Billy first came unstuck while World War Two was in progress. Billy was a chaplain's assistant in the war. A chaplain's assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.
While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy played hymns he knew from childhood, played them on a little black organ which was waterproof. It had thirty-nine keys and two stops--vox humana and vox celeste. Billy also had charge of a portable altar, an olive-drab attache case with telescoping legs. It was lined with crimson plush, and nestled in that passionate plush were an anodized aluminum cross and Bible.
The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey--and said so.
Rereading Slaughterhouse after all these years is a strange experience. I have forgotten major details from the book, even though I wrote a huge research paper on it as a graduate student. I remember the little green men, time traveling, firebombing of Dresden. I didn't remember that Billy was an optometrist and that his mate in the Tralfamadorian zoo was named Montana Wildhack. And, today, I didn't remember that he was a chaplain's assistant in the army, or that he played Christian hymns on a toy organ.
When I first became a church organist, I would probably describe my faith in a loving Jesus as meek. The reason I agreed to play was twofold: (1) I needed the money, and (2) I had a parish priest who just wouldn't take "no" as an answer. So, one Saturday night, I found myself sitting on the bench in front of a huge pipe organ, not really sure how to even turn on the instrument. I didn't know my vox celeste from a hole in the ground.
I have been a church musician now for over thirty years. I've been playing the same pipe organ for that entire time. I wouldn't call my faith "meek" any more. In fact, I would say that being in the choir loft has brought me closer to God, literally and figuratively. Music has a way of cleaving open my heart, even if I don't feel particularly filled with the Holy Spirit. The only other experience that comes close for me is reading poetry.
So, my parish priest did me a favor all those years ago. I was on the fast track to becoming a lapsed Catholic, and music brought me back. Because of music, I started praying again. Because I started praying again, I rekindled in my heart a belief in service, helping the world become a better place. And that belief has stayed with me through all these years.
It may sound corny, but I am a better person because I am a church organist. It has nothing to do with feeling holier or morally superior. It has everything to do with craving the experience of being in touch with something bigger than myself.
Tonight, Saint Marty is grateful for "Amazing Grace" in his life.
|The view from the choir loft|