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Sam Houston Q&A / Houston Chronicle

Sam Houston

An interview I did with Allyn West III of the Houston Chronicle was just posted on their ‘Gray Matters’ page online. Allyn asked very good questions about General Houston, his marriage, his legacy, and the last years of his amazing life.  I hope my answers did them justice, and I look forward (I think) to responses from readers.

Here’s the link:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Who-was-Sam-Houston-at-the-end-of-his-life-12494274.php

 

 

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The bygone predictions of an optimist

Since the month of January is usually when journalists, stockbrokers and politicians give their forecasts for the new year, I thought it might be interesting to consider my predictions for a year that ran its course and closed up shop many moons ago.  Let’s see how I did in my prognosticating.

The following article ran as my Sunday morning column in the paper in January of 2010:

***

Since a good many pundits and prophets are currently filling up the airwaves and newspaper pages with their predictions for 2011, I thought I might as well add my two cents worth to the heap.

Now, it’s important that you understand from the get-go that I am an optimist.   So my predictions might seem to some of you more pessimistic folks somewhat unrealistic.

Anyway, always hoping for the best-case scenarios, here we go.

I predict the Houston Astros will win their division, the National League pennant, and the 2011 World Series.

I also predict that the team, which is currently up for sale, will be bought by Oprah Winfrey, who will pay in cash.  And everyone who attends Astros games will look under their stadium seats and find prizes – cruise ship tickets and keys to new cars and such – and the name of the stadium will change from Minute Maid Park to The Big “O”.  For Oprah, you see.  The words to the 7th inning stretch sing-along will change from “Take me out to the ballgame” to “Take me out to the Big O ballpark”, and several blocks of downtown buildings will be imploded to make way for a new amusement park that will be called Oprahland USA. The admission will be free, of course.

Now to football.  I predict that NBC football analyst and former Colts coach Tony Dungee will be named head coach of both the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. Those are my two favorite teams, and I couldn’t decide who should get one of the best coaches since Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, so Tony will just have to commute between those cities for practices and games.  When they play each other, he’ll have to spend an equal amount of time on each sideline.

Regarding politics, Republicans and Democrats will make heartfelt efforts to compromise and get along with each other.  Both parties, finding a common cause in fighting both the Tea Partiers and the White House, will finally bury their age-old hatchet and join forces in a new political party called either Republicrats or Demlicans – a coin will have to be tossed – and their symbol will be a hybrid of an elephant and a donkey, a creature that will appear to not work logically or well.  Which will be an entirely appropriate representation of the congress.

In the world of entertainment, the recent inclusion of older contestants on “Dancing with the Stars” will result in Ernest Borgnine, age 94, winning the mirror ball championship trophy.  He’ll barely beat out Betty White and Doris Day, both 89, with a frisky Latin Salsa that will involve a good deal of swinging on chandeliers.

You’ll be happy to learn that I foresee a definite upswing in the economy. Some bean counter in the treasury department will discover that a minus symbol was mistakenly used instead of a plus sign in the original calculations and it’ll turn out the government actually has a surplus of trillions of dollars rather than a deficit.  Then we’ll all get enormous refund checks from the Internal Revenue Service and shares of stock in those big banks we taxpayers bought a while back.

I predict that in the 2011 no show business teen starlets will go to rehab, no politicians will be involved in scandals, and not a single hurricane will form in any ocean.

Finally, I predict that the State Legislature and the Texas Education Agency will rethink the folly that students, teachers, and administrators in the public schools should be evaluated by one badly written standardized test rather than by how much is actually taught and learned.  Then schools will return to being schools, and quit being testing centers.  And students will actually be able to focus on learning a wide variety of skills and concepts that will serve them well in their further studies and in their lives, and not just how to regurgitate specific little answers that will boost their district’s overall rating so a banner can be hoisted on the front of the schoolhouse.

There you go.  I may not be right, but at least I’m an optimist.

Happy New Year.

***

There’s no need for you to log in on how lousy a predictor I was back when that column ran.  But I still stubbornly soldier on as an optimist.

 

 

 

 

Read all about it, while you still can

 

 

A moment of silence, please, for the recently departed. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was 146; the Rocky Mountain News was three years older. They’re the latest additions to the roll of the honored dead, two of which were from hereabouts: The Dallas Times Herald (RIP 1991) and The Houston Post (1995).

