Remembering 1956

Last week a coworker contacted me asking if we have any more photos of 1956 Constitution Week like this one:

Constitution Week at the National Archives, 9/17/1956. (National Archives Identifier 12169242)

One of the soldiers pictured (in the colonial uniform) was wondering if we had more photos. I immediately wanted to know more, so she put me in touch with him. Amazingly, he recalled the events with remarkable detail. Today’s post is from Randall “Randy” J. McMillon, who is sharing his remembrances of that Constitution Week in 1956.

When I was assigned to a detail at the National Archives, I did not know Constitution Week was a new thing. As a 19-year-old with a poor education, I assumed it was just another Washington or Jefferson holiday thing. Four of us plus three NCOs from the Honor Guard and four regular soldiers from another company were detailed to provide ceremonial guard duty during the inaugural Constitutional Week celebration. Wearing a colonial-style uniform, we were representing the Army from Revolutionary days, and the regular soldiers represented the modern-day Army of the 1950s.

Our procedures for going on guard duty, changing guards, and changing our positions while on duty from attention to parade rest were all pretty much ad-libbed and determined by the Sergeant of the Guard when we arrived early the first morning.

Constitution Week at the National Archives, 9/17/1956. (National Archives Identifier 12169240)

At attention, the body is somewhat stiff and rigid, and the rifle is held upright beside the leg with feet together. At parade rest, the body is relaxed, and the M-1 rifle is positioned with the butt on the floor and the barrel extended an arm’s length forward with one arm, while the other arm is placed behind the back at waist level, feet spread apart. However, at our parade rest, our Revolutionary-era muzzle loaders were held by both hands at an angle across our front because standing at attention for an hour would be very uncomfortable without moving.

The changing of the guard was adopted from the procedure then used at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (there was only one unknown then). Every 15 minutes the NCO on duty would move to the center between the big wrought-iron gates and nod; this was our signal to change position. Some of the visitors standing nearby could be a bit startled by our abrupt moves.

Guard duty was for one hour and twice each day. As one faces the display case, the colonial soldier was positioned on the right and the modern-day soldier on the left, each standing at the end of the display case.

Constitution Week at the National Archives, 9/17/1956. (National Archives Identifier 12169256)

We used something like an employee locker room to change into our colonial uniforms. The heel plates on our shoes made a loud noise as we walked and announced our coming down the hallway when going on guard duty for the hour. While standing guard, if there were only a few visitors in the Rotunda, I would turn my head ever so slightly for a better view to study the beautiful murals adorning the walls. But if visitors were present on the platform, I stared straight ahead and did not move except for breathing (the Army can be picky).

One of my great and fondest memories was the time two proverbial little old ladies came to view the documents, and after spending some time studying them, one of the ladies moved over in front of me and looked intently at me for several moments. She then reached up with her hand, felt my face, and in all seriousness said to her companion—“he feels almost real.” I did not move.

Randall “Randy” McMillon on guard during Constitution Week at the National Archives, 9/17/1956. (Photo courtesy of Randall McMillon)

Another fond memory is of two ladies with a three- or four-year-old little boy. They were studying the documents and after a short while left the platform to view the other displays. Well, the little fellow, seemingly bored, stayed around for quite some time.  Finally, he sat down sideways on the step, elbow on the platform floor, chin resting in his hand, staring up at me. This went on for a couple of minutes, and finally, with no visitors on the platform and very few in the Rotunda at the time, I looked down at him, made eye contact and gave a big wink. Startled, he jumped down, ran across the Rotunda yelling “Mommy.” Again, I did not flinch, but in my mind I had a huge smile.

Between shifts was free time for us. We were given a grand tour of the Archives including the vault in the basement. That was an awesome, and most impressive, experience. Also, I remember being shown the Microfilm Research Room. Years later, I read of Alex Haley’s research at the National Archives, when he came across a document showing the sale of one slave—Tobey. I could picture where he was doing some of his research.

I used my free time on one occasion to visit Ford’s Theater. I was fortunate to be able to go into Abe’s box, and after all these years, I am still in awe of knowing I stood where Lincoln stood and where Lincoln enjoyed a moment of escape from the nation’s problems weighing so heavily on his tired shoulders.

In my time with the Honor Guard, I participated in many, many ceremonies around the Washington, DC, area, was involved in large numbers of funerals at Arlington Cemetery, and was a participant in so many events involving foreign dignitaries and top-level leaders in our government. As I have grown older, I have a much greater appreciation of the unique opportunity to have been a part of so much history as it happened versus just being a bystander and onlooker.

After discharge from the Army, I found employment with Capital Airlines—later merged with United Airlines—and was assigned to Saginaw, Michigan, a place I had never heard of. I enjoyed 34½ years in the airline industry, married (happily), raised a family, donated a kidney, and was blessed with early retirement at age 55; so far, a full life and much more on the horizon.

Randall “Randy” McMillon, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Randall McMillon)

After reading James Michener’s book Centennial, I experienced a renewed interest in history, especially of Native Americans and the settlement of the West. I am surely blessed to live so close to so much history. On any given day, my wife and I can pack a picnic and drive to the Ludlow Massacre site, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, Sand Creek Massacre site, and Camp Amache internment center. Go the other direction, and I can see the remains of old narrow-gauge railroad beds, the first Los Piños reservation from the treaty of 1868, Otto Mears’ toll roads, stop at old Fort Garland, and view abundant results of the Homestead Act. The historical possibilities and opportunities are endless. Life is good out west.

Marching in Ike’s second inaugural as part of a Color Guard team wearing those same colonials and participating in inaugural ball events that evening were significant to me. While visiting the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, the gown worn by Mamie was on display. I remembered her in that gown.

Must say, I treasure that week in ’56.

14 thoughts on “Remembering 1956

  1. Thank you for posting this on your blog. Randy McMillon is my father. We are very proud of him and it is very cool to see him get some recognition. He has always shared some delightful and interesting stories with us. I’m glad that others will get to experience some of them, too! The photo that he shared where he is standing guard has always been one of my favorites.

    I also want to thank you for your kindness and helpfulness that you have shown to my father. His request was answered very quickly, professionally, and with care.

  2. What a powerful and delightful story! I’ve had a few “brushes with greatness” myself and Randy is absolutely correct—no matter how many years pass, you remember such moments vividly.

    My thanks to the Archives for sharing this story and very best wishes to Randy and his family.

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