When Melvin Quast was six years old, his parents packed up their 1938 Plymouth and made the drive from their family farm in Cambria, N.Y. to Washington, D.C. Even today, Quast can still remember looking up at the Washington Monument for the first time.
Decades passed, and Quast would go on to work the farm and then serve with the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He worked jobs at the Wurlitzer Company in North Tonawanda and the Carborundum Company in Niagara Falls. He got married, and for the last 44 years he's worked as a flower delivery man.
But it wasn't until a few years ago that Quast finally returned to Washington, on an Honor Flight with other veterans. Even that trip paled in comparison, though, to the time he spent with Bill Webb, Richard Costo and a pair of Sabres alumni in the nation's capital earlier this week.
Quast, Webb and Costo, all veterans of the Korean War (Webb also fought in World War II and in Vietnam), visited the monuments alongside Danny Gare and Rene Robert, and the three veterans will participate in a ceremonial puck drop prior to Buffalo's game against the Florida Panthers on Friday to kick off Military Appreciation Night at KeyBank Center.
Gare said that, prior to the trip, he had never visited the National Mall. He and Robert had talked the night before the trip about how new an experience it would be for them. By the end of it, though, they felt like they had been spending time with three old friends.
"It was probably one of the mot special days I've had as an ex-player in a long, long time," Gare said.
Gare not only got to visit the monuments for the first time, he was able to see firsthand what they meant to the men who served. At points, he said, the overwhelming emotion could be seen on the veteran's faces.
The unifying moment came at the Korean War Memorial, which includes 19 steel statues of soldiers - representing each branch of the military - draped in ponchos as they navigate through the Korean winds.
"Those figures, just seeing them marching, or trying to march and slosh up that hill - which is peace and tranquility - I just find it very moving and very real," Quast said.
The trip was sponsored by the Sabres as part of their Military Appreciation efforts, which also included a visit by six current Sabres - Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Zach Bogosian - to the Coast Guard Station on Fuhrman Boulevard following their practice on Wednesday afternoon.
The Coast Guard Station provides logistical and engineering support for an area of responsibility that stretches from Messina to Cleveland, in addition to search and rescue missions and maritime law enforcement.
Shortly after the visit began, Becky Newell could be heard thanking O'Reilly for a recent encounter he had with her son following a practice at HarborCenter. Newell explained that "coasties" are required to move every three or four years. At 8 years old, her son has made his first real memories in Buffalo.
"He was so excited to meet him because he watches the Sabres on TV," Newell said. "We move around a lot, so there's not a lot for him to really associate with different places we go except for the hockey."
Among the servicemen and women on hand on Wednesday, some could be seen wearing badges that indicated their assistance with relief efforts for recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Christopher Martin, a native of Waddington, N.Y., had just recently returned from 23 days of service in Miami.
"It is rewarding," Martin said. "Everything in the coast guard is a rewarding job. A lot of effort. Saving people, saving mariners at sea, keeping drugs out of the United States. It's a humanitarian mission also."
They serve at home, too. The Sabres took a ride on a response boat as a part of their visit, and a few players even got to drive take turns behind the wheel. It was the same boat that was first on the scene when Officer Craig Lehner was lost during a training mission in October.
Video: Sabres visit the Coast Guard
The players are no strangers to the sacrifices of the military, of course. The Sabres and other NHL teams honor military personnel throughout the season, and forward Matt Moulson sponsors a veteran to attend every home game.
Moulson has worked with the Wounded Warrior Project since the early days of his career with the New York Islanders, when he was inspired after listening to young soldiers discuss the struggles of reestablishing a civilian life after serving abroad.
"I think that was the biggest thing, hearing this young man talk and listen to how hard it was to come back after being overseas," Moulson said. "We wanted to be a part of an organization that helped with that."
Moulson and other NHL players are no strangers to adulation, either. But even that, Gare said, pales in comparison to the respect that should be paid to the country's true heroes. It was in that sense that Gare said his trip to Washington was most special. Young people came up to greet Quast, Webb and Costo to thank them for their service.
"It's extremely humbling, not only seeing the monuments but the people who come up to us, shake my hand and say thank you," Quast said. "I was just a 19-year-old kid, just doing my thing so to speak."
Spoken with the humility of a true hero.