There was a time when it wasn’t at all uncommon for big cities to have at least two daily newspapers, each of them putting out morning and afternoon editions. Not to mention extras that newsboys would hawk on the streets when juries came in with important verdicts or crooks got arrested or things blew up.

We shouldn’t assume that the newspaper graveyard is full; in fact I’ll predict that it’s in for an expansion. Not because journalism has hit the skids; papers are mostly as good now as they were in their heyday, but as an author and avid reader I resent the fact that so many of them have done away with on staff book critics and rely on reviews from other publications. The reason of course is that wicked old bottom line: cost.  For whatever reason — I could nominate several — fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers. Or, I fear, reading much of anything. So when the readership and the ad revenue dwindles, journalists have to find new lines of work.

One time I bought a couple of copies of the Sunday paper in Houston. I needed the book review sections for my creative writing class and I wanted them to have the actual newsprint, not sheets conjured up by a computer and regurgitated out of a printer.

My own copy of the paper had arrived in my front yard early that morning, and it seemed a shame to throw away the rest of those two bulky masses of information, minus only the sections I needed. So I offered them to a couple of policemen on the sidewalk. The older guy thanked me and said he had a copy at home that he looked forward to reading that evening; the other fellow, maybe all of 21, shook his head.

“I get all the news I need right here,” he told me, tapping a sleek device: a cell phone or iPod or BlackBerry or some other beam-me-up-Scotty contraption. His partner grinned, and asked him if he ever really used that thing to get the news.

To which the young fellow responded that he could if he wanted to.

Which is absolutely true. But being able to do a thing and doing it are two very different endeavors. As a general rule, more and more of modern society stays as clear of the news as it would a mean stepmother.

These days it seems most folks are content to watch a reality show or two and think they’ve really gotten a dose of reality, or listen to a bellicose, blabbering host of a radio call-in show — at either end of the political spectrum — and think they’ve actually gotten the news.

If I might offer a subtle opinion: They haven’t.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am much in favor of newspapers. I start every day with two of them and they are as essential to me as coffee. When I travel, I look for the local paper wherever I am, thoroughly enjoying the big boys like The New York Times and The Washington Post and just as thoroughly, and maybe more so, the tiny publications — usually weeklies — that are mighty strong threads in the fabric of the nation. I do believe that reading the sheriff’s report in a rural paper is as satisfying as a wedge of coconut pie in a country café.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to technology, or gadgetry. A little gizmo that can tell me the time in Cairo and the weather in Iceland is dandy. But it’s not a newspaper.

A newspaper is something I can stretch out with in my favorite chair, ruffle the pages and wander slowly through its various sections. Then when I start to nod off, I can spread the whole thing out wide over me like a blanket.

I keep thinking that America will awaken from its own nap and rediscover newspapers before they’re all gone.

But the day might very well come, hopefully after I’ve had my last word on this matter or any other, when a child will dig down into a trunk one rainy afternoon and pull out an old paper, brittle and brown in its dotage.

“What is this?” that child will surely ask.

And some ancient, sad soul will look at the relic being held aloft by smooth, tiny hands and smile.

“It —” the great-great-grandparent might respond, a flood of memories rushing out of the dark past, “— was wonderful.”

Wintertime greetings to my fellow wordsmiths

“What could be better, really, than to sit by the fire in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the windowpanes, and the lamp burns?”

– Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary 

fireplace

This particular hearth is where I’ve spent considerable time during this cold snap.

What better season to pick yourself a big, heavy tome you’ve been putting off, or have been intimidated by or even a little afraid of.  At the risk of being accused of colluding with the Russians, who came as close to perfect wordsmithing in the 19th century as we might ever get, maybe dive into Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov.  Or go straight for the grand prize and tackle War and Peace (which should take you the rest of the winter and some of spring). If you opt for that hefty epic by Tolstoy get an edition that has a complete list of the characters and tab it so you can visit often; the cast is complicated, but the journey is worth it.

