WHO WAS GLENN MILLER?
One of the interesting things about the small cowboy bar that I have been frequenting in Colorado for the past 13 years is its jukebox. It has a large, albeit narrow, collection of country and western music that spans more years than many of the patrons. It even has a few old Hank Williams tunes. But the most interesting thing about it is that two of the selections are Glenn Miller’s String of Pearls and Tuxedo Junction. It was a rare week that someone didn’t play one or both of those two songs.
I grew up on big band swing music, even though I didn’t grow up in the big band swing era. In junior high school and high school I played the trombone in the high school dance band. Our band director, Forrest Becker, did grow up with big band music, and the names Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, and Duke Ellington were as familiar to me as the names of my friends. But Glenn Miller was the most familiar – perhaps because we both played the trombone.
Glenn Miller was three years older than my dad, but died long before he became known to me when he was killed in a plane crash in 1944. Our lives did have some similarities. We both played the trombone, we both were from the Midwest, we both went into the Air Force (Glenn in the Army Air Corps), we were both veterans of foreign wars, and we both loved the same type of music.
Imagine my consternation recently when I was at my favorite Colorado bar and noticed that Glenn Miller’s music was no longer a choice on the jukebox. It was like opening the Bible and noticing that God was no longer mentioned anywhere. How could they do that?
A week later I met an old (but young) friend Erin at that bar. Erin was visit from Iowa – which, by the way, is the birthplace of Glenn Miller. We were with a few friends and recalling the many good nights we had spent in that bar when she said, “Here are some quarters, go play some music. I don’t know what selections they have here now.”
I replied with considerable annoyance in my voice, “Well they don’t have Glenn Miller any longer.”
“Who is Glenn Miller?” Erin asked.
A moment of silence followed – much like when someone farts at an inappropriate time – except that there is never an appropriate time for asking, ‘Who is Glenn Miller?’
Was I that old? Was Glenn Miller fading from recognition? I quickly asked the other people for reassurance and got it. Somewhat to my relief, only Erin had not heard of Glenn Miller – but it was indicative of a trend.
A few months earlier I was sitting with a bunch of friends at a farewell dinner for a colleague. The TV series Friends had just concluded, and the subject of farewell shows came up. “I saw the farewell show of Johnny Carson,” someone said. Another person added, “I saw Jack Parr’s final show.” A few more people added their experiences with farewell shows, each outdoing the other.
Not to be outdone, I said, “Hell, I saw the farewell show of Fred Allen.” I regretted it soon after saying it.
Silence ensued, followed my friend Pam, who is at least 45, asking, “Who was Fred Allen?”
Evidently showing your knowledge of the past is simply another way of showing your age, and I’m going to be more careful in the future and only talk about living people. But even that can get one in trouble. I was teaching a management class a few years ago and going through some notes. I did my Paul Harvey imitation by saying, “Page two…” I thought it was a pretty good imitation, but I quickly found out that none of the 28 students in my class had ever heard of Paul Harvey. And he was still doing his syndicated radio news broadcasts.
Perhaps history, even some current history, is not able attract the attention of modern minds, occupied with television, the Internet, fashion, socializing, peer pressures, and busy lives. But the older I get, the more fascinated I am with what happened before I was born, and it irks me that younger people seem oblivious to it.
Our own individual lives pale in comparison to what has happened before we each became the center of the universe. I think I’ll start playing Glenn Miller music for each of the classes I teach.
Post Script: I asked my class of 27 senior undergraduates how many of them have heard of Glenn Miller. Only one person raised his hand.