There goes that song again

1 Oct

THANKS BENNY, TOMMY, JIMMY
and DUKE, HARRY and GLENN.
YOU WERE THERE WHEN WE NEEDED YOU.

There Goes That Song Again.You don’t remember? Some of us called it our serenade. It’s as sticky sweet as it was sixty five years ago. Could you forget music like that? Of course you could, if you weren’t there in our time, the age of romantic storytelling and the big bands. It was a medley of humankind, tossed in the seas of time, place and passions, with melody and lyrics to fit each heart. There was a song that was your song and each beat of it spoke of love, fears, prayers and hopes all in a honeyed bundle, like no music before or after. There was moonlight and love songs, never out of date” hearts full of gladness …remember? It was the greatest generation of music makers with all of us hanging on to every warm note, and to each other.

Long Ago and Far Away. Our local radio programmer, not half my age, plays the old stuff because his grandfather liked it, and because it has a nice touch. Touch? It was the beat of heaven in our wondering hearts. It was swing spelled with a B for Benny G. And a capital G. for Glenn Miller. It was swing and sway and hold me tight, never let me go. Did I tell you I sang with Glenn Miller? Me and a hundred other guys at a weekend dance at LSD in 43. Our young dee-jay can’t ever know how and what we felt when they played those songs or what some of us still feel. It Seems to Me I’ve Heard That Song Before. When I hear Harry James and Sleepy Lagoon, I go back to the last dance at the downtown boathouse. It was, for too many of us, the last dance of our young lives. The boathouse is still there but now surrounded by make-believe Colonial estates. Million dollar yachts line the shore. The music is there, too, but faint. If you listen carefully and dream a little dream, you will see the couples dancing slowly. They are only silhouettes now, not really distinguishable; they’re like paper dolls. Weaving in the wind. Their grandchildren don’t believe that once in a while, we found a few hours of enchantment there.

I remember that the whole building creaked and groaned when a tug and barge steamed by. The windows were open and the river odor came through. A tugboat sounds its horn. A salute, maybe. Orange paper streamers fluttered from the rafters. A paper moon grinned from each corner and the band promised that We’d Be Together When the Lights Came on Again all over the world. That was to be four years away. It Was Only a Paper Moon after all courtesy of the Mills Brothers. And it was shining over a bleak, distant, undulating cardboard sea.

Our big band had seven guys, with Bill’s saxophone, Dave’s clarinet and Harry’s trumpet up front. They played Sunday, Monday and Always. It was a Sunday night and the high school girls had to get up early, but time didn’t matter so much. Together mattered. We danced to The Things We Did Last Summer; for some, the last summer of their lives. They played the Jersey Bounce, Elmer’s Tune and String of Pearls. We sang and swayed to Apple Blossom Time. She Smiled, and the Angels Sang the Sweetest Song. It was the start of our growing up too quickly in heartache and in hope. The day of infamy was not yet a full year into history. I was six weeks from being a part of it. Let’s get this thing done because I want to come home and make this night go on forever.

We all sensed something heavy, a throbbing dull and dark, that night in ’42. There was Bill, two of them; Jerry, Dave, Nicky, Abe, Jason, Don, Joey and Freddy. Maybe a hundred people on the dance floor or out on porches, or on the riverbank, thinking private thoughts, watching the lights dance on the water. We all had dates, of course, though I remember only a few. The guys wore plaid jackets and the girls were warm in soft, cotton candy sweaters, swirling skirts, saddles and bobby sox. There were a few uniforms. Veterans of boot camp, basic training and Great Lakes who knew things that we couldn’t imagine. Orlie was there, and we stood apart from this new marine with his sharpshooter medals. I didn’t know he’d gone away. Within a month he’d given up his life in a training accident. I still miss my big brother.

Joey and Fred danced too close with their girls even when the music stopped. Father Hagerty mercifully stayed in the shadows. Confessions three days a week must have taught him something. We were sure they’d had that first big experience. Maybe more than once, maybe tonight. They were certainly going to get married, but they didn’t. But, Thanks for the Memories, anyway. Joe married someone he shouldn’t have, and Freddie didn’t come back from a mission over Italy. Abe went down, too. They never found him. Both Bills came back, bruised and hurt in different ways. Things worked out, though I heard Big Bill never again played his sax. Something happened. I heard that he lost part of his jaw and part of his mind. Nobody loved our music the way he did.

