Sunday, December 15, 2013

Songs of the Sword

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I first learned how to give lessons from Professor Warren Simkins, my voice teacher, back when I was a freshman in college.
As a voice major, I got together with him several times a week and each lesson followed the same format. First we’d chat a bit, the purpose of which was to get a read on where I was on that particular day, and to focus my attention and energy on the lesson. Then he’d take me through some “vocalizes,” exercises to limber and strengthen my chops.  After that we’d work on a song that was challenging, dissecting it into small sections, working on each section, then gradually reassembling the sections. That was followed by a song that I knew well, and sang well, something solidly under my command. We’d wrap up with a chat, re-capping what we’d done, going over practice suggestions, and some general chat about my life, gigs, girls – and, of course, the war.
Mr. Simkins had a real talent for knowing exactly when to push and when to go light. On days when I was “in good voice” he helped me stretch. On other days, like after a long week-end gig when my pipes needed some rest, we’d sing a little and talk a lot.
Keep in mind that the music I was doing in these voice lessons was quite different from the stuff I was singing to make my living. Clubs I played, I got very few requests for Handel or Tschaikovsky. And the only Martini requests involved an olive. But the work we did built up my voice, my breath-control, all kinds of things that were foundational to ANY kind of singing, and I found that that classical technique transferred quite readily to the folk/rock/jazz/blues genre of my gigs.  It helped quite a bit that Mr. Simkins, in addition to being a knock-out classical vocalist, had been a Big Band Crooner in his youth. So he understood that kind of performance dynamic.

I was also in a voice class that included non-music majors, and there were a couple of people in that class who couldn’t carry a tune in a suitcase. Sometimes I wondered why they signed up for the class. Their efforts were tense, tight, self-conscious, choking attempts to find a key, any key. Nevertheless, Mr. Simkins always found something praiseworthy in their performances --- not false, charity-praise, either, but things that I, myself, had neither the ear nor the heart to notice.  Years later, horses would teach me about this master teaching skill. It’s called “rewarding the try.”

Like all good teachers, Mr. Simkins was a great story-teller, with great stories to tell. There’s one in particular that has stayed with me and I think he wouldn’t mind my passing along. So I’ll share it with you, because I think it’s worth sharing...
Like so many other young men, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mr. Simkins, in a fit of patriotic fervor, headed right down to the US Army recruiting office to sign up. He was hardcore, too. Volunteered to be a Ranger, I think it was. Some elite-type unit, anyway. Hoo-ah.
Turns out, for a musician, he was a talented killer. Excelled as a marksman, in hand-to-hand, demolition. Had a flare for both Italian and German languages (there’s that classical singing connection), and rose to be a squad leader. 
Like so many other young men, being yet unfamiliar with the reality of war, he was chomping at the bit, eager to get into action. Spent his free time cleaning and oiling his rifle, sharpening his bayonet, conjuring up heroic exploits in his imagination.
At long last, word came down that his unit was shipping out to fight the Nazis in Europe. He made preparations. Checked his gear. Said his good-byes. Wrote his will, just in case.  He was ready to rock and roll, and was looking forward to personally kicking Hitler’s ass.
Then, an odd thing happened. Something that he was never able to understand, not for the rest of his days.
The day before his outfit was  to ship out, Mr. Simkins received orders transferring him to the Chaplain Corps.
Out of the blue, no rhyme or reason. After spending big bucks to turn my man into a lean, green, nazi-killing machine destined to adorn recruiting posters everywhere, he gets side-lined just before the big game. It just didn’t make any sense, even for the Army.  And he was pissed. It had to be a snafu. He inquired, he protested, he begged, and he pleaded. But you know what they say in the Army? “Orders are orders, Pal.”
And so it came to pass that Mr. Simkins’ buddies went into battle without him. And when they hit the beach in their very first action, every single man in his platoon was killed. No survivors.  Not one.
Except him.
He spent he rest of the war dealing with the remains of the fallen, writing letters of condolence, delivering folded flags, medals and bad news to their families.
And, much as he tried, he was never able to ascertain where those transfer orders came from, who had originated them, or why.

For all the days that came after, I think Mr. Simkins felt that he had an unspoken tontine with his dead friends, and that he, having been inexplicably spared, now had a particular obligation to live a good life.
I believe he fulfilled it.

I'd like to do the same.


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