Friday, January 18, 2019

More Music Memories

I have several favorite memories tied to one specific hymn: “How Great Thou Art.”
In 1958, I went to summer camp for the first—and only—time at Forest Home in the San Bernardino Mountains. I went with my three best friends: Peggy Boone, Joyce Thomas, and Cassie Parker. My mother was told I had “won” a scholarship, but I always secretly suspected one or more of my friends’ parents had paid my way.

Each night, the campers gathered around the campfire in the outdoor amphitheater to sing Christian camp songs. Usually the last one sung was “How Great Thou Art.” When I was there, we sat on logs arranged around the fire pit. Today, the area boasts concrete walkways and seats.
I will never forget the sound of the song echoing off the other side of the valley. It had become the theme song of the camp in 1954 when Dr. J. Edwin Orr, from Fuller Theological Seminary, introduced it at the start of a conference, and it was sung each day. It soon became the most popular hymn in the country. And it remained a part of the camp for many years.

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made.
I see the stars. I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze,

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on a Cross, my burdens gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: "My God, how great Thou art!"

The second verse always conjures up images of camp, the mountains, the music, and my friends.

I lost track of all of them for quite a few years. Then, in 2012 after we retired, we planned a month-long cross-country road trip. A week before we left, I was able to connect with Peggy’s brother and sister-in-law on Facebook. They gave me her contact information. I called her immediately and made arrangements to visit. We took a detour though Deming, New Mexico in order to spend a day with her. It felt as though we picked up right where we’d left off. She was the same and so was our friendship.

We continued to exchange email and track each other on Facebook. I had hoped to see her the following summer when she was to come to California for her nephew’s wedding. Unfortunately, she wasn’t well enough to make the trip. She passed away several months later, but I felt enormous gratitude to have been able to spend one last day with her.

I couldn’t locate Cassie, either. I finally contacted her sister, Cindy, who was just a year older and often joined us for activities. Cindy told me that Cassie was being treated for cancer, but she would give her sister my contact information. I never heard from Cass. She died about a year later, but I took some comfort in the knowledge she knew I was thinking about her.

Joyce and I are friends on Facebook. Her mother spent a couple of years in a retirement home near me and close to Joyce’s brother, Jerry. I visited Mrs. Thomas there a couple of times. I tried to get together with Joyce whenever she came to California, but we were never able to connect. Joyce’s mom died a couple of years ago, but fortunately, the two of us have remained in touch.
About twenty years ago, a fine gentleman named Don Miller, who was at the time a tenor in our church choir, told a story about flying alone in his jet plane high enough to see the curvature of the earth.
Don Miller
As a young man, Don had been a professional singer, at one time substituting for an ailing Perry Como. Right after high school, he sang with Pinky Tomiln’s swing band at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

Because of Don’s experience as a pilot and willingness to step into the unknown, he flew the acceptance tests for the first pressure suits to be worn by fighter pilots. The suit had been tested in the laboratory but never under real-life conditions. So, Don wore the suit to see if a pilot could successfully work in it. Don’s flew an F-104, which he took to the 70,000 ft. level. At that altitude, he could see the curvature of the bright earth, the dark sky, and the vast universe of stars and planets. As a singer, his only response was to sing:

“O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made...”

That Sunday morning, he told the story and sang the song again, a cappella, just as he had in his long-ago cockpit. No one who heard him could have remained unmoved.
My mother spent the last six years of her life in a nursing home, fading away from us as senile dementia stole her memory. In the last year or so, she had stopped talking. We went to see her in the hospital every Sunday after church. We fed her lunch as she was no longer able to do so for herself.

Me, Mom, and my cousin, Margaret, about two months before Mom died
After lunch, we wheeled her into the large living space/reception area, where a baby grand piano stood in one corner. I sat down and began to play her favorite old hymns. Although she had lost the ability to speak, I’d watch her mouth the words to each song as I played it. They were buried deep in her memory banks, and she brought them out whenever she heard the familiar melodies. Others—patients and staff—often arrived to listen to the impromptu “concerts.” Many sang along.

Usually, the last song I played was “How Great Thou Art.” As Mom mouthed the words, she often began to cry. One day, a caregiver asked if she was all right. I explained that the song was one of Mom’s favorites and had been my grandmother’s favorite, as well. Something in that particular song reached a deep place in Mom and connected, even if for only a short time.

Today whenever I hear it, all of these images and more return.

Do you have a song with multiple memory connections?

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