In that ominous fall of ’42 most of us still had time for an urgent romance, along with much foreboding and impatience, waiting for the call and making patriotic noises. Promises were made to be unkept, secrets shared, tensions buried under nonsense and here and there some innocence lost, or nearly so. Each week there were fewer of us in town. Frank, Don, Leo and Chris had joined up, been trained; they’d come home and were gone again. Those who were still too young, or less than eager, or had to finish the farmwork gathered and pondered our destinies to a backdrop of Glenn Miller, Harry James; Artie Shaw and the Dorseys. The Ink Spots, Mills Brothers and Andrews Sisters assured us of something we weren’t sure of….till then. Please Wait For Me Till Then. The juke box never stopped, not for a moment.

Once or twice a week we’d drive out to Woodstock (yes, that one,) or Rosendale to cling and dance to In the Mood and the Two O’clock Jump. That was deep stuff for a three piece Swiss Polka band. Deep into the night, the Deep Purple of it, there’d be Stardust, Temptation and You Made Me Love You. Love and hope came and went at high speed. But, the music stayed with us, didn’t it? While dancing with a very special lady, I sang, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me. She didn’t hear me, she never did, and did it all. Married and divorced inside of six months. Barnett and Goodman, Herman, Les Brown and Stan Kenton. I didn’t know it at the time, but the woman I was to marry one day was already in love with Vaughn Monroe and Bunny Berrigan. Something about Racing with the Moon and I Can’t Get Started with You. She was just sweet fifteen and she had met them all from the big stages at the Paramount and the Capitol in New York City. Skipped classes to see them. I refuse to like those guys. But we needed each other, all of us.

No big band ever came to our town but we knew them well. We knew Connie and Helen; Dinah and Patti; J0 and Vera. Rosemary is still charming us. I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, Baby. Radio stations stayed on the air all night and for many folks day and night never came out right. We played big band records till they wore through. Jason’s Hot Dog Shop was a good place to listen and brood and chatter for a few hours. Sunrise Serenade, Moonlight Serenade, Moonlight Becomes You and Moonlight Cocktail, that’s the thing. The jukebox put reality on the shelf for a while. Five plays for a quarter and another quarter bought one of Mr. Goumas’s giant hot dogs with his secret meat sauce and sizzling onions and garlic. With each passing week there were fewer of us. Can you believe it, that little place is still there. We all owned a piece of it.

Within the year our guys and our girls were seeing the world; places we’d never heard of. Walt went to Africa. Don was flying over Burma and Joey was on every island that needed a runway, a dock or a seawall built in a hurry. Jacky had already fathered two kids in England. I ran into Hank and Joey on Okinawa and scrounged some Navy food for our guys. They treated us with respect. It was a detached, suspicious meeting with Hank, as if we’d never known each other. There was nothing to say even though we’d been friends through school and lived just two houses apart. Both Bills went on to Europe. One flew a troop carrier and the other jumped out of them with a parachute. Our little town produced a half dozen paratroopers, some fighter pilots and a glider pilot.

The girls back home held us together. Especially Natalie, she was Charlie’s girl but that ended in tender smiles. They both knew better.. She wrote eighteen letters every week to eighteen guys including me. When she became nineteen, she wrote nineteen letters. Her favorite song was Besame Mucho and I didn’t know what that meant. I should have from the way she danced really close. No other girl I ever knew danced close like that. I wouldn’t have touched her anyway. Promises weren’t forever but some things were sacred, like another guy’s girl. Catholic school taught us that girls were descended from the Mother of God and all boys came from Mars. Did they really teach that? She didn’t marry Frank which was for the best. He was a non-stop funny guy, but when it was over he couldn’t speak without choking up. She did marry two or three other guys, and when I saw Frank some years ago, he was still a bachelor and seemed out of it. He laughed to himself and shuddered. He ended his life too soon.

Aside from dry socks, laundry soap for insect bites, a hot meal and a monthly shower, the letters were the most important thing, except for the hope of going home. Yet, you would see people stare at an envelope for a long time before opening it, or put it away for later. Each week another of us would get a dear John letter. One guy got one right after he caught a silver bullet, and had his ticket home. If they weren’t too deep, or were especially funny, we’d pass them around. Some had newspaper clips about how the war was going. One clipping told us we had taken a faraway mountain range…which was still up there ahead looking down on us. I got three dear John letters, two of which I expected and one from a girl I didn’t know. I guess she spread them around. The closer we got to shipping home, the more of those damned letters came. An officer I knew got a goodbye letter from his wife and reenlisted there and then. One of my best letters was from a girl named Evie, in Massachusetts. It was addressed to my name, rank and A.P.O. number…but it wasn’t me. We traded a few letters and she sent me a blue knitted Navy watch cap. I told her later I was a Navy paratrooper.

