Songs of Our Lives: “Off to War”

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Childhood can be marked by many things. I always find it curious which memories seem to stick: a yellow sundress, blown up over my head at the bottom of the kindergarten slide; a note in my sixth-grade mailbox, penned sloppily by a classmate, “want to french after school?”; jelly shoes and jelly bracelets; bangs which increased my height by at least two inches. All my memories of the late 80s flicker in various shades of neon. But the happiest of them took place in my family’s living room, the four of us—my father, mother, brother, and me—sitting on a floor covered with vinyl records.

My father’s taste was eclectic—The Rolling Stones, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Mickey Mouse Club, Smokey Robinson, Madonna—and we benefited from it. He danced my brother and I around the room, while my mother kept time with one slippered foot. His favorite band, and so mine, was The Beatles. He played most of their songs by ear on his sunburst acoustic guitar with the hummingbird pick guard, and many nights I sat beside him on the bed and sang along. While other girls my age plastered their walls with posters of Wham! and Boy George, I hung up black and white portraits of the fab four. In standard form, I loved Paul the best. If I’d been more original I might have set my affections on the moody and mysterious John, or even George, the quiet and contemplative one (who ended up being the coolest Beatle of all). Ringo wasn’t an option, of course, but either of the other two would’ve been a better and less predictable choice than Paul. Regardless of my preferences, I received a thorough education in the entire Beatles discography, and by the age of ten I could tell you who was singing lead within just a few seconds of each song. Their boyish good looks and quirky haircuts were entirely lost on my father. What he loved more than anything else was their harmonies.

“Hear that?” he said, tipping his head to one side and raising his eyebrows, an attempt to reach John’s high note. No, I had to admit. I had no idea what he meant.

“Lie down for second,” he said, pointing to the floor in front of the speakers. He took the left one and turned it ninety degrees towards my right ear, and the right one ninety degrees towards my left. When he put the needle back on the record, Paul’s melody came at me from one direction, and John’s harmony from the other. I jumped up and looked over my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said, laughing above me. “Just stay there… wait.”

I settled back into the carpet, closed my eyes and heard what I’d never been able to hear before: the marriage of two voices which, until that moment, had been so perfectly blended I couldn’t differentiate between them. The speakers did the work for me, pulled the two apart in one moment, and married them back together again in the next. I laughed out loud as tears ran down into my ears. He nodded and smiled down at me.

“Dad?” I said, when the record finished.

“Yeah?”

“Do another one.”

 

There are many things in life, average and miraculous alike, which we’ve walked by thousands of times and taken no regard of. Then, by some act of God or otherwise, we are awakened to that particular thing, entirely conscious for just one moment—long enough to fall in love a little—and the experience of it is changed forever. I think of this transformation of simple things, as realness. Much like Pinocchio, or the Velveteen Rabbit, falling in love with something gives it a life. Wood becomes flesh and quarter notes blood and all at once they are swimming inside of us. That day, on my living room floor, music became real.

I play music for my own children now: a happy eclectic mix of tunes. There’s some Beatles in there, of course, there’s no point denying it (my daughter even hung the same portraits in her own bedroom for a while). But there’s also rap, classical, folk, and techno, among others. My husband and I push the furniture aside and around the room. They take turns shouting requests until he eventually slows the pace with a melancholy song. Our ten-year-old daughter Halle, recognizing her cue, runs at him from the other side of the room and launches herself into his arms. He spins her around in a sloppy circle. My three boys—at just seven, six, and four years old—already play at being gentlemen and impatiently wait their turn to grab my hand and guide me around the room. I take the littlest first, looking down at his disheveled hair while he works hard at emulating his father, trying to spin me despite his disadvantage in height. I bend down and duck under his arm.

“Why thank you, sir,” I demure. He gives a gap-toothed smile and looks at his feet.