Les Miserables would be an admirable choice.  Or something by Dickens or Faulkner or Hemingway.  Or The Grapes of Wrath. Maybe sharpen your harpoon and go after Moby Dick, especially if you let him get away in a previous pursuit. You can’t go wrong with anything penned by Jane Austin, and The Great Gatsby is great indeed.  A fat collection of stories by W. Sumerset Maugham goes down well beside a good fire, or the complete Sherlock Holmes canon. Any big historical novel by my friend Margaret George – The Autobiography of Henry VIII; Mary called Magdalene, and The Confessions of Young Nero among them – will fill this bill nicely. Then there is always Ulysses by James Joyce, usually hailed as the best novel of the Twentieth Century.  And if you can make much sense of it, congratulations.  I’ve tried more than once.

Whatever you select, happy winter reading! And if you take me up on my challenge to take on a daunting but rewarding task, let me know what you choose.

Stay warm.

Oops!

My friend Laura Jenkins kindly pointed out that I wished everyone a happy 2017 in the recent post.  I agree with her that making that change is hard every year.  I won’t get it right for a month or so.  Anyway, Happy 2018!

The journey begins anew

New year

Happy New Year.

In whatever state you find yourself this morning – clearheaded as a saint in sunshine or hung over from excessive reveling last night – you might as well face a few facts. Your Christmas bills are due either tomorrow or on the 15th.  You have to do something about that extra baggage around your equator from too much holiday grazing.  You’re in for some cold, dreary, gray weather before spring arrives.  The deadline for your income tax is in a little over a hundred days. And you’ll turn a year older sometime in the next twelve months.

On the bright side, according to one old proverb you’ll be a year wiser. Not to mention a bit further along on the road of life.  Let’s be optimistic; there’s just no telling how many good things might happen to you this year. Of course, just how good they turn out to be might very well depend on how you look at them.    Remember what Mr. Shakespeare said: “Tis nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

And I don’t know about you, but if I let myself wander over into pessimism – which I admit to doing on occasion – the new year that commences this morning can look downright uninviting.

The congress is still deadlocked over a whole smorgasbord of important things. North Korea is still sending up missiles in anticipation, one must assume, of eventually bringing them down again, with nuclear warheads on board, on places other than the open sea. An awfully bad flu is running rampant nationwide. And neither the Texans nor the Cowboys will be going to the playoffs unless they buy tickets.

Still, in addition to depending on divine providence, I suggest we hope that goodwill, common sense, and old-fashioned human perseverance will see us through.  And I’m encouraged in that hope by two men I very much admire.

I finally got around to reading David McCullough’s fat biography of Harry Truman that sat untouched on my shelf for years.  It’s excellent, and I highly recommend it. What I find most appealing about that spunky little Missourian in a bow-tie is that, even after many a setback and being ill-used by people he’d trusted, he still clung to an abiding faith in mankind. All in all, he found the human race to be a “pretty good outfit.”

The other fellow I think of when looking for hope for mankind is the author William Faulkner.  When he stepped up to the podium in Stockholm, Sweden in 1950 to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature he encapsulated in one brief sentence – probably a chore in itself for a man whose novels and stories are filled with gargantuan sentences that sometimes ramble on for an entire page or more – what he saw as the last, great hope for the world.

Mr. Faulkner mumbled his speech that night, maybe because he was a shy man not given to public appearances, or perhaps he had had a few too many highballs (as was often his habit).  Or it might have been that he just didn’t really want to be there; a decade later he would decline an invitation from President and Mrs. Kennedy to a White House banquet honoring American Nobel laureates on the pretext of illness.  But he told several of his friends in Oxford, Mississippi that it just struck him as a bit foolish to travel all the way to Washington to eat supper.

If those in attendance in Stockholm had to strain to make out the great writer’s mumbled words, they probably realized when they read the transcript of his speech in the paper the next morning that those words were destined to be remembered as nothing less than a doctrine of hope for us all.

“Mankind does not only have the capacity to endure”, Mr. Faulkner said, “but to prevail.”

Spaceship Earth has made another full lap around the sun, and we’re all on board for another trip. Here’s hoping it’s a good one for us, and that we’ll keep finding ways to prove Mr. Faulkner right.

May 2017 be good to you, and to us all.

Regarding angels

 

angel

 

During the yuletide seasons of my childhood, we took a break at the Methodist church from our usual repertoire of five or six old standards in the brown, threadbare Cokesbury hymnals and switched to an even shorter selection of Christmas carols.

So, instead of “In the Garden” and “Yield Not to Temptation” and “He Keeps me Singing” (on page 110 and my favorite because it had a snappy beat) we made a joyful noise – emphasis on “noise” – with “Silent Night” and a couple of others as Miss Mae Greer pounded away on the upright piano.