Before going overseas, I had a two week furlough. I took three girls out, all together, because there were few available men. The special thing about me was that I could borrow a car. They got the ration tickets and paid for the gas. I mean the four of us went dancing, hugging and humming together. We went skating but mostly we were just sitting around. Edie was our professional dancer, the queen of the ball. She knew the latest songs and steps before anyone else. She had Green Eyes, those soft and limpid Green Eyes. So I would have the band play that. She pretended to hate it. Begin the Beguine was her favorite, very exotic. I don’t think Eddie Heywood’s version came along till later.

We closed our last night together in a neighborhood all-night saloon where most of the crowd was middle aged factory workers. I suppose I knew that the girls weren’t with me, they were with each other and maybe somebody else who wasn’t there. I didn’t know that Edie was carrying somebody’s baby. We didn’t yet know that Abe was missing over Italy. That night wasn’t a cheerful one though it should have been. One guy dancing slowly with three beautiful girls? How erotic. Picture that if you can. I can; hear the music, too and breathe their warmth, close and holding on. It had to last forever, and part of it did. Sentimental Journey time had arrived. We didn’t want it to end just yet but it did, about two in the morning. We sang a little and burbled, I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places. They certainly were not singing for me. I know we looked laughable to the night shift factory workers at the bar. The three girls left town for big city jobs. No connection there. They were needed elsewhere and adventure called. I was gone on the morning train and nobody saw me go. It was a lonesome ride. Why do I recall that night so vividly? It held nothing for me.

The first night back at camp was cold and appropriately rainy. It was a ghost town. My regiment had been broken up and shipped out. My whole platoon was gone. The barracks radio played Blues in the Night. Sure enough, at the part about the lonesome train whistle blowing hoooeee-de-hoooeee, the train that brought us in blew out a long wailing note and I pulled the pillow over my head. The next day I was on my way back to Bragg for a train ride west and a slow boat to New Guinea.

There was one other time that music choked me up. My good buddy, Benny, whose quick advice had saved my neck was with me. We were dug in far out on the perimeter but didn’t expect any trouble. Yamashita’s armies were moving northeast and away from us. Despite that, we were feeling sorry for ourselves. We would soon be parachuting into Japan, and we’d used up our three strikes. Then, out of the black we heard what sounded like As Time Goes By. You know, Bogart, Bergman, Henreid and Sam, the piano player. We were out of touch with our company and spooked, but the music was unmistakable. We’d seen the movie on a troopship so we knew what it was. We crawled out and over the road, and we found a couple of our guys watching a movie screen a hundred yards away, down in a deep ravine. It was a complete motorized artillery and tank unit. Watching a damned movie, with no guards out. Unknown to us, they had moved up, set up their kitchens and tents and a movie. Or, we had moved down, unknown to them. Next morning, well fed and jubilant, they headed North, a million of them to stop the defeated Japanese Army’s escape to Formosa and the in-between islands. They got as far as the swamps and jungles, broke up into random gangs – and most lived to see us, the hated Americans landing on their shores. Our Troop Carriers came in under a smattering of Japanese rifle fire. They came in to take us home, for a while.

Here’s looking at you, Babe. I must have had a dazed look, like Bogart when he waved goodbye to Ingrid. Life will go on for a while, and it almost did not, as we hit a tree top on takeoff for our base. It worked out and we prepared for the invasion of Japan.

Four months later it was finished and we went to Japan anyway, first class. Our company in a town far north of Tokyo, Ichinoseki, had a radio transmitter. Officially, it was for daily orders to our scattered companies. But it was our Big Band music station, too. We did our own thing three or four times a day, from the second floor balcony of the Ichinoseki Hotel. We had two recordings: Sinatra’s Nancy with the Laughing Face, and another with Happiness is Just a Thing called Joe. I think Rain or Shine was on the backside, probably Lena Home.

A Japanese storekeeper had a record he’d brought back from Los Angeles years before. He played it without letup, Kate Smith singing God Bless America. A few months later, I was sent home and went to a veteran’s welcome home dance at the YMCA. A nice young girl asked me to dance. We did. She asked where I had been all of her life. I told her that we had spent twelve years in school together.

