Glimpsing The Greatness of a Commanding Officer

November 17, 2016

Donald Dustin, Commanding OfficerDonald Dustin, Gordon Pettingell, and Ron Schoolcraft serve as the color guard during a Memorial Day ceremony in the 1990s. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) Our national calendar is punctuated by two days for remembering those who have served in the military and died in war, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. This photograph was taken about a quarter century ago. I recalled it last week as, once again, we pinned poppies in remembrance.

A Solemn Day

Memorial Day services are solemn, necessarily so, as veterans remember events they’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, and we all relive again the loss of loved ones. It is a day when children, blessedly uncomprehending, are hushed, sensing a time to be still, to listen.

We all listen.

Wind whistles softly in trees overhead; a bee works among blossoms. We feel warmth of morning sun, the fleeting pulse of life, the nearness of death.

I’ve photographed Memorial Day observances in Randolph for 30 years. Leafing through a stack of images recently, I was struck by the solemnity, events culminating in a loud report of guns, an eternally quiet pause, the call of trumpet playing out over the park, reaching out to distant hills.

My many Memorial Day images are much the same. There are school bands and a color guard. Speeches and prayers are offered; a wreath is laid.

Among the somewhat predictable photographs of these repeated scenes, I especially recall this one image.

Hallowed Ground

On June 17, 1943, a B-17 bomber developed engine trouble and crashed above Randolph Village on Fish Hill. Of the 10-person crew, seven parachuted to safety; three died in the crash.

In 1991, a memorial plaque was erected near the site. Since that time, following Memorial Day observances in the village, folks have proceeded up the hill for a second early afternoon service.

Sometime in the 1990s, I don’t believe it was the inaugural year; I covered the Fish Hill service for the paper. That day I captured this telling moment. It is unlike any other I’ve photographed on Memorial Day.

Here we encounter members of the military color guard: Lt. Colonel Donald Dustin, backed up by Gordon Pettingell and Ron Schoolcraft.

This is a special group. Dustin, having served in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam was long retired from 25 years in the army. Pettingell saw the Battle of the Bulge and received numerous medals including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Ron Schoolcraft, while still in Swanton High School in 1957, joined the Army National Guard, serving a total 33 years before retiring in 2000.

Intrusion

Taking photographs at a solemn assembly like a funeral or remembrance service is a delicate affair. It’s difficult to cover events like these without seeming intrusive, insensitive. I try to maintain a respectful demeanor, and move about quietly when necessary.

Even with these precautions, taking any pictures can seem wrong to some. There are times when my use of a camera has been annoying and, perhaps for Donald Dustin, this was such a time.

The service at Fish Hill had just concluded. I was walking away from the scene behind the color guard when, suddenly, Dustin wheeled around, fixing me in his sights. Unbeknownst to me, he had already muttered mischievous intentions to his cohorts. They were quite amused by the brief confrontation that followed.

“Mr. Eddy,” (we knew each other well, and this is the only time he ever addressed me with anything other than “Bob” or “Robert”) “Mr Eddy, we are about to post the colors!” he remarked with all the bearing and authority of a Lt. Colonel. Then, he added, with a glint in his eye, “Just where do you think we should post them?”

Lt. Colonel Donald Dustin was, as they say, all up in my grill, Pettingell and Schoolcraft cracking up behind him.

Without a word, I raised my camera and took this final photograph.

My willingness to not back down apparently won the moment. Donald clapped me on my back and finished our exchange saying, “C’mon, let’s get back to town.”

Loved It

Dustin loved this photograph when it ran in our paper. A short time following his death, I gave a copy to his wife Anna.

“He looks really good there,” she said with a smile this week.

I agree.

This isn’t an image of a 70-something military veteran dressed in a moth-balled uniform two sizes too small. Here, Dustin is every inch the full measure, bearing and rank of commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Donald C. Dustin. The men behind him are as fully under his command and spell as those under him in active service.

Here, before our eyes, the years are peeled away. In this moment, we glimpse again the power, humor, and intelligence of this great man. We feel in this small band the connection, the esprit d’corps, that brought troops through Normandy, Anzio, the Bulge, the Battle of Inchon, and la Drang.

Most of this great generation are gone now. They are not forgotten.

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