One of them was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.  When I was in the first or second grade, I thought the angels were all named Harold (I might not have been the brightest crayon in the box early on).  But Miss Mae Scott, my Sunday School teacher, put me right about that by explaining that heralds were particularly special angels because they were messengers.  And that the message they brought at Christmas was the best one of all.

Several years after that revelation, when I’d fallen into the habit of perusing the two newspapers that were tossed into our yard beside Highway 79, I read Dallas Morning News columnist Paul Crume’s take on angels on the front page on Christmas morning in 1967.  Little did I know that that short essay would be remembered by many as the very best of thousands of Crume’s columns published between 1948 and 1975.  He and Houston Post columnist Leon Hale were in large part  responsible for my taking up writing in general and columns in particular. So blame them.

Here’s part of what Mr. Crume said in the piece that is still, I think, printed every Christmas morning on the front page of the Dallas paper:

“Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels. If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself.”

He went on to include a few lines by Francis Thompson, a 19th century English poet, who maintained that “the angels keep their ancient places.  Turn but a stone, and start a wing.”

I can’t claim to have ever actually heard wings fluttering nearby, but I can tell you that there have been times in my life when I’ve felt the presence of something bigger, better, and infinitely wiser than myself that was guiding me through a potentially dangerous or important situation.

One of those times was when my wife Karen and I were driving up to East Texas on a pretty fall morning and our car just simply stopped running on a country road. What seemed like thousands of warning lights lit up on the dash board and I had to maneuver us over to the shoulder before we rolled to a complete stop.  As bad as that seemed at the time, it could have happened a couple of hours before when we’d been in the center lane of heavy traffic on the Pierce Elevated in downtown Houston. Or when an 18-wheeler was nudging up too close behind us.

If I’d listened closely that morning, I might have heard an angel’s wings.

I believe Mr. Shakespeare was on to something when he had Hamlet tell Horato that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained.  And one of those things might just be the presence of angels.

This can all be waved away as foolishness, of course, by people who can’t bring themselves to believe anything that can’t be physically proven.  “Show me an angel and I’ll believe it exists” they’d say.  And I wouldn’t be able to produce one.

But I believe they are here, not only the hovering variety but those inside of us that can affect our moral compasses, the ones Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.

On this day that is holy for much of the world’s population, and is not only about faith but about the memory of lost loved ones and the bonds shared among family and friends, I’m betting that angels are in abundance, their wings fluttering all over the place.

On that Christmas morning in 1967 the late Paul Crume ended his column with a few words that I couldn’t possibly improve upon.  So we’ll let him close this out.

“There is an angel close to you this day. Merry Christmas, and I wish you well.”

 

 

A holy night, a warm fire, and a story

 

So.  Here’s my list of possibilities for your Christmas Eve reading with your family.

What’s that?  You don’t do a Christmas Eve reading with your family?  Well, maybe it’s a good year to start.

Here’s the scenario.  Lights twinkling on the tree, flames crackling and spitting in the fireplace, everybody settled into soft cushions, hot wassail all around, and the fragrances of gingerbread and Douglass fir floating along.  Now somebody opens a book, clears his or her throat, and starts reading a story out loud, a form of entertainment that has been around since long before radio, television, movies, or video games.

It might be a good tradition starter, and tradition is mighty important during the holidays.  You want proof?  Go changing things up – like the placement of the tree, or not unpacking a few ugly, old ornaments – and see how quickly somebody howls.

In our house, we put great store in traditions, especially this time of year.  We always light a pair of candles in memory of my parents in the front window on Christmas Eve.  And we partake of homemade chili for supper (we are Texans born and bred after all), followed by my wife Karen’s famous pumpkin bread.  When our girls were young, we’d drive up to Houston during Christmas week to see the Alley Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol.”  Those trips fell into a definite routine, which is just another word for tradition.  First, we’d have lunch at Birraporetti’s restaurant.  Then we’d have the waiter bring around the dessert tray so everyone could mull over their options during the play.  In the theater I’d glance at the girls from time to time. When they weren’t watching the stage, they’d be squinting, weighing those various sugary concoctions. Once the curtain fell we hurried through the late afternoon around the corner back to the restaurant for hot chocolate and whatever goodies we’d decided upon.  Of course, we sampled each other’s choices.  Except for Megan, our youngest, who was downright territorial when it came to chocolate layer cake.