So much beautiful music came out of those few years, and then it faded though never completely and I seem to hear it more often. Maybe because there are so many guys of my vintage here in south Florida. Mostly they are grey, or kidding themselves. We have some local bands, younger guys in their mid-seventies who like to play the stuff of the ’40s. Not great, but not bad if you use a little imagination and reminiscence. There’s an offer on the T.V. for genuine stereo reproductions on CDs, from the original sound tracks. I’ll try to figure out how they do that. Maybe time-compression. Once in a while, I’ll tell my wife about some minor event that one of the oldies brings back to mind. She knows me well enough after sixty years, but cannot understand how I remember the words to all those songs when I cannot remember three things on a shopping list. In recent weeks, I’ve sung along with Frenesi, Old Black Magic, Deep Purple and Polka Dots and Moonbeams. I limit my singing to the shower. It provides a deeper resonance which helps my hearing which I gave up to an enemy grenade.

Sure I still love those songs, but they can’t ever again be what they were. The time will never again be just right. I imagine that the world would be a better place if those years had never been. If there had been no Adolph, or Benito or Hirohito or Tojo. Those times were Once Upon a Time and girls with moonlight in their hair and blue orchids in their eyes. And electronic, virtual reality gadgetry can’t tum back the clock or the warm tingle we get when we listen to the little sounds that no one else can hear. I wish we could bring those fascinating, good and gentle times forward a half hundred years. It was too Long Ago and Far Away, wasn’t it Connie? Except now and then, where here and now, in my memory it is yesterday and I know this is today, a wonderful place to be.

Were those the best years of our lives? Not by one long shot. Our best of times is now. Sixty plus years together. The usual plot but not the colorful fabric of stories. Children, grandchildren, colleges and mortgages, in sickness and in health, rich and poor and rich again. My time is rich in reading, writing, swimming, (weight lifting?) freeloading on our kids, listening to great music and making useless things in my shop… and I worked about eighteen years with tough kids who needed saving. On the radio, some big band mimic is plaYing Skylark with Barbra Streisand on the vocal. Not too bad. Tex Beneke will be in Sarasota soon, playing to a full house. Tickets are fifty bucks. My wife saw him for fifty cents, or was it a quarter?

One night, in the fall of ’42, big Bill and Dave played Skylark on Bill’s back porch. Early evening in early fall. Leaves were dropping, it was chilly and the summer mustiness was gone. We had a pitcher of beer and would sign up soon. We would all apply for the air force. We talked about what we would work at someday and where we would live and maybe with whom. We’d get together again like this. When they hear those songs of the ’40s, do they remember them as I do? Do they see the pictures I see and swing and sway with the girls they left when they went away? Do they recall the enchantment, the unreality of it all? Do they remember the promises? What a wonderful time to go to war. I wonder if they remember me. I wish I knew.

Dare I repeat this? Yes, because it is the picture, for many of us, of at last coming home at least for a little while. At a YMCA dance for returning veterans, a tall, pretty girl with Stardust in her eyes invited me to dance. She asked me where I’d been all her life. We’d been in school together for twelve years, we graduated side by side and she hated me and my best friend, Hank Fisher, with the squealing intensity that only a thirteen year old can deliver. “Oh, for God’s sake, is that you?” She edged away, mumbling and embarrassed. “it couldn’t be, I mean you couldn’t be …. you. Could you?” Months later, she married Hank.

At the health club, they call me the story teller. I like that; it makes me part of a practice that goes back about 5,000 years. Writing stories, storytelling on paper or papyrus, rock or baked clay is kind of religion; it recreates history, whether family size or of the universe. Writing stories is healthy, like vitamins for the head. Because we are influenced by our experiences, feelings, memories and mysteries we see stories from different platforms. Where is the story in a guy sitting and sweating in a foxhole, alone with his maker, making promises he can’t ever keep. There’s a story there, in words and pictures, begging to be told. I can still see and hear what’s in his heart, his lonesome thoughts. He taught me compassion for lonesome people. I tell stories that open the past. Writing stories clears our pictures, helps us handle the hard ones. In that respect, story writing and prune juice have much in common. They have their way, un-cluttering things. I have three rules about writing, story telling: write what you feel, write what you see, start writing it now before it goes away.

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