Monday, August 21, 2023

When Lyrics Start To Matter, Keep Singing

In my last entry, I mentioned singing a song to my youngest granddaughter at bedtime. I think aside from reading, it’s one of the most important things that adults can do during a child’s upbringing. Reading teaches children storytelling and takes them to a different world. Each tale has its own way of teaching a lesson. Music, while more ethereal, serves the same purpose. Also, since with very few exceptions we no longer sing as part of daily life, it provides a unique personal connection that is usually unshared.

The older sister of the one I mentioned, who is a kindergartner now, lived with us for an extended period while her dad was deployed. This allowed me to be part of her nightly bedtime ritual of bath, stories, songs, and tuck-in. With the adults each taking one step, I ended up singing to her almost every night. Of course, I was not much for lullabies, and instead introduced her to the music I enjoyed. After all, I knew the lyrics to those.

At first, I gleaned songs from my memory she might find easy to understand. She loved it when Puff the Magic Dragon was sung including her name. Then, of course, tunes like Rollover where she was the little one and the Ants Go Marching where her name was used for the ant doing the action elicited giggles. Granted, even though the objective was to get her fall asleep I didn’t mind hearing her laugh a bit before she did. She also liked The Marvelous Toy and The Unicorn Song.

As time went on, I started pulling songs from lots of sources. Rocky Top and Fox on the Run from my bluegrass repertoire, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Blue Bayou, Car Wash Blues, and Operator from my folk-rock history. Double Feature/Science Fiction* and The Rainbow Connection from my soundtrack memories. Lots of other songs made a brief appearance, and then vanished. The idea behind this was to get her to relax and fall asleep.

Even though she’s a kindergartner now, I still get to do this occasionally when I am around for her bedtime. She’s still not very good with titles. One night she asked me to sing the song about ‘your hill and my hill’. It took me a minute to realize she meant This Land Is Your Land. Most of the time, I sing what she asks for but when she can’t decide I’ve been introducing Eagles songs. Then the other night it happened.

I had sung Best of My Love and when I finished, she asked: “Grandpa, what’s that song about?” It took me a minute. I fondly remember the song as semi-romantic, but when I started running through the lyrics in my head, there was no doubt it was a breakup song. Worse, I couldn’t think of a way of explaining a song: Two people who loved each other very much but just couldn’t make it work out. How do you explain that to a five-year-old in such a way she might understand? In the end, I kept it simple: it was about two people who had to say goodbye. She let me get away with that, not asking another question. I was thankful I hadn't sung Hotel California.

It’s a wondrous and wonderful thing to watch her grow up. It’s still at the point where the new discoveries are joyful enough to distract from the fact these days are also disappearing one by one. I’ll continue to sing for her every chance I get, but I’ll be more careful about the songs I pick. Might be time to dust off Puff again.

*-Whereas the movie that the song Double Feature/Science Fiction is intended for adults, the song itself is about 50s era Science Fiction movies and is harmless. 


Monday, August 14, 2023

Grief Is Momentary, But the Good Memories Last Forever


On Friday, I read the news of a lifelong friend's passing. Losing a friend is harder if you haven’t kept in touch then the news hits harder as you are flooded with memories. Tom Arnold was a good man and probably the best example of how lifelong friendship works among military brats.

In the mid to late seventies, Tom, Phil, and I made up the self-named Busboy Triumvirate at the Fort Eustis Officers Club in Virginia. One evening, when we had completed our shift, we adjourned to an unused game room at the back of the club. There were a few pinball machines and a pool table in the center of the room. Off to one side sat the remains of a keg of beer we had absconded with earlier. On this particular evening, as we played Eightball, smoked cigarettes, and drank beer, the topic for discussion was how the world had changed. It’s funny to think that three teenagers found any change in our brief lives significant enough to complain about. Somehow, we did.

