A few of mornings ago, it was just a degree above zero. I wondered if Frank Panepento was really going to be outside by the giant old flag pole outside the Batavia VA Hospital, brass trumpet in hand, blowing out the National Anthem.
I heard he had been out to the VA every morning for the past several months, honoring the veterans and their caregivers with the Star Spangled Banner.
Panepento's tribute started over the summer, and except for missing a couple of days in August, he's been in a small parking lot near the illuminated flagpole every morning at 7, regardless of the rain, the wind, the cold or the snow.
"It's such a beautiful facility that does such beautiful things, every day, every single day," Panepento said. "I said, 'God give me the strength. Let me do this.' Once I did it one day, I said, 'why can't I do it two days?' Once I did it two days, 'why doesn't someone do it every day?' "
Panepento would like to see other horn players take up the cause, not just here, but throughout the nation.
Next month, he will need neck surgery, so he's been recruiting friends to fill in for him, as well as trying to work out something with Batavia High School to have students take turns with the patriotic wake-up call.
"If you're a horn player, why aren't you playing?" Panepento asked. "For me, if I see an opportunity to play, it doesn't get any better than this. It doesn't for me."
Panepento played for the St. Joe's Drum Corps when he was young, but then put his horn away in 1972. In 1991, he helped form the Mighty St. Joe's Alumni Corps and started playing again.
His father had passed by then. He died while a cancer patient at the VA hospital.
A few months before the elder Panepento's death, he told Frank he was determined to beat cancer. He wanted to go up to the VA and walk on the grounds.
The two men parked in the same parking lot where Panepento plays every morning now, got out of the car and started to walk.
They walked shoulder to shoulder for a few feet toward the flag pole, then Frank's father sagged and Frank caught him. They were still at least 15 feet from the large, white cement base of the standard.
"I'm praying, 'God, please give me the strength to hold him,' " Panepento said. "I couldn't go left. I couldn't go right. I didn't want to drop him. I was able to get him to the flagpole and lean him on that flagpole. I said, 'Are you OK, you OK?' I ran back to the car, praying, 'Oh, dear God, please don't let him fall.' I drove over there and I was able to get him car. That was the last time Dad was out. That is when he came to the stark realization (of) what cancer was doing to him and all the implications of what it meant."
Not long after, Panepento's mother passed while staying at the state veterans home on the same grounds.
Frank's father died at a time when Panepento wasn't playing. Father never heard son play the National Anthem. At the funeral, Frank couldn't play taps for his dad. These are lost opportunities Penepento regrets.
"We forget our veterans," Panepento said. "What do we do? We just remember on Veterans Day, or we just remember them on a particular day, or the caregivers who take care of our veterans. It should be something, it's something I need to do. So when I come here, it's like 'Hello Dad, hi, Ma. Thank you God. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to just be here and play.' I'm just grateful to be able to play for him today. I'm just sorry I wasn't able to do it for him then."
NOTE About the video: I've been out to the VA center four straight mornings at 7. The first morning, I went to the wrong location (didn't miss by much) and didn't see Frank. The next morning, the bitter cold caused technical issues with my camera. The following morning, operator error meant the video was out of focus. Today, video in focus, but wind ruined the sound. So, the video is yesterday's audio with this morning's video. Perhaps only a musician would notice it's slightly out of sync, but as a matter of full disclosure, that's the explanation.