An elderly man in a wheelchair came to the Ice Cream Shop in downtown Apex and asked Lainie Adams for a strawberry milkshake.
When the 17-year-old Apex High School senior brought it to him, the customer told her simply, “I was there.”
Lainie asked the man what he meant. She had forgotten the tip jar on the counter asked for help in funding her trip to Hawaii, where her school’s chorus will sing Sunday, Dec. 7, at a commemoration of the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“He said he was at Pearl Harbor,” Lainie said Wednesday, hours before she and her classmates left on the trip. “He sighed and said, ‘I lost my best friend that day. ... I was going to ask her to marry me that day.’ ”
Tears filled Lainie’s eyes as she recalled the man’s story of falling bombs and a broken heart, an encounter she said taught her more about Pearl Harbor than any history class.
“He said there was blood and fire everywhere, for days,” Adams said. “And he said, ‘You’ll never forget this trip. It’ll change your life.’ And after he left, I sat on the floor and cried for 20 minutes.”
On Sunday, Lainie and 70 of her classmates will take part in the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade. They’ll try to keep their emotions in check as aging survivors of the attack return.
They will open the ceremonies by singing the national anthem – they’ll be the only group to sing it – and later will be on the USS Missouri, serenading those who come to pay their respects.
Heather Copley, the school’s chorus director for 17 years, takes her classes on big trips every four years. Last time it was London, and before that was Italy and Switzerland. For the Pearl Harbor event, Apex will represent North Carolina; one group from each state was selected to perform.
She said it’s the kind of trip they’ll remember when they’re 50. It’s also an opportunity for the group – made up of seniors and students from the advanced class – to learn more about history.
Niyah Webb, a 16-year-old junior, may be the only student in her class who has visited Hawaii before. However, she didn’t tour the memorial when her father, Robert Webb, was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Hawaii near Pearl Harbor. He recently retired as a chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank.
While learning the music for this concert, Copley instructed Niyah and the other students to analyze the lyrics and study the history behind the songs.
Niyah said “Danny Boy,” a ballad about a man going off to war that’s sung from a family member’s perspective, affected her deeply.
“I couldn’t sing it because I was crying too much,” she said. “I just had to sit back and mouth the words. And it’s crazy, ‘cause I almost never cry. Music is the only thing that makes me cry.”
Like Niyah and Lainie, 17-year-old senior Olivia Soto said preparing for the concert has made her connect with history and the military in a way she didn’t know was possible.
“So much of school is, ‘Memorize these statistics and who was president.’ You don’t learn the stories, the real truth,” Olivia said.
“A textbook can’t teach like this trip,” Copley added.
The trip won’t be entirely serious, as Copley plans to have the students go to classic tourist destinations.
But some said they’re as excited for the singing and the war memorial as anything else.
The students didn’t always share that perspective, Copley said. Many of them joked around while learning and performing the songs of each military branch because the idea of singing a march seemed silly.
“They were getting real dancey with it,” Copley said. “Real goofy. I said, ‘No no no no no. That’s not what this is.’ ”
She had the chorus do a dress rehearsal in front of local veterans. Some in the audience stood at attention and saluted when their branch’s song came up.
“And that’s when it clicked,” Copley said, remembering the looks on her students’ faces as they realized what the songs meant to the people in the audience.
She hasn’t had to lecture them about respect since then, and the students now bring it up themselves.
“Other than the beach and the food, obviously, I’m excited to see the veterans and honor those who have served,” Olivia said. “It’s about being able to recognize those who have fallen for our country.”