We’d talked about this subject before, but this time we compared events from when we were in elementary school. It was the first time any of us had spoken about those years. As military brats, you wash over deep history and instead, just exchange a quick list of bases where you’d once lived. So, it was a surprise to discover that for the first few years of elementary school Tom and I had both been at Fort Ord, California. Beyond the basic information, we didn’t delve into it further because there were more important things to do like drink beer and shoot pool. 

The next time we showed up for work, Tom was eager to share a photo he’d dug up. It was his second-grade class picture, and he pointed to himself in the front row, and then to me two rows behind him. Amazing, all these years later and now on the opposite coast of the United States we were about to graduate high school together. It wasn’t until a few nights later when we compared birthplaces we found both of us were born in Germany. I was born five days before him, and just fifty miles down the road from Frankfurt.

For three years, we lived in the same neighborhood and developed a casual friendship that skipped important details until now. That’s not unusual for military brats. We form significant relationships with only a cursory comparison of histories. It was more about the here and now, and who is in front of you than where they came from or were born. Junior year, we sat next to each other in a health class we shared. We spent most class periods talking and joking since our health teacher was often absent because of his side job as a wrestling coach.  

At the club, because there was time between setting up parties and taking them down, we had a lot of time to talk. When Phil’s romance with a co-worker made him duck out, so Tom and I conversed about deep stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all serious discussions. We also discussed girls, cars, and our plans after graduation. Looking back, it was during this time I learned the basic critical thinking skills that I’ve used over a lifetime. We were bouncing ideas off of each other which helped us develop that skill. Tom was smart and also had a great sense of humor, so our discussions were very enjoyable.

One night, while we were putting away linens, Tom saw an old piano stored in the room’s corner. He made a remark that he always wanted to walk into a room containing a piano, walk over to it, and play a semi-complicated song without fanfare or introduction. When the song was complete, he’d just stand up and walk away, leaving everyone to wonder if he knew far more than that one song. At that point, he walked over to the piano and sat down. First, he cracked his knuckles and played the intro of Whiter Shade of Pale then sang the first half of the song as he played.

When he was done the room fell silent. I looked over at Phil, who had a puzzled look on his face. Tom closed the cover of the keyboard, stood up, and exited the room without saying a word. It was probably the most Tom-like thing I ever saw him do. Whenever I talk about him, I recant this tale.

When Prom time came, the three of us and our dates went as a group. The evening included dinner at a Polynesian restaurant that was known for selling booze to underage kids more than for their food. Then we went to the prom. When it was over, we headed out to the Colonial Parkway. It was also the last time I spent any time with Tom. A few weeks later, we graduated and then blasted off in separate directions.

In all the time that I knew Tom, he always had a quick wit, and often unique insights about whatever subject was being discussed. Even if we disagreed, I can’t recall a time when either of us got angry but sought a more logical argument to convince the other person to come over to our side. It was Tom who taught me a lot about what it means to have a good friend.

It’s been many years since we graduated high school, and I lost touch with a lot of folks but the one I regret most was Tom. Whenever I hear A White Shade of Pale I am flooded with memories of the times we spent together. I’ll always pause to reflect on them, at the moment with tears in my eyes.

My careers, both in the military and out, have taken me around the world, so saying goodbye to people then not remaining in touch is normal. A few years ago, when prepping to go to my Class Reunion, I asked if anyone knew if Tom was coming. His sister reached out to me and provided his mailing address but warned me he might not write back. She explained it wasn’t an insult, just who he was now. I immediately wrote a letter, and several more over the course of the year. After not hearing anything back, I gave up hope of hearing anything about him again, until this morning when I saw his obituary.

Tonight, I was reading a book to my two-year-old granddaughter before tucking her into bed; I took a moment to tell her about my friend Tom. Then, while holding her tight, I sang her to sleep with an a cappella rendition of A Whiter Shade of Pale.


Tom is one of about a dozen friends who also played guitar, but he is the only one I never jammed with. I was into folk rock and learning banjo during the time I knew him, he was into something more electric. But aside from being a great friend who left a significant impact on my life Tom introduced me to the music of Eric Clapton. Awesome stuff.