Thursday, July 21, 2016

An evening with John Williams

Well, the dog days of summer are certainly here in my hometown, and by that I mean I’m dog tired of the heat and humidity.  The air is so thick, you can cut it with the proverbial knife and the heat index is supposed to reach over 100 degrees this weekend with temperatures soaring well into the 90’s.  God knows how you folks in the southwest endure it all season long.  While I’m no big fan of air conditioning as I prefer fresh air wafting through open windows, I’m infinitely thankful every time it kicks on during hot spells like the one we’re having right now.
This time of year reminds of the endless summer vacations from my childhood.  Unless it was raining, most mornings I rode my bike up and down Eastwick Drive, making sure I gleefully bounced over every single rut and filled-in pothole.  While our mothers were chatting over cigarettes and afternoon cups of coffee, the neighborhood kids grabbed our balls, bats, and gloves and played baseball in the field until the church bells rang out, telling us it was five o’clock and time to go home for supper.  At twilight we slapped at mosquitoes while playing “Red Light, Green Light” or “Kick the Can” until the stars came out.  On occasion my sisters and I roasted marshmallows on the grill or caught lightening bugs in a jar.  Sometimes we even slept in a pup tent in the backyard. 
On super-hot days my sisters and I were lucky to enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Barton’s pool…only two doors down and an incredible respite to beat the summer heat.  The Bartons were school teachers, so they had the summer off as well and often joined us as we floated around or played games in the water with sunlight glinting on the surface like diamonds on glass.  When our fingers and toes were reduced to raisins, we sat in the shade, enjoying frosty glasses of 7-Up or root beer or iced tea as well as a spicy Chex Mix Mrs. Barton always seemed to have on hand.
Perhaps my favorite summer memories come most often when I’m driving through south Toledo and pass by what used to be the old Glenbyrne I and II.  When the heat and humidity became unbearable, my little sister, Greta, and I loved to sit in the air-conditioned theater, watching blockbuster movies.  Nearly every week, we eagerly asked our mother for an odd job that might earn us a dollar and a trip to the Glenbyrne for an afternoon matinee.
The summer Star Wars came out, Greta and I saw it no less than eleven times, each viewing just as exciting as the last, for we never tired of watching Luke Skywalker meet Han Solo for the first time.  We never got bored with the dialogue, often murmuring the lines to each other, then giggling when we flubbed a word or two.  We never failed to understand that with patience and courage, good will always conquer evil.  At the end of the film, we whispered the words that Obi Wan Kenobi said to Luke once he'd destroyed the Death Star: “Remember, the Force will be with you…always.”
And we always left the theater wanting to turn right back around and see it one more time.
My childhood is steeped in memories of the Glenbyrne and theaters around town – the Maumee Indoor, the Jesse James Drive-In, and a host of others that have been reduced to rubble, but in my mind will live forever for the thrill they provided a hot, bored little kid in the midst of summer vacation.  Even now, I still have a soft spot for those epic movies of my childhood that at the time seemed larger than life.

Last fall my friend, Nancy, invited me to join her for an evening with the Toledo Symphony.  Without even knowing what music would be played, I eagerly took her up on the offer.  When I discovered that the theme for the pops concert was “The Music of John Williams”, I was thrilled!   As the evening unfolded, I soon came to realize that every selection brought back more than just memories.  Each one recalled an emotion, a connection, a visceral response to the fanfare and flourish that Mr. Williams weaves into his incredible body of work. 
“Raiders’ March from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” instantly took me back to my thirteenth summer when my parents took me to the theater because they thought I would like the fast-paced action film.  From the the opening scene, I was literally on the edge of my seat, particularly when Indiana perilously climbed into the rescue plane only to discover something wholly unexpected weaving around his legs.
“Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie,” Jock grinned.  “Come on!  Show a little backbone, will ya?”
I tried to show a little backbone of my own, but it was pretty difficult while witnessing the perils of Indy and Marion who were stuck in a tomb with slithering snakes and dozens of dead bodies in their midst.  Still, by the end of the film, I knew I had seen a real treasure…a film that would stay with me for a lifetime.  A few years later, my father gifted the family with our first VCR, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film we watched in our very own home with John Williams' amazing score echoing off the walls of our den.
When the symphony played “Shark Theme from Jaws”, I was reminded of all the afternoons my sisters and I would chant, “Da dum…da dum…da dum” in the Barton’s pool with a hand perched above our heads like a shark’s fin, mimicking the bass line that warned of approaching doom.  Even though it was all in good fun, it took me a while before I’d venture out into the ocean too far when we headed to South Carolina for our week at the beach.
The “March from Superman” reminded me of my older sister’s school-girl crush on Christopher Reeve and the calendar she received for Christmas with full color shots of the superhero in all his glory.  “Hedwig’s Theme” took me back to the wonderful afternoon I spent with my friend, Helen, who cajoled me out of the house during a particularly sad period in my life and drove me to the theater to watch that magical first Harry Potter film. 
As the first strains of “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial filled the auditorium, I thought of my grandfather who took my sisters and me to see the film while we were visiting him in West Virginia.  Granddaddy looked more like Yoda (he could even wiggle the tips of his ears), yet he had a warm heart light just like E.T. that never waned, even as he grew older.  That year I found a small tin box in my Christmas stocking that was full of shiny new dimes.  On the back of the tin, my mother had taped a little note that read:  K.T.  Phone home.  I kept it in my backpack for emergencies when I needed to use a pay phone at the mall or at school to call my mother for a pick up.  Believe me, in the days before cell phones, dimes were a precious commodity.
When the haunting “Theme from Schindler’s List” echoed from the stage, tears filled my eyes as I thought of the two and a half years I spent writing and researching The Lace Makers.  I remembered the stories of the Holocaust survivors, the tales of those who could not speak from the grave, but whose memory lived on in those who were left behind.  Perhaps that’s the one piece of music that stays with me the most, for it is the background not of a fantasy film, but of a reality endured by millions of human beings.
Of course when the “Theme from Star Wars” blared from the stage, I felt the entire audience burst with enthusiasm, just as Greta and I did every single time the lights dimmed at the Glenbyrne and the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare blasted from the speakers.  For someone who’s seen every Star Wars film at least a dozen times, it was a thrill to have memories of each story line filter through my mind as the music filled the auditorium.  Memories of those wonderful summer afternoons with my sister came back as well, images of sharing such seemingly innocent experiences, yet ones that would last a lifetime.

A couple of weeks ago while I stood at the flag ceremony for Danta’s Cub Scout Camp, Raiders of the Lost Ark music blared from the speakers.  An hour later, some of the boys were humming Darth Vader's theme while we hiked around Camp Miakonda.   Every single time I’m at a public pool, some kid is chanting the “Shark Theme from Jaws”, while maneuvering around the water, playfully scaring his friends.   Glen Frey once said of the Eagles, “We set out to be a band for our time.  But sometimes if you do a good enough job, you become a band for all time.”  The same is true for John William’s incomparable body of work.  He’s scored more than 100 films, dating back to the 1950’s and has created iconic music that continues to be recognized by generations of people around the globe.  
I’ve spent more than an evening with John Williams, for it seems I’ve spent most of my life being entertained and inspired by his incredible talent.  He’s become more than a composer for his time.  John Williams is an innovative artist for all time, and his unique expression of the Force will be us…always.