I first met Jim and his wife Connie when she was cast in our performing company’s revival of Meredith Wilson’s, “The Music Man.” Connie played the part of the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. She was outstanding in the role.
During rehearsals, Connie approached me with an invitation. She and her husband were part of a volunteer organization called the Veterans Bedside Network. There were several VA hospitals in and around Chicago. Several times a week they would put on performances of one kind or another to bring a little cheer and entertainment to the veterans who were patients.
One of those facilities was Hines Hospital. It was so large that it had its own zip code.
Jim and Connie went to Hines each Wednesday and conducted a “sing-a-long.” They had difficulty finding piano players and wondered if I would consider joining them on a once a month basis.
I liked the idea and agreed to become part of this little singing troupe.
The first night I was scheduled to accompany the performance I left my office early to make sure that I would be there on time. Fortunately, the hospital had done an excellent job of posting signage and I easily found Building 159 where we performed.
I got out of my car and walked in.
Drab – somber – depressing.
The walls were painted a dull ocher accented with an even more uninspiring brownish tan. Florescent lights barely illuminated the hallways – casting a sufficient but lifeless timbre to the passageways. When I got to the room it was the same.
There was an upright piano in the room. Jim and Connie were already there.
I said hello to several of the patients who were already in their seats. We had an audience of perhaps twenty people that night.
From their faces I guessed that most were World War II vets; a few had probably served in Korea and one, who was the youngest, must have been in Vietnam.
Veterans Bedside Network had compiled song books for the patients’ use. They contained songs that spanned a long time period – with everything from, “Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nelly” to the Beatles’, “Yesterday” included. As an accomplished sight-reader I had no difficulty accompanying the various selections that the patients chose.
While most of our songs were done by the group, Connie would ask for volunteers who wanted to perform a solo. That night, four stalwarts stepped up to the microphone. After they sang we replayed their solos on the tape recorder that Jim and Connie had brought with them.
I enjoyed my evening and felt that I had done a little something to brighten the patients’ spirits as they were recuperating. We concluded the sing-a-long with a rousing group rendition of , “God Bless America.” I learned that was to be every night’s finale.
This once a month schedule continued for awhile.
Well, we lost a piano player here and another there. Pretty soon I had become “the” piano player – and I was at Hines every Wednesday with few exceptions.
When I started, our Wednesday night guests were members of the “general population” of the hospital. About six months into my stint, the Hines administration decided that our efforts would be better directed to the Alcohol/Drug treatment ward and to those there for psychiatric reasons.
This group was far less involved than its predecessor. Although about the same number of patients attended, it was rare that we would get more than one to perform a solo. In fact, most of the singing was done by Jim, Connie and me.
I would leave these sing-a-longs feeling rather depressed – and going through the dismal hallways as I left the facility merely added to that. It took me a week to get over this malaise – and then I was back again. But I soldiered on for another three years.
The program was not financially supported by the government – which meant that there were no orderlies or nurses who were assigned to assist the patients who wanted to participate. They had to make it in under their own power.
One night a patient joined our little group. He came into the room lying on his stomach atop a gurney. He was hooked up to an IV drip and had propelled himself to our gathering by using two canes.
I can’t describe the discomfort and shock I felt at seeing this man. Was this the best that we could do for these people who had sacrificed so much for our beliefs and our country? When he asked that we sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I lost it.
Although I realize it was an act of selfishness on my part, when we concluded that evening’s performance I told Jim and Connie that I needed to take some time off. I agreed to stay until they found some piano-players to replace me. It took several months but they ultimately were able to recruit a few.
I still ask myself the same question that I pondered that night.
“Is this the best we can do?”
If it is, we certainly have minimal requirements when it comes to the categories of compassion and gratitude.
And as the government increases its role in the healthcare of all Americans – what might the rest of us expect?