Monday, September 24, 2007

Job Satisfaction

You know those experiences you have in life that are so funny and surreal that you can hardly believe they are happening to you? Those experiences that, no matter how hard you try to perfectly encapsulate their retelling, you will never be able to adequately relay how truly funny they were?

Well, this is one of those because I’m not sure I can describe how this experience cracked me up.

But first I'll back up a bit.

It has been such an honor talking with, and interviewing, so many World War II veterans and their families as part of the outreach campaign we’re engaged in at work. This is a companion project to Ken Burns’ new film, The War, which premiered on PBS last night. (tune in…amazing stuff…). Oh, and check out our fabulous project web site. And you should share the WWII stories from your own family. You can do so on the aforementioned fabulous project web site. It’s important that we collect and preserve these stories for future generations.

Okay, shelving the shameless self promotion for now.

I had no idea how strongly I would be affected by this project. I knew if would be emotional to some degree because, well, we’re talking about World War II and that whole 60 million people dying thing is an overwhelming downer, for sure. But I never expected so many of these personal stories to touch me so deeply. Case in point, on Friday I had to shut my door and CALL MY PARENTS because I was in tears over all of the stories I had heard that day! Yes, the always professional and super duper appropriate weeping at work…always a winning move. And I wasn’t just crying. I lost complete control. Sobs, losing breath, snot running everywhere, couldn’t stop. Sweet.

All because as I listen to these people talk, or read their stories, I think about what they went through and I become overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. As I heard one person put it last week, humanity just dangles by a thread and it is a constant necessity to balance out evil with good. And these people went to war against evil.

But it hasn’t been all tears, breakdowns and random acts of curling into the fetal position. Some of this has been a riot.

And therein lies the story that I will never be able to adequately describe to you.

Meet Lee Smith and his lovely wife Carolyn.

And by lovely I mean absolutely-certifiably-off-the-charts crazy.

But in a good way.

My friend and colleague Ashley and I went to the Smith’s home in lovely Tulsa, Oklahoma to interview Mr. Smith (retired Colonel in the Air Force) and a group of his WWII buddies who do extensive outreach with the Tulsa Public Schools. These guys are amazing, especially when you consider their age, because they are constantly on the go, in the schools every week sharing their first-hand perspective, and believe me, these men definitely saw the war first hand.

After a bit of trial and tribulation, Ashley and I find their home. Small, cute, in a nice neighborhood that has been there for awhile because they have gorgeous, tall trees. Mr. Smith is in the yard and waves us in as we park and get out the car.

After a genuinely warm welcome Mr. Smith takes the lead and brings us into…well….what can only be described as the carnie house that time forgot.

We had to walk in very well defined “pathways” because there was SO MUCH clutter and junk stacked floor to ceiling everywhere. I’m serious – 85 years worth of STUFF that you could only maneuver through via the path. This actually wasn’t so shocking to me as I have first-hand, life-long experience with this particular lifestyle enjoyed by a few of my family members… but that’s another story entirely.

What was making me feel like I was walking through a carnival fun-house of horrors gone wild was THE BOOMING PIPE ORGAN MUSIC PLAYING JOHN PHILLIPS SOUSA’S THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER. And when I say booming, I mean that you would not have heard a word anyone was saying. You would have had to yell HARD to be heard and even then you’d have to be right up on that person’s ear. I had to consciously work hard to resist the urge to clap my hands over my ears.

As we neared the end of the path through this SMALL house, we finally see the delightful source of the madness. A little, bitty old woman dressed in a moo moo and a shower cap was sitting at a huge pipe organ, playing Stars and Stripes Forever over and over again. The music wouldn’t end! My ears were melting off but she just kept playing louder and louder! You know the picollo part of that song? I thought my ear drums were going to shatter when she hit those high notes.
But the whole time, Mr. Smith just smiled adoringly as he watched his crazy little hobbit play on.

After TEN MINUTES she finally stopped. My ears were ringing. She whipped around on the huge organ bench and looked at Ashley and me and you could see her face fall when she yelled out, “Well is it only you two? Where are the cameras?” I guess when she heard we were from a television station she thought she was going to be playing for a big TV audience and she was pretty miffed when she learned it was just the two of us.

And by miffed, I mean inspired to play 20 MORE MINUTES OF THE LOUDEST PIPE ORGAN MUSIC YOU’VE EVER HEARD. Real patriotic stuff, too, like the anthems for the Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy. Ashley and I were mostly paralyzed, and as I was straining to take this all in I took pause to really soak in what I was seeing.

We are talking a lovely, antique Wurlitzer pipe organ that you would see IN A EUROPEAN CATHEDRAL. One of those that has three levels of key boards, hundreds and hundreds of levers and pedals and it curves around, encasing the player almost 180 degrees.

And the pipes. The largest pipes were as big around as a telephone pole, and you could see them go up into the ceiling and beyond, they were so tall. Mr. Smith motioned for me to follow him and he opened a door that led to a room directly behind the organ that housed the rest of the organ pipes. Hundreds and hundreds of organ pipes of all widths and heights. I later learned that they had added this room on to the house to accommodate the organ.

It was the kind of organ I’ve only seen in movies. The kind the Phantom of the Opera would play.

And Mrs. Smith just wouldn’t stop playing. When her husband finally forced her to quit, the humor was really on then. She is a little pistol of a lady and I do believe she’s insane. But not in a sad dementia/Alzheimer’s way. It’s more in an I’m-really-old-and-I’m-going-to-do-whatever-I-want-to-do-and-I-don’t-care-one-lick-bit-what-you-think-about-it kind of way.

She is awesome.

And the most annoying person I’ve ever met.

Because she wouldn’t STOP TALKING!

Here I am trying to get Mr. Smith’s story – Mr. Smith who is so tall and distinguished and well spoken – but I keep getting interrupted by crazy wife who repeatedly stopped me when I was in mid-sentence to tell me a fart joke or to show me some silly little trinket or doo dad she had. Ashley had the brunt of it because she was trying to keep Mrs. Smith occupied and away from me so I could work. Ashley got hit with a full-frontal attack of the crazies, for sure.

At one point, a couple of Mr. Smith’s WWII buddies came over to share their stories with me and that was funny in and of itself, watching these old guys try to duck and run whenever she would come near them. But she wouldn’t be deterred! If Mrs. Smith wanted you to see the faded and worm 1980 newspaper article featuring her and her organ, she was going to follow you through every path winding through the heaps and mountains of paper in the room until you stopped what you were doing and acknowledged her.

It was all hilarious.

Just when Mrs. Smith would get calmed down and I could focus again on the veterans, we would all jump out of our skin because she had snuck back up onto that mutated organ and started to play a little bit of Jingle Bells or Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer for our amusement.

TWO AND A HALF HOURS LATER, Ashley finally drags me out, because we were late for our screening event and there was no sign that any of the madness was going to let up on its own accord. As we left, we were serenaded out by the loudest full-on-pipe-organ version of God Bless America you have ever in your life heard.


Those of you who know me know that I love the characters, and I am proud to add this sweet little lunatic and her distinguished husband into my book of favorites and this experience has certainly made it onto my top-10 list of favorite professional experiences, the first to actually come from Oklahoma.

These pictures won’t do it justice, but here are a few…

I couldn't hear right until the next morning.

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