Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Life, Lessons and Songs

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

-Maya Angelou

My father Arnold was a man who liked to be at home. He was a World War Two veteran who had been a supply Sergeant in a Negro unit, as it was called in the racially segregated U.S. Army of the 1940s. His quartermaster company coordinated efforts with the Red Ball Express, a transportation convoy that rushed supplies to the front in 1944. They advanced through France and Belgium and went on in the direction of Germany. He had little desire to revisit his grim memories of that time but there were three stories that I remember him telling me when I was a boy.  The first was how he, having finished three years of college, wanted to go to officer’s candidate school and how his commanding officer would always take his application, glance at it, ball it up and toss it into the wastebasket.  The second story took place in England and was about a man known as Big John who took on a group of American soldiers from the south who did not like the idea of Negroes being in an English bar.  Big John, my father and two other black soldiers had to fight their way out of the pub but only after Big John had thrown two antagonists over the second floor banisters. The last was how most of the black men in his company during Basic Training came from the Deep South and how they enjoyed having a little fun with the northern ones by putting snakes in their beds.

My father had been drafted shortly after Pearl Harbor and was not discharged until late 1945. He didn’t believe in lecturing children.  He told brief stories and let me think about them. I learned that it was important to be prepared for things that may cause you trouble. I learned that you needed to work if you were going to get anything in life. I learned that you needed to believe in something greater than yourself. My father and mother took me to church, museums and libraries.
I also got to see a lot of movies, especially the ones with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Harry Belafonte.

I am very fortunate to still have my mother Corrine who is lucid and energetic at 88.  Although she has a few of her own favorite stories about conflict and adversity, she is essentially the family’s optimist and has always focused on the importance of faith, personal growth and enrichment. She would not just take me to the library or museum, she would bring my friends along as well. I have always associated her with learning.  When I was in grade school, I can remember her reading  “A Street Car Named Desire,” which seemed a strange title for a play.  She once showed me a novel by Richard Wright and pointed to his picture on the cover so that I would see he was an African American. I read some of her copy of Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye” until she took it away and told me that this one was for later.

I never considered that it was a privilege to grow up in a household that loved music. The songs in the air were like the furniture or the pictures on the wall. In the morning something by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra might be playing on the radio. When I came home from school, my mother would be ironing clothes and have Symphony Sid’s jazz show on, coming in from New York City. In the evening, my parents would frequently play records.  To my young ears, Count Basie’s big band arrangement of  “Taxi War Dance” featuring Lester Young on tenor saxophone left an impression larger and more lasting than any late inning World Series home run or gruesome horror movie. I remember looking at a glossy album cover with a young Miles Davis in an elegantly tailored suit. He was holding his trumpet, while staring indifferently at the camera.  He could make made that horn sound as evocative as a great actor’s words on the stage.

And there were the memorable vocalists Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, whose beautiful voices bordered on being unearthly. They were unlike any performers that I had ever heard.

But what caused these women to express so much pain and sadness?

It was not until I started college that I discovered there were formal courses dedicated to jazz, its history, and the music’s theory and composition.   I learned then that this music was more than a comparatively young art form. It was a great narrative and a vast repository for talent as well as experience. It had many older and some newly emerging episodes, all of them parts of a steadily growing story.

And now, when I look far back on childhood and my family memories, it is with   deep gratitude. My  mother and father gave me a legacy of love,  hard earned wisdom and their  most thoughtful  attention. They have given me many wonderful moments, as well as lasting and forever useful lessons.

I wonder if I have done nearly as well with my own child.

W. S. Merwin, "Grandfather in the Old men's Home"  

Gentle, at last, and as clean as ever
He did not even need drink any more
And his good sons unbent and brought him

Tobacco to chew, both times when they came

To be satisfied he was well cared for.               
And he smiled all the time to remember

Grandmother, his wife, wearing the true faith

Like an iron nightgown, yet brought to birth

Seven times and raising the family

Through her needle's eye while he got away  
Down the green river, finding directions

For boats.  And himself coming home sometimes

Well-heeled but blind drunk, to hide all the bread

And shoot holes in the bucket while he made

His daughters pump. Still smiled as kindly in 
His sleep beside the other clean old men

To see Grandmother, every night the same
Huge in her age, with her thumbed-down mouth, come

Hating the river, filling with her stare

His gliding dream, while he turned to water,    
While the children they both had begotten,

With old faces now, but themselves shrunken

To child-size again, stood ranged at her side,

Beating their little Bibles till he died.   

Arnold R. Henderson, Jr.
Associate Dean
Student Support Services