My father in law, Bob, passed away last week at the age of ninety-six. It’s a ripe old age and you might say he had a good innings. Nevertheless I find it almost impossible to get used to living in a world in which Bob no longer exists. His long life has somehow made his death harder to bear. I was beginning to think he’d go on forever, but alas not. Pneumonia came along and, during his first ever hospital stay, took him quickly away.
Bob and I didn’t connect on everything. For example he loved sport. It would make his day if the Vancouver Canucks hockey team won a game. He’d walk around with a glass of scotch and a glow of satisfaction as if he’d somehow been involved in securing the victory. I find such thinking to be a peculiar form of insanity. However, he redeemed himself to me (and I hope me to him) with our mutual love of song.
Bob would belt out a tune at the drop of a hat. To him anytime was a good time for singing. We ukulele players get used to seeing certain people roll their eyes when the uke comes out of its case. But not Bob. If there was any rolling to be done you could bet there would be a barrel involved. Soon we’d be singing all the old songs from the WWI and WWII era: Roll Out the Barrel, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts and on and on.
Sometime in the 1990’s he asked me, “Do you know a song called Skylark?”
He told me that as a twenty-one year old he’d been stationed in Northern Scotland with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His job was not to fly the planes, rather to inspect the communication systems. The planes (Bristol Beaufighters) were designed with a vulnerable antenna that hung beneath the plane and would often get snagged off while flying low over trees and telegraph wires. Part of Bob’s job was to test the radio by listening to it.
One morning in 1941 Bob was twiddling a radio dial when he heard the song Skylark. The song appealed to him immediately. The melody was a thing of beauty and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics were poetry to his ear. He flipped his inspection sheet over and scribbled down as many lyrics as he could remember.
Over the following days it became his private mission to grab the whole song. Every morning he’d rotate various radio dials, “testing” them while secretly hunting for the remainder of the lyrics. Eventually he got them all. I think you have to be a singer to understand this kind of passion for a song.
Bob was a young man without female company in a place where, even if you got to take leave, there was essentially nowhere to go – and it was the time of the black-out (no street lights or lights coming from windows) – and the pubs closed at nine-thirty. So this song about a bird that could fly at will over valleys and treetops with the ability to seek out a certain female someone greatly appealed to him. I loved his love of this song and so I learned it and recorded it on my album Table for Two. I don’t know that he ever listened to my CD but he did ask me to sing Skylark every single time I played my uke.
And there was indeed a certain female someone out there. My future mother-in-law: Betty was her name. As a young woman she worked picking fruit in the Ottawa Valley. The hit movie of the day was For Whom the Bell Tolls starring Ingrid Bergman. In the film Ms. Bergman plays a (very beautiful) war survivor whose hair has begun to grow back. In those days it was unusual to see a woman with such short hair and the film inspired a fashion for feminine short hair cuts. Betty got her hair snipped and set off to the Saturday dance feeling every bit the Ingrid Bergman lookalike. Leaving the house she saw a fedora on the hat shelf and popped it on her head to “finish the look”.
Arriving at the dance her friends took one look at Betty, with her fedora, short hair and larger than average nose and one of them exclaimed, “Oh my God Betty, you look like Hoagy Carmichael!” The name stuck and she got the nickname Hoagy. It’s a beautiful irony to think that it was Hoagy Carmichael who penned the haunting melody of Skylark.
After the war Bob studied Biology at the University of British Columbia. He and Betty were married and in seven years had five children until, as Bob liked to say, “I found out what was causing ‘em.”
Bob became a specialist in Bird studies. While working for the Canadian government he started several Bird Sanctuaries in Western Canada. Including the famous Reifel Refuge in Ladner where countless birds find nourishment and sanctuary on the long migration north.
But to me Bob will always be the singer. A great bloke who had a gut feeling for a great song. And who loved to share it with a smiling upturned face and a heart full of youthful joy.
A few weeks before he passed away he had been going through old papers when I went to visit him. He said, “Look what I found!”
He was holding up the original 1941 RCAF inspection sheet with his hand-written Skylark lyrics on the back. And now I’m wishing I’d snatched it out of his hand there and then because no-one seems to know where he put it. And it may sound strange to some of you but right now I’d give a lot for that tattered old piece of paper.
© Ralph Shaw 2016