The first-graders sat criss-cross on the gymnasium floor at Chartiers Valley Primary School as a mystery reader, hiding inside a makeshift box and wired to a microphone, read from a book titled "Celebrating Thanksgiving."
"The pilgrims sailed for America. They were thankful for their new home. I am thankful for my home," the reader began.
After he finished, several students tried unsuccessfully to guess the reader's identity.
"Autumn, who do you think it might be?" first-grade teacher Karole Kaupinis asked 7-year-old Autumn Schwiederowski, seated in the front row. She guessed one of the school's teachers.
"Mystery reader, come on out," Ms. Kaupinis said -- and as he did, the stage curtain behind him opened as the Chartiers Valley High School Showband launched into medley of patriotic marches such as "America" and "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."
Autumn's eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped as she realized the mystery reader was none other than her father, Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Schwiederowski -- home from a nearly eight-month deployment to Afghanistan.
She rushed to him for a long embrace, her pink floral sweater and hairclip contrasting with his green and brown fatigues, as the snare drums, woodwinds, brass, drill team and majorettes performed from the stage and the students began waving banners and holding up letters that spelled "Welcome Home!"
"It was awesome," a poised but beaming Autumn said afterward. Her father had written to say he'd be back home next month, so she wasn't expecting him.
"It was my idea to try to surprise her at school, but they ran away with it," Sgt. Schwiederowski said of teachers, classmates, Showband and others who turned the homecoming into a festive event.
Sgt. Schwiederowski said he had to work a little to pick out his daughter from her classmates. His first thought upon seeing her was, "Wow, she's getting big."
Autumn got to take the rest of the day off to spend with her father.
And "no homework," added Ms. Kaupinis, prompting her student to jump up and down with glee.
Sgt. Schwiederowski planned to make up for the lost time of missed milestones such as her birthday, earlier this month, and her dental transitions.
"I leave, and you've got baby teeth. I come back, and you've got big-girl teeth," he told Autumn, who celebrated her birthday earlier this month.
This was Sgt. Schwiederowski's third overseas deployment -- including combat duty in Iraq and another tour in Spain helping enforce the 2011 no-fly zone over Libya.
Sgt. Schwiederowski of Collier, an anesthesia technician at Allegheny General Hospital, said firmly that he was done with deployments.
"No more. I've done my time," he said. He communicated regularly with Autumn via Skype, email, cell phone and even snail mail, which he used to send his service patches home to her.
Autumn's mother, Kristen Schwiederowski, said her daughter did well during Sgt. Schwiederowski's deployment but was thrilled with the homecoming. "She's happy. That's all that matters."
Ms. Kaupinis said Autumn has done well in school. During Veterans Day activities earlier this month, she freely shared how much the holiday meant to her and how much she missed her father.
Her classmates did not know who the mystery reader was, but their teachers equipped them with the flags and "Welcome Home!" letters for them to use on cue.
"It was a few months in the making," Ms. Kaupinis said of the celebration. "I was so excited we could surprise her."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. Twitter: @PG_PeterSmith. First Published November 25, 2013 1:27 PM