Sunday, December 13, 2009

Swinging Taps

I quote a lot of British poetry when I'm teaching the Brit Lit survey, and perhaps no lines get quoted more often than these lines from the beginning of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme."

The irony, of course, is that the fragile paper on which the poem is written seems to have little chance of outlasting the marble and gold of a princely tomb. Blogs would seem to have even less enduring power.

Still, the blog seems the place, in some ways to tell a story or two about Dave Hathaway, who seemed to love to tell stories in his own way. So I'll tell a story about him and a story of his.

First, the story about him: I'll never forget when Rosemary and I first got engaged, Rose's folks were, I think, really delighted (so was I). They had always been very welcoming to me, and always made me feel like part of the family. But after we told them we'd gotten engaged, Dave made an effort to tell Rose and I how pleased he was, and finding us together that evening he said to us, "You two deserve each other." I knew what he meant, but I've always loved the memory, because that phrase seems so often to be used for exactly the opposite effect--it's something you say to people who are (as the Wife of Bath would phrase it) one another's purgatory here on earth.

For his story, I'll tell one I only heard him tell once, although I always meant to get him to tell it again. It was one of his stories from the war, which Rose says he never used to tell when he was younger. But anyway, though he was ultimately a radio operator during the war, before his unit got to Italy, he didn't have much radio work to do, and (in the army way) he either found something to do or was given something to do. Anyway, somehow he wrangled his musical background into being assigned as a bugler.

In northern Africa, apparently, being somehow dissatisfied with the bugle as he found it, he took a blowtorch to it, apparently thinking he could maybe reshape it somehow: of course, the solder joints just melted away, and he was left with a handful of unconnected pieces. When he took it to the quartermaster, he didn't have any real explanation for what happened, and he was understandably disappointed when the brass bugle was replaced by a plastic one. The sound quality was, apparently, not very good.

Still, on the night before the unit was supposed to head off to Italy, the captain, I guess, was away on business of some sort and Dave, when it came time to play taps, couldn't resist the temptation to "swing" it, and he did, and he never got in trouble for doing it, either.

But the story doesn't end there. Some forty years later, when he went to his first battalion reunion, he told the story of swinging taps, and another old soldier came up to him afterwards with a tear in his eye. He told Dave that he remembered hearing taps that night, and hearing it swing, and it made him feel a whole lot better about getting on the boat and going to Italy the next day.

If you ever doubted that music--or breaking the rules--could sometimes do real good, I can't think of a better example.

The last time I saw Dave Hathaway, he was listening to jazz, and I think it made him feel better, too.


Pam said...

It's true, Dad and jazz were inextricably interconnected. I'd forgotten that story. And it's true Tom, you and Rose do deserve each other. In the good kind of way :)

Michael said...

That is such a WWII-movie moment: the bugler, depressed over having a plastic bugle, swings "Taps," and the camera passes over the faces of the grateful soldiers, some energized, some teary, some just happy. What a great story!