I probably wouldn’t have written this had August not presented the 75th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz.”
But, in the spirit of channeling the Cowardly Lion, who, of course, discovers the nature of courage in that touchstone of American entertainment, here goes.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I sat in the sanctuary of the Unity Temple on the Plaza paying respects to our late friend Bill Hickok. A hundred or more of his friends and family members celebrated the accomplished life of the Kansas City home builder who had a bent for poetry and the arts.
Hickok and his wife, the poet and publisher Gloria Vando Hickok, had founded the Writers Place in the early 1990s. It became a midtown haven for writers and readers.
Bill had a quirky sense of humor and a passion for Kansas City, and over the years he and I talked about writing, local history, food and wine.
During the memorial service, we heard funny and inspiring words. A schoolboy chum who became a lifelong friend of Bill’s told about their families’ shared camping trips and river running in the Ozarks.
I was particularly taken with the story told by one of Bill’s granddaughters. When she was 9 years old, she said, she had difficulties reading. Bill sat with her for hours, prodding her on in the discovery of “Moby Dick,” the great American novel by Herman Melville. Cheers for her. And cheers for the power of reading. Enriched by being in Bill’s sphere of influence, she went on to study literature at Brown University.
Memorial services tend to be petri dishes for human emotions. I will testify to that.
A highlight of Bill’s service was a collective singing of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The song was introduced as a favorite of Bill’s, and it came with a story attached. Bill’s mother died early in his life, and one of the memories from her decline was the day the family gathered and watched “The Wizard of Oz.”
Poignant at the very least.
But whose family didn’t watch “The Wizard of Oz” together in mid-century America? Bill was a generation ahead of me. As it turns out, he was the same age as my mother. My mother is currently ailing, afflicted by dementia and occupying a space in life I hope to elude.
I am sure our family in the 1950s and ’60s tuned in many times to the annual television event that attracted millions of Americans into Dorothy and Toto’s adventure, that instructed viewers in the ways of witches good and bad, that disturbed us with the terror of flying monkeys, that presented the awesome mysteries and lessons of the Emerald City.
On this pleasant and moving recent Saturday afternoon, I had no idea how meaningful the memory of “The Wizard of Oz” would be.
The music started slowly, and the singing was a little hesitant when the audience began the opening words of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“Some…where … over the rainbow…” Judy Garland’s voice is one of those permanently embedded cultural echoes. The mournful ballad of hope and golden dreams by itself is almost unparalleled in the American consciousness. In the moment, the group’s effort seemed like a distant reflection.
But this day imbued the song with an emotional power wholly unexpected. When the song began, I couldn’t even voice a word. I struggled to speak. I tried to hold it in. I covered my mouth with the program. But essentially I lost it and blubbered through the whole thing.
No one really noticed. So it was clearly a private moment of grief that welled up from a deep-seated feeling I’m not inclined to share much more of. It felt like a catharsis.
Music has a way of reaching beyond and behind any rainbow and touching the soul and the nerves and the heart.