Recently, I drove the children down for a visit with my parents. James Horner’s score to Legends of the Fall took us most of the way to Dayton and when it ended, I started it over again. The children hummed along easily, following the melody of the violins up and down, the strong, bum bum bum of the tympani, the clash of cymbals. No one complained, even though I repeated track two, “The Ludlows,” several times.

“Listen,” I said. “Hear how it begins with this soft piano bit?” The boys continued playing their devices, but Halle nodded, tipping her head.

“Now,” I said, “wait for the strings.” We held our breath until they came soaring in like a blade through the stomach. It took everything within me to not close my eyes. The wind section and brass finally joined in, and we collapsed against the seat backs.

“It’s so pretty it almost hurts a little, doesn’t it?” I said. She smiled, not really understanding.

I tried to remember a time when the things I love didn’t hurt, when nothing was tainted with the sadness of its eventual loss, but couldn’t. Then, the full orchestra gave way to just a pair of violins—melody and harmony together—and I knew we were making our way toward track three, “Off to War,” the song that marks the point after which the Ludlows will never be the same.

If I’ve listened to the second track a hundred times, I’ve listened to track three twice as many. It begins quietly enough… woodwinds give the indication of early morning, of chimney smoke and creaky wood floors, while the strings hint at something more ominous to come. A delicate piano brings us into the core of the piece: strings and tympani composed in such a way as to splinter a human heart. This is fault-line music, dangerous in an unassuming way. Destined to blindside you.

Two minutes into the track, rolling cymbals bring in the primary theme. It’s a heartbreaking, sweeping section that perfectly embodies the cinematography of every epic American West film I’ve seen. The orchestra paints a landscape of rolling mountains and valleys still unspoiled by men, of bison and cattle and a horizon visible for miles. “Off to War” is the backdrop for a triumphant picture: three brothers riding into the morning mist—models of American bravery—off to face the unspeakable horrors of war together. But there is also a foreshadowing of the devastation to come. They’re leaving their home and heading to a battlefield where they will, as their father argues, fight for an England they’ve never even seen.

When I listen to songs like “Off to War,” I’m sometimes sorry I learned to love music at all. There are plenty of people out there who don’t get it. People who aren’t reduced to tears by a full orchestra. I have envied them that. I seem to be immune to lots of other things. I’m rarely rendered speechless by a miraculous, at-the-buzzer, game-winning-three-pointer. And while I may marvel at the incredible ways the systems of the body work together, I don’t often get emotional about it.

Captured within the almost six full minutes of “Off to War” are a hundred sunrises and sunsets, dozens of my own victories, and even more of my fantastic failures. Track three is my wedding day and the children I’ve buried, the first time I fell in love and the first time my heart was broken, the belief there is a creator who loves me and the despair that I am alone. It’s dancing around the living room with my father to a Beatles’ song and it’s my daughter’s full-bellied laugh. “Off to War” is the measure of a life, all the beauty and hurt mixed up together. Because that’s the way of all beautiful things—whether a new tube of cerulean paint, clean bed linens snapping on a clothesline, or a hyacinth peeking through the soil in spring—they show us our lives, our immortality and our frailty together. They wound us even as they please. Like petals clutched too firmly in the fist, we’re not meant to keep them. It’s the one great lesson I’m trying to learn: how to love without possessing.

And it’s also the age-old question, one I wasn’t quite ready to ask as a child: is it worth it to love, to be entirely awake to beauty if the experience also causes pain? Should we keep listening to music like “Off to War” even as it wounds us? For me, the answer is easy. I pop in my earbuds and skip to track three, just one more time.

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Image credits: image 1, image 2 © Ian MacKenzie. Images sourced via Creative Commons.


Kelly Fig Smith is an award-winning essayist and holds an MFA in nonfiction from Lesley University. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction Magazine, and in the book Three Minus One: Parents’ Stories of Love and Loss. Find more of her work online at Huffington Post, Literary Mama, and The Christian Science Monitor. Follow Kelly on Twitter @WhaleLetters or at kellyfigsmith.wixsite.com/mysite. More from this author →