Out To Pastoral
by John Idol
HILLSBOROUGH, NC—(Weekly Hubris)—3/1/10—If not for the quick thinking of my friend, Jim Ray, my service record might well reflect more than a demerit. Jim and I, followed by Jim Gray and Arnie Selg, were returning to the hangar where we worked on radar gear for the USAF when a limousine sporting the base commander’s one-star flag pulled away from headquarters.
The sidewalk we were on was some 15 or more feet from the street where the general’s car was passing by. “Should we salute?” I asked, uncertain what to do, realizing as I asked that there’d be no question if we were walking on the curb.
“I guess not,” said my Tar Heel friend. We kept our hands at our sides, walking on while continuing our game of identifying opera tunes (of which more later.)
The general’s car whizzed by and then braked to a noisy stop. The driver threw it into reverse and backed up to where we were walking. The general leapt from the car and stepped smartly to where we stood, our hands now offering the best salutes we could muster.
“Why didn’t you salute?” he barked. “The two airmen behind you did.” I couldn’t have been any less tongue-tied than Billy Budd at his question. My thoughts were turning to brig time or hundreds of hours of picking up cigarette butts on Forbes Air Force Base. Maybe, I feared, we’d pull KP duty for the remainder of our hitch. Jim’s agile mind was processing far different thoughts.
“We’re sorry, Sir,” he said. “We were trying to identify a bird we heard singing in a tree ahead of us and were looking for it. Listening to bird calls is one of our hobbies, and we were intent on spotting the bird we’d just heard.”
If the general bought the story, we couldn’t tell. He lectured us sternly on military courtesy and traditions and warned us never to be so lax again. “Yes, Sir, yes, Sir!” we said in unison as he demanded another salute before returning to his limousine.
Jim Gray and Arnie, having stopped to hear Ray’s excuse and the general’s spirited chewing out, laughed after the general’s retreat and said, “You’re lucky he didn’t call the MP’s and have you thrown in the brig.”
Our scare over, Jim and I resumed what we’d been doing—what we usually did when we returned to the hangar after chowing down—testing each other’s knowledge of operatic airs. Jim loved to challenge me to identify tunes, whistling snatches of operas by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, or Wagner, and waiting for me to name the tune. Sometimes, I surprised him by being right. I never stumped him during my own turns as quizmaster.
Through Jim’s arrangements, I saw my first opera, La Boheme, in Kansas City, with Jan Tucker. We listened to many more on a low-fi portable record player in our room. And we marveled at the cinematic performance of Roberta Peters in Gounod’s Faust.
Our love of opera perhaps came in second to our delight in Shakespeare’s plays. Sharing a room at Forbes enabled us to read favorite scenes from Shakespeare, from “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” and “The Merchant of Venice,” together with some spirited scenes from the comedies. We exchanged roles often, Jim stepping from Hamlet to replace me as the gravedigger while I attempted to enact the melancholy Dane. Not having my own copy of Shakespeare’s works, I one day found myself gifted with the complete works when Jim scouted out a bookstore in Topeka.
One of the books I did own, Look Homeward, Angel, fueled the only argument Jim and I ever had over literature. A native of Asheville and aware of Thomas Wolfe’s treatment of his family, neighbors, and town leaders, Jim loathed the book and its author, seeing no merit in it, not even in the hilarious scene where Wolfe narrates Altamont’s effort to mount a production of “Hamlet.” To Jim, just as Wolfe’s classmate Jonathan Daniels, had claimed, Wolfe had befouled his own nest, had defamed Asheville and Ashevillians, and written a trashy book, one no person of good taste could tolerate. Begging to differ brought me no concessions. I simply had a blind spot, a spot of weakness, something I could overcome if I gave my nights and days to Shakespeare, Jim insisted. Finally, we held our tongues on Wolfe and his work by agreeing to disagree.
A strong bond we shared involved rock collecting. Jim was the expert; I the rank amateur. My interest dated from my late teens, but Jim had become a dedicated, informed collector much earlier. His collection shamed my own, and his knowledge of where to find rocks in mineral-rich North Carolina was encyclopedic. He belonged to a rock-hunting club in Asheville; carried a rock-hound’s hammer wherever he went, as well as a small magnifying glass. During one furlough, he invited me to go along with the Asheville group and, later, by ourselves, we dug for zircons near Zirconia, North Carolina. Eventually, he bequeathed his collection to an Ashevlle museum, a most valuable gift.
Among his buddies in the Air Force, he grew notorious for his harangues against women. “Women,” he sneered, with lips curled in disdain far more histrionic than he ever displayed for Wolfe. “Who needs ‘em? I don’t, that’s for sure. I’d rather settle for a good cigar,” he snorted as he puffed away.
But he was later to fall—for a belle from Mississippi when he went off to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill after his discharge. She was a drama major and came to Appalachian State Teachers College (now Appalachian State University), where I was a student, to head up the drama program. Her move to Boone meant I could see Jim more often and regale Mary, his wife, and Margie, mine, with tales of our service hitch, including the day in Kansas when Jim’s quick thinking saved us from everything but a stern lecture on military protocol.
Cancer claimed Jim last year. He’d long earned his wings, though, for me at least. . .when he conjured up a song bird in a Kansas maple tree.