Saturday, November 13, 2010

Loose lips, et cetera

If you're concerned about the future of Navy music--cutbacks, budgeting woes--then put on your smart hat and watch what you say about Navy music around here.

Navy Lyres is a very public place, receiving hundreds and sometimes thousands of visits per week from MUs--active duty, former and retired--as well as a surprisingly large number of readers with no direct affiliation with Navy music. But my super-secret tracking software tells me where visitors are located. A lot of blips on the map are in the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. area.

My basic editorial principle is: I print what I want. But what I want is pretty wide open. Basically, I deep-six only comments that are commercial, irrelevant, vulgar or defamatory. Defamation made simple: Saying "I worked for a chief who was a fat idiot" is one thing; "Chief Smithers is a fat idiot" is quite something else.

So, watch what you say. My previous post, The Shipmate I never met, drew some comments from an anonymous visitor who appears to be an active duty MU who is concerned about the future of Navy music, possible funding cutbacks and, therefore, his or her job. He might as well have written to his congressman.

Just a reminder, shipmates: this is a public place. They're reading this in Washington. Oh, did I say that already?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The shipmate I never met

Originally published in
Rock Island Argus
Moline Dispatch
November 11, 2010

Today, I'm remembering a local boy, Jerry Cox.

Jerry and I never met. We grew up in different parts of the country at different times. But the bonds between veterans of the same units, specialties and experiences extend beyond time and place. Jerry Cox and I were both Navy musicians; in a sense, we are shipmates.

Vets understand this. Readers without military experience will have to accept that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe the ties felt by those who have shared service and sacrifice.

His ship's log tells us Gerald Clinton Cox was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Racine Conservatory of Music. His parents moved the family to the Quad-Cities while he was still a kid. He must have been a talented musician; after graduating from high school in East Moline, he was accepted for enlistment in the Navy as a musician. Jerry played the guitar and clarinet, important instruments in the jazz he played so well.

After boot camp at Great Lakes and Music School in Washington, DC, Jerry was sent to serve on a battleship with one of the best military bands in the Pacific, Band 22. The music was good, America was at peace and Musician Second Class Cox had found his place in the Navy.

He lived aboard ship with his fellow bandsmen. No doubt, they laughed together and fought with each other. The ship's newspaper recorded their nicknames: "Brick," "Swede,""Mad Russian," "Flatfoot Floogie."

One warm autumn Sunday morning, as their ship lay in harbor, Band 22 was formed on deck, playing Morning Colors. Jerry and his shipmates were probably still half asleep; they may have been out late on liberty the night before, checking out a concert by another Navy band against which they were competing in a spectacular, fleet-wide Battle of the Bands. Fortunately for night owls, Morning Colors is not a challenging gig, once you wipe the sleep from your eyes. You play a few marches until, at precisely eight a.m., the bugler sounds "Attention" and the band performs the National Anthem. The flag is briskly hoisted and a new Navy day begins. It's stirring for the onlooker, but no big deal for the band.

But it was a big deal that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly before eight, the flames of hell engulfed Pearl Harbor, where Band 22 stood on the deck of the USS Arizona.

As the klaxon call to General Quarters screamed throughout the ship, the members of Band 22 did what every sailor, gunner's mate, engineman, navigator or musician, was trained to do: they ran to their battle station.

Battle station for Band 22 was the Arizona's ammunition hold.

Within a few minutes, one of the enemy's armor-piercing bombs penetrated the deck. Death in the ammunition hold was immediate. The massive explosion killed all of Band 22 and sent the Arizona to the bottom of Pearl Harbor, along with most of her crew.

Veterans Day is set aside so we may remember all who have worn our country's uniform, whether fighting a war or protecting a peace. When we envision these defenders, they are giants in our minds, grizzled warriors of battleship proportions. But many were kids, fresh off the family farm or city block. The average age of the members of USS Arizona's band was 21.

They were kids, yes, but at their battle stations in Arizona's ammunition hold, the members of Band 22 were men.

Sleep peacefully, Jerry, my shipmate. You too, Swede, Brick, Flatfoot.

I remember you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Veterans Day, 2010: Duty, Honor, Conundrum

With only a few days to go, I'm still working on the speech I will deliver on the Mercer County, Illinois courthouse lawn at the Veterans Day ceremony on November 11.

Okay, calm down. Deep breathing worked for me, it'll work for you. Here's what happened:

For the last few years, I've been writing a weekly column for a few newspapers in western Illinois. The Quad Cities Area may not be the center of the universe, but it is the second-largest media market in the Illinois.

I write humor, mostly, but sometimes I slide into the area of military and patriotic matters. Over the last year I've published columns about the contribution the Navy's bands make toward its mission, the difficult choices a military bandleader faces when rain threatens an outdoor concert and my return from last Navy Musicians Association reunion, culminating in my arrival at Moline International Airport, where I was met by cheering crowds, banners and bands, only to realize the crowd was waiting to meet an Honor Flight returning from Washington.

I'm not trying to blow fanfares on the Frank-horn. The point is, I've become sort of, well, famous, in this part of the country.

I'll admit it's sort of fun to be recognized here and there. People will stop me on the street and ask if I'm Frank Mullen. I generally confess. Older shipmates will remember when Ed Sullivan used to interrupt his show by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, sitting in the audience tonight is the star of the Toast of Broadway, Fontella LaBoomBoom. Stand up and take a bow, Fontella." This has actually happened to me a few times at public concerts. At Rock Island's Independence Day performance by Horizon, the pop contingent for Navy Band Great Lakes, the band acknowledged me from the stage. It was quite a feeling, though I might quibble with being called a "patriot."

But my sort-of-fame has now gone as far as it needs to go. This year, the officers of Mercer County, Illinois, Post 1571 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars have invited me to be the guest speaker at their public Veterans Day ceremony.

On receiving the invitation, a part of me, I'll admit, exulted with delight; Frank Mullen was now to be acknowledged as the Great American he has always known himself to be. Bos'un, pipe "Attention"; sideboys, man the side.

That fantasy didn't last long. The fact is, being asked to speak at the Veterans Day observance is an honor I don't deserve, an honor I haven't earned and an honor I can't turn down.

But honor sometimes includes responsibility.

This honor is not about me. It's about those who have marched before me, beside me, and those who will follow.

I can do this. I can write the speech. I can, in fact, write a powerful speech.

The problem is, the better the speech, the less the chance that I'll be able to get through the whole thing.