To this day, when all three girls are grown up and out in the world, we’ve established a new tradition.  This will be the second year we’ve taken our oldest granddaughter – daughter of Megan, the chocolate aficionado – to Houston to see “The Nutcracker” ballet. So, a tradition has tumbled from one generation to the next, as good traditions are apt to do.

Now, to that list of story possibilities I promised you.  I’m including secular literature only and am, of course, leaving out some worthy yarns, the most meaningful of which, to my way of thinking, is the perfect rendering of the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel.

Here’s my suggestions, in no order whatsoever. And I fully understand that getting your kids (or maybe your spouse) to put the cell phones away for a few minutes might prove difficult. But you might be surprised; you might be providing a memory they’ll treasure later.

You really can’t go wrong with “A Christmas Carol,” by Mr. Dickens. It’s lengthy, but it’s worth the time, and I think there are truncated versions.  “The Gift of the Magi”, by that old master of the ironic twist O. Henry, is shorter. And it packs a powerful punch about it being better to give than to receive.

One of my favorite short stories is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, Dylan Thomas’ superb, poetic reminiscence of the holidays of his boyhood.  Mr. Thomas was a genius among poets, but he led a tortured, short life.  And this account of what may very well have been his only happy time is mesmerizing. As is “A Christmas Memory”, Truman Capote’s account of helping an odd, elderly relative make a fruitcake to send to President Roosevelt. And don’t forget, especially if you have tiny tots (with their eyes all aglow) in your audience, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss. And there’s always “The Night Before Christmas”, a fine old poem you can rattle off in short order and let everyone get back to their phones

“Maybe Christmas,” the Grinch says in Dr. Seuss’ classic story, “doesn’t come from a store”.  A fine thought, that, and worth thinking about.

Maybe Christmas comes, sometimes, from something as simple of a good story written by a talented wordsmith and read out loud on a particularly sacred night.

 

The odd lot at the Christmas tree lot

 

Nearly forty years ago when I was a young teacher new to town I found myself at a combination poker game and barbecue dinner one hot summer night.  The official reason for the gathering was a meeting of the local Optimist Club, and I was there as the unsuspecting guest of one of its six members.  No club business was conducted that I noticed other than the meal and the game, but before I knew it, with neither nomination nor vote, I was made a member.  A month or so later, they elected me president, which was their way of insuring that I would stick around. Because they needed an additional hand to help man their one and only fundraiser: a Christmas tree lot.

That small outfit didn’t hold much with official protocol.  We paid our national dues and hung the Optimist banner on the door of the clubhouse once a year when the district governor came around.  But mostly we just liked to get together every week to eat barbeque and play cards. And raise money to do good things in the community.

Every November, we’d park the club’s much rusted travel trailer – vintage early 1960’s – on a pork chop shaped piece of land between the mall and what was then a Wal-Mart. Then we’d pound a hundred or so metal stakes into the ground.  The trees arrived from Washington or Oregon or some such frigid place a few days later in an eighteen-wheeler and we tied them to the stakes and slapped price tags on each one.

For the next several weeks, in all weathers, we’d hawk our wares in our little forest under electric lights strung between tall poles. The three older members – Gordon , Bob , and Bill  – were all retired so they worked the day shift and the four of us who had jobs took the nights.

It was a popular lot, because we had good trees and because folks knew that the proceeds went to good causes.  Most of our take funded a children’s home and the CHICKEN Club, a drug prevention program in local elementary schools that was started by our little club and is still in place all these years later.

We did a land office business – there’s no telling how many blue spruces, Douglas firs, and Scotch pines we hauled out to cars in the parking lot – and we always managed to sell most of our inventory by the time we closed up shop every season.  More than a few of our trees went home free with poor families who we figured had more important things to spend their money on, and what we didn’t sell or give away got hauled out to the beach to become dunes.

Some customers wrongly assumed that Gordon, Bob, and Bill were curmudgeons, our very own bevy of Grinches.  Because they did grumble and frown some of the time, and could come off as gruff.  They weren’t impressed with people who put on airs, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to growl out the prices to customers, or to suggest that someone who complained about the cost of a tree take their business on down the road to the next lot.  They had a collective low tolerance for rude people, and did not suffer fools one bit gladly. Customer service wasn’t nearly as high on their priority list as community service.

