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Monday, May 2, 2016

Gray Matter: The Fourth of July

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Fourth of July is fast approaching. There will be many local and area observances to enjoy.

Patriotic music and spectacular fireworks are TV staples for that special day. This means we will frequently hear John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," as it is now our official National March. Some time ago, in a discussion on my favorite public radio station, one speaker wisely suggested that bands play that march sparingly to keep its sparkling freshness alive. They then exuberantly praised the splendid, surging trombone trio which concludes the piece.

Now let me explain why those words piqued my memory and sent chills down my spine.

Early in their marriage, my parents lived in rural Nebraska just down the road from a family of motherless boys. It seems those kids took a fancy to Mom and Dad and spent a lot of time with them. One of the lads grew up to be an exceptional trombonist.

During WWI, he became a member of the U.S. Marine Band, which both Sousa and his father before him, had directed. I grew up with the folks' stories of this young fellow, home on leave, playing his trombone for their community and in their home. "Stars and Stripes" was always a part of those tales.

Around that time, Sousa was touring with his own band, and my parents were privileged to attend one of his concerts. Due to all this, my father held that piece in highest esteem. Whenever it was played on the radio, we listened reverently in hushed silence, and Dad always had tears in his eyes when they swung into those stirring concluding measures.

In a few years my father succumbed to kidney cancer. Lying on his deathbed, he candidly confided that his idea of heaven was a place where you got to do the things you had wanted to do in life, but never had the chance. (Not profound theology, perhaps, but typical of his thinking.) He then asked, "Do you know what I'll be doing, if that's the case? I'll be playing that trombone part in 'Stars and Stripes' the first day I get there." He died a short time later.

Not long after that, a movie came out titled, "The Sousa Story." We went to see it in Cherokee. Except for the music, it was a rather unremarkable film until the finale. I didn't know it at the time, but have since learned that at the end of Sousa's career, when he was no longer directing, he often filled in as a trombonist in other bands. It was during one of those sessions that he collapsed and died.

So, appropriately, the final scene portrayed a band in splendid regalia, marching UP through wonderful fleecy clouds to the strains of Dad's favorite.

I burst into tears as I struggled to see the tall trombonist at the right of the screen. My understanding husband offered me his handkerchief and consoled me as best he could.

As the lights came up everyone must have stared curiously, for it was not that emotional a movie. For me, though, it had truly touched a tender chord. So you see why I am eagerly anticipating the coming of the Fourth of July with its many opportunities to hear our incredible National March, "Stars and Stripes Forever."