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Page 40
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Keep On Singing

By Michael Orange

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It's the third Thursday of the month. I park my van at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis, and, with my music briefcase over one shoulder, music stand case, and mic stand strapped over the other, I carry my small amp and fifty-five-year-old guitar to the fourth floor's Memory Care Unit. Everywhere are staff, family caretakers, visitors, and other volunteers like me. A woman with a therapy dog coming the other way pauses to say hello and, "Thank you for your service." I'm donning a hat that I only wear here at the Veterans Home. Its gaudy embroidered message shouts that I served with the Marines in Vietnam. It's a bridge to the veterans I've come to entertain.

I will use the same song set here in the Memory Care Unit that I played earlier in the week at two other facilities at the Veterans Home, the residence building for veterans who do not need intensive nursing care, and the Adult Day Center. My friend, Jim, joined me for both of those other performances to tell jokes in between my songs. Music and mirth, that's our schtick. We met playing pickleball at the YMCA three years ago. He always had a joke that he delivered with whatever convincing Norwegian, Irish, British, or Russian accent the joke demanded. He'd have all the guys in the locker room laughing. So now, at the Veterans Home, he gets these old vets roaring.

Jim is convinced that, before he delivers his best jokes, he needs one or two "groaners," puns or one-liners in the style of Rodney Dangerfield. He explained that the vets want to laugh and the groaners make them hunger for a good joke. Nick is one of our favorites at the Adult Day Center. He sits in the front row and, good joke or bad, he often exclaims "Oh, brother!" and triggers a secondary round of merriment. I invite ideas for songs. For example, one of the younger vets, Richard, suggested Frank Sinatra's macho, signature song "My Way." "Only if you will sing it with me," I challenged him. Many times now, Richard and I have crooned the song together, Las Vegas style, for the group.

"Oh, brother!"

Jim and I listen to the stories from the vets in the residence building and the Adult Day Center: The Special Forces vet who had completed more than forty parachute jumps, and another paratrooper who was wounded in World War II's Battle of the Bulge. The three sailors who saw combat off the coast of Vietnam on board the aircraft carrier, USS Hancock, and the guided-missile cruisers, USS Boston and the USS Buchanan. I was delighted to meet Mark at the residence and learn that we both served as grunts in Vietnam with the First Marines during the same period, only in different regiments. We both fought the North Vietnamese Army in the jungles and the Que Son mountains on Operation Durham Peak. Turns out that Mark and I met at the Veterans Home on July 20, 2019, exactly fifty years after the first moonwalk. Although people at least my age still remember that day with as much clarity as JFK's assassination, I first heard about this momentous accomplishment the day I left Vietnam eight months later. Mark burst into laughter when I recounted this experience. He had a similar story. Both of us had honed similar survival strategies of ignoring the rest of The World to maintain a laser focus on keeping ourselves and our fellow Marines alive.

As the automatic door to the Memory Care Unit opens, soft music mixes with the faint smell from adult diapers doing their job. I walk between a big-screen TV playing an episode of Bonanza with the sound off and a half dozen old men sleeping, slumped and slack-jawed in lounge chairs on wheels. Becky, the unit's recreation director, attends to the man I call "Mr. Hey." She sees me, waves hello, and I stage my load under one of the eight-foot windows that flood the room with warm morning sunlight. I have twenty minutes to set it all up, pee, and get a cup of hot tea for my aging vocal cords.

I have prepared a dozen songs from my coming-of-age period in the late '60s and early '70s for the twenty-five men Becky has wheeled into position in front of me. Most appear to still be asleep. I introduce myself as a fellow veteran and begin belting out "With a Little Help from My Friends," trying to channel Joe Cocker's interpretation of the Beatles song. "What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?" I know there is little chance of that happening with this captive audience. As I launch into the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," "Mr. Hey" begins his loud chant from the back of the room: "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" I sing closer to the mic as Becky wheels him to a different room on the floor.

Three caregiving wives are also in the audience plus other staff members who drift in and out, tending to individual veterans or just listening. I see some heads bob with the music, some feet tap, some hands wave. For most, there is no reaction whatsoever, but it doesn't matter. Becky applauds loudly after every song along with the wives and other staff. A couple of the veterans join them haltingly. One veteran to my left waves both hands enthusiastically with a broad smile on his face.

I hold up my guitar for all to see, a Gibson J45 Dreadnaught that I bought with the $187 I requested from my parents for my high school graduation in 1966. I describe, with some degree of pride, how a falling lamp gouged its face; how my friend's wife stepped on it and cracked the body; and how it survived a winter hitchhiking trip to New Orleans. The penultimate story is how my cousin set it on fire. He said he could take care of a slight warping of the body by heating it with an iron. He didn't know that in 1966, Gibson used a nitrocellulose lacquer finish that was highly flammable. He did his best to refinish it, but the affected area remains clearly visible like an iron-shaped birthmark. I bang out an E chord, the best sounding chord on any quality guitar, and it reverberates throughout the room.

After forty minutes of performing, I ask Becky to pass out the sing-along booklets I brought and ask for requests. They have thirty-three songs to choose from, and Becky asks for "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by John Denver. We get through the first verse and I notice that one of the men off to my right in the front row is crawling on his hands and knees towards me. I stop playing and bring it to Becky's attention. "No problem, Michael," she says calmly. "You can keep singing." Becky brings the man to his feet and they dance to the music. I struggle to hold back soft tears—and keep on singing.

"It's a good day. Nobody's shooting at me." For thirty years, that mantra caged the ghosts from Michael's war experiences, but at great expense psychologically. His book, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (2001), described his wartime experiences as a combat Marine. His new book, Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire, serves as a bookend to those stories. Michael held thirty-four paying jobs including one that lasted thirty years as a city planner for the City of Minneapolis. Currently, he provides environmental consulting services to local governments via his company, ORANGE Environmental, LLC. He joined VVAW at the Washington DC protest in April 1971

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