1959 was perhaps the most interesting year of my life.
I was 13 and it was a year of discovery..if you know what I mean.
It got off to a rough start when less than two weeks after my birthday, we heard on the radio that Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Buddy Holly, along with the Everly Brothers and Elvis were the main reasons my cousin Grouse and I learned to play guitar and start a rock and roll band. Grouse could sound just like Buddy. Still can.
He had that Holly hiccup down pat. (ah-weh-ah-heh-ah-hell-ah) He managed to wow the girls and many a talent show judge with it. We loved singing that kind of stuff and had absolutely no trouble finding an audience or hitting the high notes.
But on Sunday mornings as we sat in the 1st Lutheran Church kids’ choir loft looking like little cherubs in our purple robes and heavily-starched white collars in the shape of a cross, we didn’t feel so musically gifted as we had the night before with our electric guitars strapped on and cranked high..then singing into the microphone..‘Oh, Oh, Claudette..pretty little pet, Claudette.”
For some reason, the old hymn writers like Dykes, Watts, Gerhardt and even Martin Luther, himself, did not have kids in mind when they were coming up with all those complicated hard to sing melodies and lyrics for the hymnals.
There certainly was no Ah-weh-ah-heh-ah-hell-a mighty fortress is our God.
Or.. oh-ha-ho-ah-holy night.
Somehow, though, word got around to the choir director, Mrs. Nelson, that Grouse and I were getting pretty well known for our singing prowess at birthday parties and Farmers Union meetings.
She decided that the two of us, along with John Bjerke and his perfect little fluty choir voice would be this year’s wise men in the Christmas program.
We tried to explain that we were rock and roll singers. What she wanted were George Beverly Shea-type singers.
“Oh, you’ll do just fine,” said Mrs. Nelson and we knew that was going to be her final word on the matter.
So there we were, the day of the Christmas pageant. The sanctuary shook as Alma Brendsel, the church organist, pumped out “We three kings of Orient are” and we kind of schlumped along toward the front in our shiny Magi outfits, wearing gold crowns and carrying gifts for the Baby Jesus.
When we got to the baptismal font, the organ stopped and we turned around to face a sea of Lutherans all anticipating this year’s interpretation of the only Christmas carol written in that awful gloomy minor key.
Mrs. Nelson sat there at the piano with a hopeful smile as she struck the opening chord.
“I don’t want to do this..the notes are too high,” I thought to myself. But there was no turning back now.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar (I’m sure we sang “travelers”afar)
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
Then it was Bjerke’s turn to sing his solo:
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold, I bring to crown him again.
John hit every high note right on the money and triumphantly stepped back.
Grouse was next.
Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a deity nigh.
He got through it fine too..resisting the urge to do the Holly hiccup at the end.
I’m next. Oh God, I’m next. What’s my line again?
Myrrh!? What the hell is myrrh anyway?
I felt a strange rush of heat to my cheeks and little bumps began to protrude from my forehead.
Without even thinking, I began to screech out my morbid verse:
Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
And that’s when I dropped the ball.
Two of them, actually.
God had chosen that very moment to turn me from a boy to a man..from an alto to a baritone and I believe I finished singing that song a full octave lower than I began.
Did it really happen that way, you ask?
Well, wondrous things can occur when you sing
Star of wonder, Star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light.