His senior prom picture is the only one that I have ever seen of Uncle Gary. It sat in the basement of my grandparent’s house—not too near, but never far away. He wasn’t discussed much, but when he was, a soft reverence glassed over the storyteller’s eyes. Looking at the photograph made me wonder how things would be with Uncle Gary around. The scene was classic—it looked like a snapshot from the set of American Graffiti or Grease. His step seemed light, body full of energy, face filled with the vitality of youth. The air was filled with music then—reneging the past and defying the future—allowing only the present dominion over body and mind. He danced to the music all night.
Then the war came. Our men were heading to Vietnam in droves and he would join them. I never knew how Gary felt about war—if he thought it a part and parcel of citizenry, and would go with the same confidence and fervor I knew from his picture, or if he became filled with awful thoughts.My grandmother feared for him. She had borne the devastation of war before, as females have since wars were invented—sitting alone, unknowing, expecting a knock at the door. Grandpa served bravely in World War II, imprisoned some years at a German camp. Grandma felt that he did this so her son wouldn’t need to. “Maybe you won’t have to go—maybe something will happen,” she told him, allaying her own heart. Something happened. Gary didn’t fall in combat at Khe Sahn or during the Tet Offensive, but it had that same sick effect. Grandma heard the knock at the door. Like war, a father buried a son. As a kid, I remember my mother never allowing us to have a train set around the base of the Christmas tree, and I never understood why. Days after John Gary Maclay received his compulsory conscription letter he was killed as his Chevrolet Bel Air sat on cold, steel tracks.
Nobody will ever know what happened that night. There were others in the car, but none survived. The picture from prom night served as one of our best memories of Gary. Mom was apathetic to the joys of childhood; life had been stolen from her. I solemnly admire her for rising above this malaise and despair. This injustice. She displayed strength far beyond that which should be necessary of a young girl. Where did she find the resolve?
Last year Mom and I drove together in my car to get lunch. “Let’s listen to some music,” I suggested. “O.K.,” she said, “but make it something we both like!” I popped in my favorite disc—a little bit of everything on it, just like she wanted. We listened through a few songs in quiet satisfaction. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles began playing.
Soon, tears ran down Mom’s face, falling into her lap. I’ve never been good at helping with this sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t want to help; I simply struggle to find the words. I asked her what was wrong. It was especially puzzling. John and Paul sang brilliantly—it would make anybody happy. “Nothing is wrong at all… I remember when I heard this song, in 1964. It was the first time that I smiled since Gary died.”
Music can make the hair on your neck stand. It can turn your stomach over itself. It can soothe the soul. It can release a torrent of emotions. It can make you smile, or cry. Philosophers have serious conversation about music as Truth. Hearing harmony in song can produce harmony in soul. Music let Gary escape life for one night. Music let Mom know it was O.K. to live again.
Tim Haglund is a junior from Amherst, Ohio, majoring in History and Economics.