Hagebak: Old song gets me every time

Published 8:03 pm Friday, March 3, 2017

“Fighting soooooldiers, from the sky! Fearless meeeeeennnn who jump and die!” The opening lines of “Ballad of the Green Beret” caught my attention as I was piddling around on the internet the other day. The video featured two ladies singing and tap-dancing and marching around, and while they were not going to upstage Staff Sargent Barry Sadler, the man who made the song famous in the 60s, I watched all the way through, smiling as one of my favorite childhood songs brought back memories of Mrs. Matsy Deal and Friday morning “assemblies” at my grammar school.

I don’t know who got more excited about the half hour or so that the children of Hollis Hand Elementary School spent each week in the auditorium, singing and blowing off steam, the kids or the teachers. When I was a kid, I would have said it was us, tortured all week long and worn to a frazzle by heartless teachers who were bound and determined to teach us long division, if it killed us. It nearly did kill me, and I still have flashbacks. Looking back though, I think the teachers, tortured all week and worn to a frazzle by goofy kids who didn’t know one end of a word problem from the other probably lived for Friday mornings as much as we did.

We’d march down the pristine halls and file, class by class, into the most beautiful place in the whole school! The seats folded down, and were upholstered in dark red velveteen, and oh they were so cozy! Up front was the big wide stage where we put on all our school plays, and there was a genuine regulation American Flag up there, hanging heavy and luxurious, fringed by long gold tassels, on a little bitty flag pole. A piano sat off to the right, up front between the first row of chairs and the stage.

The sheer joy of being a kid within spitting distance of the weekend always kept us tittering and bouncing around until the principal stood up and shushed us. “Old Iron Paws” was one of the kindest men ever to walk the earth, but we didn’t know it then, and he never had to shush us twice. And besides, we knew that we couldn’t sing until Mrs. Deal, the school librarian-slash-assembly director stood up and approached the most important piece of equipment in the room. I don’t really know how Mrs. Deal got roped into leading us in song each week, but I suspect it was because when they had the meeting about it, she was the only one who knew how to operate the overhead projector.

When the lights were lowered, Mrs. Deal would crank up the overhead projector, and place pieces of clear plastic printed with the lyrics to the most amazing songs on the glass that covered the lens, and the words would appear like magic, huge and clear, on a screen that let down in front of the stage. We always started with our grubby kid-hands over our savage little hearts, belting out the Star-Spangled Banner, but it was potluck from that point. Mrs. Deal had a folder thick with song choices. One week we might sing about Purple Mountains Majesty, and Senor Don Gato, the cat that fell off a roof while reading a love letter, and somebody’s Grandfather’s Clock that was too tall for a shelf, and Marching to Pretoria, Hurray! The next we might raise our angelic little voices to sing about a Kookaburra laughing in an old gum tree or our Grand Old Flag.

I loved all those songs, but my heart would give an extra lunge under my little ribs when I saw the shadow of Mrs. Deal’s hands carefully placing the words to “Ballad of the Green Beret” on the glass. The majesty of it and even the tune always moved me to my core. The other kids might prefer songs about a Bright Golden Haze On The Meadow, but my dramatic soul wanted the tear-jerker about a young soldier who gives everything he has and falls in service to his country.

I always made it through the opening verse with no problem. In my mind, handsome soldiers in dress uniforms and those snazzy green felt berets that gave them their name, floated in a clear blue sky, trying not to jump and die. What a sight! And they meant just what they said, which was cool, too. I did okay with the part that said, “One hundred meeeeennnn they’ll test today, but only threeeeee win the Green Beret!” but the last verse had me in tears, every time.

“Back at home, a young wife waits. Her Green Beret has met his fate. He has died for those oppressed, leaving her this last request – ‘Put silver wings on my son’s chest. Make him one of America’s best! He’ll be a man they’ll test one day. Have him win the Green Beret.’ ”

Every time we sang that song, I was wrung out the whole rest of the day. I didn’t even have the energy to pass notes or sneak a novel into my open math book.

I’ve been thinking about it, and I may start a Friday morning assembly program at the Frame Shop. Anybody have an overhead projector for cheap?