BY J. ARTHUR RATH III – We all stroll down Memory Lane during the Christmas holidays, perhaps you recollect how your life was changed by the goodness of others. This story happened a long time ago and shows the value of multi-cultural experiences gained in Hawaii.
Some of us with little or no money had to work very hard, in addition to studying to earn a Hamilton College education in Upper New York State. This didn’t mean missing out on cultural opportunities to grow. College professors were very supportive, as this story illustrates.
Married and with an infant, I lived in a military housing shack in a muddy area behind fraternity row and attended only morning classes because I had a second-shift job in a bank.
I chose an accounting course in my senior year; in years past this gave aspiring business executives an overview on understanding and improving a balance sheet. I took it as a respite from a tough double-major requiring lots of reading. But a newly minted professor named Sidney Wertimer now taught it. He had ideas that seemed to put the class members on the fast track to becoming certified public accountants.
I was immediately in deep trouble; my classmates responded to his daunting assignments by doing them as group efforts since he said he didn’t object to that. They used “hand cranked” adding machines in their fraternity houses; electronic calculators had not yet been invented. I did the laborious math manually in my apartment after work. Because of my working hours I couldn’t join other students in collegial homework groups.
I went to Professor Wertimer’s home to explain why I had to drop out. This would make me one credit shy of graduating and I couldn’t afford another year. I didn’t want to blemish my academic record with an F, or maybe a D as a “senior gift.” I was working at a bank, what might the officers think if they found out I flunked accounting or did so poorly?
He didn’t respond to my explanation for dropping the course, so I studied photographs his wife had displayed of him on stage and costumed when he was a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Out of the blue, he started talking about seeing my play “The Best Thing,” that was set in Hawaii performed by the Hamilton Charlatans when he’d visited the campus last spring to be interviewed.
(Its unorthodox perspective created comment on our conservative Eastern college campus: A young man is coerced by a Caucasian minister to turn his back on his old-time Hawaiian culture to attend a college where he will acquire the minister’s contemporary chauvinistic beliefs. The way the play was cast and directed left the audience wondering: “Is the outcome really ‘The Best Thing?’” Contemporary “green” supporters might cheer for the aboriginal, environmental-leaning theme if it where staged today.)
Professor Wertimer asked, “What are you submitting for this year’s playwriting contest?”
“A Japanese Kabuki play with songs,” I answered.
“I’ve heard of but have never seen one of those. Because of the war, you know…”
He paused, muttered something sounding like idiosyncratic, seemed to reflect, then slowly said” “Bringing classical Japanese drama to Hamilton seems like quite an adventure. Let me see what I can work out. Come back on Saturday afternoon.”
On Saturday, after how things were at work, Professor Wertimer made a surprising request: “I’d like to hear some of the music for your new play.” Uncertainty of what this “mathematical man’s” reaction might be added a nervous tremolo to my baritone, I sang one of the songs:
You are the geisha girl meant for me,
Here’s a glass of rice wine so mellow and so sweet,
Why don’t you drink it and give me a smile,
Let’s say Kampai to our future bright.
Ne tonko, tonko.
“Am I to be blamed for loving you my dear?
And follow like a shadow everywhere you roam,
Is it a sin to adore you and you alone?
And seek you like a light in the starless night,
Ne, tonko, tonko.
“How about more,” he suggested.
Feeling a little more confident and without a tremolo I sang a second song from “The Nightingale”:
Come to me, come to me, my sweet and smiling gal,
And play your samisen for me by the lantern light,
I’ll dance and sing a spring song ‘neath cherry trees
Until the lady moon hides her face away,
Sano yoi, yoi.
Kiss me darling; kiss me darling under scarlet skies,
I’ll tenderly caress you and whisper words of love
In the silent and silvery night just you and me,
Only temple bells a-ringing far and far away,
Sano, yoi, yoi!
Then, for some reason, I blurted: “Bull Priest, the cook at the Delta Upsilon fraternity house has an attractive daughter who is a Clinton High School senior.” Hamilton was a men’s college and this was my solution for a female lead. “She’ll be ideal for the geisha. She might learn to play the guitar. We could pretend it’s a Japanese samisen…”
My voice dropped off as I studied Professor Wertimer’s impassive face. He just stared, said nothing. How presumptuous of me! I was still working on the play, hadn’t yet entered it in the campus-wide competition. What chance might it have against submissions from “full-time students?” All I could do was fantasize while riding buses to and from work in Utica. Not part of the mainstream, I found refuge by imagining “what ifs”….Now by revealing hopes, I had shown how truly vulnerable I was…mentally casting the female lead on an all-male campus, assuming my new work might win over plays written by students who didn’t have to hold a job and support a family while trying to stay in a college like Hamilton.
He still said nothing! Had I offended him? Finally, clearing his throat, Professor Wertimer delivered this startling news:
“John Baldwin will welcome you back in the college choir and you can earn your one needed credit that way. You’ve been singing with them in previous years and he says you read music like one of those IBM computers.
“John realizes you won’t attend rehearsals because you work afternoons. But you must sing at every Sunday night chapel service. He says you must also go on the spring concert tour.
“Will the bank allow you to take a break from work?”
“I’m certain they will,” I answered, nodding vigorously. “They are very kind to me.”
“Say nothing about this to anyone, don’t even discuss it with John,” he admonished. “Keep the promise and you will have your credit.”
I studied choir music while riding the bus back and forth to my job in Utica and sang it while trudging up and down college hill to and from the Clinton bus stop. Sunday evening chapel service became the highlight of my week. I showed up long before everyone else. John would greet me with his wonderful smile. Sometimes he suggested, “Sing one of your Japanese or Hawaiian songs for me.” Choir members seemed pleased I was with them. No one asked why I didn’t attend rehearsals.
I sang my heart out during our New York City spring concert tour. We performed at John Baldwin’s old church, St. John the Divine, on Easter Sunday and sang at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Tenor Bill Woodman, head of the Charlatans, took me to his home in Rye to meet his mother Ruth, who originated and wrote the “Death Valley Days’ radio and TV shows.
There could have been serious problems for Professors Baldwin and Wertimer if it were known how I was helped. All was taciturn. No choir member turned me in–our school had a strict Honor Code—I guess fellow singers did not consider my being absent from rehearsals was dishonorable.
I graduated in the Sage Hockey Arena with those who had arrived with me in fall 1949. Lani, my little daughter, toddled around. My Hawaiian mother came to Clinton. She worked with the leper colony on the island of Molokai, it was the first time I had seen her in four years.
Yes, the Charlatans staged “The Nightingale,” Geisha-girl Mary Priest strummed the guitar skillfully, sang exquisitely, thoroughly enchanting sophomore Pieter Mayer, who was the ingenuous monk. He had one of the purest tenor voices ever heard at Hamilton. Jay Gould, another sophomore, played the insane Japanese warlord as though he was born for the role. Gould composed an “Oriental Fantasy Overture” for the production and tricked up a concert piano with paper clips so it would sound like a samisen. He provided an ensemble to perform the overture.
World War II veterans who had served in The Pacific were attending our college, however nothing negative was said about staging “The Nightingale.” The college was extremely liberal with its arts and Professors Baldwin and Wertimer taught me the one-word meaning of “The Real Good”—something poet John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890) considered:
What is the real good?
I ask in musing mood.
In his verses O’Reilly considers “order, knowledge, truth, pleasure, love, beauty, freedom, home, fame, and equity as possible answers.
He sums it all up with what two professors from long ago demonstrated:
Then within my bosom
Softly this I heard,
Each heart holds the secret:
‘ Kindness is the word.