The General & the Hymn

May 26, 2017

The Iwo Jima Memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is a holy place to Marines and their families. Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Marines raising Old Glory atop Mt. Suribachi during World War II enshrined in copper is one of the most iconic memorials in Washington.

On a sunny and warm weekday morning in the spring of 2015, I stood beside the memorial. Two feet in front of me, Marine Corps Major General Michael Regner stood at attention, hands by his side, staring into my eyes, his face a rock of seriousness.

I had been looking forward to this day for two months. David Rubenstein was set to announce publicly that he was donating $5.37 million to refurbish the statue and surrounding public spaces. It was another in his long line of patriotic philanthropy gifts in support of institutions and documents of public significance.

Before a throng of reporters and TV cameras, David told how his father enlisted in the Marines in World War II and why this memorial was so special to him. Jonathan Jarvis, head of the National Park Service (which maintains the memorial), and Major General Regner spoke of how David’s gift would return this majestic memorial to its former luster and add needed modern amenities, like bathrooms and educational resources.

After all the hubbub, I chatted with the general for a few minutes. He was warm and engaging. Standing beside the august memorial, feeling inspired, I asked the general if I could whistle “The Marines’ Hymn” for him. I wasn’t sure how he would react, him being a bigwig general.

Without hesitation, he immediately stood at attention and waited for my delivery, as if a switch had been flipped in him. Like the memorial beside us, the hymn was sacred as well. I had never witnessed, let alone experienced, such a visceral patriotic reaction in someone. This man so loves his country and his Corps that the only response to a whistler offering to perform “The Marines’ Hymn” was total attention. I was and remain awed.

The pressure rising, I wanted to make sure I didn’t whistle “The Army Goes Rolling Along” by accident, the kind of mistake I could make. So I locked on the words: “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,” which triggered the tune in my head. We were standing so close to each other, I thought I should step back as I prepared to whistle, but he seemed fine with it, focused solely on respecting the hymn, so I stayed where I was.

I started to whistle. He didn’t budge. He didn’t smile. He stood at full attention as the notes and unspoken words fell upon his ears. He stared into my eyes. I couldn’t look away. I was arranging the piece in real time, trying to be respectful and compelling.

That latter objective likely didn’t matter to him. It’s not about being entertained, it’s about duty, honor, country. The hymn is a way to honor the Corps and all its brave men and women have accomplished and sacrificed for 241 years.

I finished whistling and he shook my hand. Only then did he smile.

We exited our private little bubble. There was no audience, it was just the two of us in a remarkable mind meld. I consider myself patriotic, but I was in the presence of a patriot. I learned a lot that day, hearing the words of a major general who has led troops into battle, risking life and limb to protect us and our freedoms, and seeing how his wordless demeanor during the hymn spoke volumes about what the Corps and his country mean to him.

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)