I was telling this story to a friend of mine and he thought it would be great for the blog…so here it is.
Back in boot camp I was the Recruit Petty Officer in Charge and Conductor 0f the choir segment of a “Triple Threat” Division (choir/band/drill team). Even though there are those who insist that N-A-V-Y stands for “never again volunteer yourself”, this gig turned out to be a good one during boot camp…less calisthenics and marching, more rehearsing and performing. Always on the lookout for a chance to sing, the Sunday church schedule allowed my guys to participate in both the Protestant and Catholic services and we’d stand on risers in the front of the sanctuary (quonset hut) as a group and lead the hymns. It was great practice for us and filled the soul a bit.
A couple weeks in, the Catholic priest rotated out and was replaced by another one, many years his senior. The next Sunday when my choir arrived and took our place on the risers for the opening hymn he asked who among us was Catholic. About 1/3 raised their hands and the priest (a Navy Commander) told me that the rest of my singers should form up in ranks and for me to march them back to the barracks as only Catholics were allowed to sing at mass. An order is an order and I followed it but, as you might imagine, I was pissed. Royally.
I spoke to my Company Commander about it the next day, explaining that I considered it to be 1) bizarre for a church to turn someone away and 2) blatantly discriminatory; he agreed and said he’d pass it on up the chain of command (and if you’re thinking I’m really bad at keeping my mouth shut…you’re right). A couple days later the CC pulled me out of whatever it was we were doing and said, “I hope you have a uniform pressed and ready, you’re headed to see the Captain”…as in the Commanding Officer of the whole base.
After marching and saluting and all that Navy stuff I found myself standing at attention in front of the Captain’s desk with the priest sitting off to one side scowling at me. I said my piece and offered my opinion (and wondered what a firing squad would feel like)…and the Captain agreed with me (!!). He explained that if I wanted the priest to let the recruits under my command sing I would need to file a formal grievance against the command and he pulled out a form that he had handy.
Step one was to find the Navy regulation that pertained to the situation (there are regs for EVERYTHING) and that’s when things started getting weird. The last revision had been made in the stone age and it specified that only Catholics would attend (or sing at) mass and only Protestants would attend (or sing at) their worship service and so on down the line. With that discovery the Captain grabbed a fresh form and explained that I’d be filing my grievance against the Secretary of the Navy to have the regs updated (having spent time with the skipper later, I suspect he was really enjoying this).
I did exactly that, with a shaky hand and sweat pouring down my back, and as far as I know the rules got changed some time down the road. My singers were back at mass the following week in front of appreciative Catholics…and a scowling priest. I can truthfully say that I’ve never enjoyed singing a hymn more than I did that morning. There was a direct connection between the size of my smile and the depth of that scowl.
Music is for everyone. Singing is a joy that is to be shared and never held back, which is one of the reasons that the Windward Choral Society doesn’t have auditions. There’s a reason Susie always tells us to “make mistakes boldly”…because ALL of our singing should be boldly. We live in a place where we have the freedom to do so, regardless of the language or message of a song, so don’t be shy y’all. When you open your mouth to sing, let it fly.
And no scowling.
(Postscript: I stayed at that same duty station for my first two technical schools and happened to run into the Captain at the recreation facility. We ended up playing racquetball together quite a few times, with him consistently kicking my butt.)