stage. Most stood close together, perhaps gaining courage as they looked out on all those faces in the audience. Looking up at them, they seemed terribly little, but also very brave and happy to be there.
Also singing for the veterans and others at the celebration was the Payson Choral Society, which also presented “America (Oh Beautiful)” and “God Bless America,” then closed the program with “Amazing Grace.”
Among the most moving parts of the celebration were two tribute videos prepared for the occasion by the Payson High School theatre department under the direction of Kathy Siler, Tom Walling and Greg Larkins.
Making presentations in addition to Muhr were Mayor Kenny Evans and Police Chief Don Engler. Father Lowell Andrews of Holy Nativity — and a veteran himself — gave the invocation and benediction.
The master of ceremonies for the event was Stephanie Landers.