They usually hung around in the evenings, even though it wasn’t their shift, probably to make sure we young scamps kept the goods moving and didn’t cut the prices for attractive young ladies.

The times I spent in the company of those good men made for some golden memories. We had a little machine that pressed perfect grilled cheese sandwiches in that wobbly trailer, and plenty of beverages in the cooler. On bitter, rainy nights we turned the heater up and played cards or dominoes, taking turns braving the elements to make a sale when somebody knocked on the door.

In spite of all the heavy, prickly lifting and what I remember as more bad weather than good, those were fine times.  And nobody enjoyed the camaraderie and good work we did more than Gordon, Bob, and Bill.

It was Ebenezer Scrooge, the most famous curmudgeon of all, who promised at the end of his night of ghostly adventures to “honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”  When I think about that line, I think of three curmudgeons in particular.

They’re all gone now, and I think of them pretty often.  Especially at this time of year.

A pair of darned good storytellers

 

     

One night in 1958 my Aunt Georgia, in a kindhearted attempt to get our minds off the fact that our mother was in yet another hospital, treated my sister and me to a night at the movies. We saw South Pacific in one of those huge downtown theaters that used to exist. The lights went down, the heavy crimson curtain went slowly up and the overture swelled. Technicolor spilled out into the big room, and I fell head over heels in love with Mitzi Gaynor. I was six.

Nearly sixty years later, I’m still a little in love with her, and still enjoy watching her jog with the other nurses at the edge of the surf under tall, swaying palms, splashing along with all that Arkansas cockeyed optimism radiating.

But I know now that it was more than Miss Gaynor that caught my attention. That night I got my first taste of the genius of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.

Over the next good many years I caught the film versions of their musicals on the late movie, bought the soundtracks on LPs, then eight-track tapes, then cassettes, then CDs and hummed the tunes as I soldiered on through the daily business of living. Finally, I sprung for an expensive — for a high school teacher and coach — seat in the seventh row of the old Music Hall in Houston to see Yul Brynner in his final revival of his signature role in The King and I. Lung cancer had taken its very obvious toll, and much was made in the press about whether or not he was really up to all that bounding and bellowing. In fact, he would die not too many months later.

But that night he was still very much the King. And when he stepped up to Miss Anna, placed one big hand on her side and lifted the other one high overhead, the entire audience leaned forward just a bit and held its collective breath. Then, when he and Anna swirled around in wide circles on that old stage, “Shall We Dance” floating up from the pit, there was magic in that place.  Purely and simply.

I’ve experienced the magic again and again over the years, every time I hear a tune by Rogers and Hammerstein. And every time I think of one of their stories.

As a writer and a teacher of writing, I admire the intricate crafting of a good story, one of the most ancient of human skills. And it’s slowly dawned on me, after reading, studying and teaching the “giants” — Shakespeare and company — that some of the very best yarn-spinning of modern times came from a couple of men whose work has rattled pleasantly around in my head for most of my life.

Leaving the sheer magnificence of their music aside — the waltzes alone would be sufficient to keep one humming to the grave — consider the plots themselves.

Moral dilemmas abound. The Nazi youth in The Sound of Music either blows the whistle, literally, on the Van Trapp family, among whom is his 16 going on 17 sweetheart, or he doesn’t. Billy, the carnival barker in Carousel, will either be a good husband and father or he won’t. The King, after all that waltzing, will either be the man that Anna knows he can be or he won’t.

And, in South Pacific, its authors chose not to shy away from the issue of racial prejudice as most of the rest of the industry — and the nation — had, but to take it on headfirst. “They Have to be Taught,” Lieutenant Cable’s lament, is as strong an indictment of hatred and injustice as anything produced in those unfortunate days, and it is thought to have been the determining factor in awarding Rogers and Hammerstein the Pulitzer Prize for the play.

They deserved it. Few writers, of any genre or era or medium, have as effectively mapped the wide sweep of the human experience as well.  I sometimes encourage my students to watch a film version of one of their musicals to study the pacing of the plot, or just read the script and learn from the amazing wordsmithing of Oscar Hammerstein.

I know. I know. Many folks think the musicals and their songs are hopelessly dated. That they are as corny as Kansas in August. That the endings are tied up too conveniently. That real people don’t burst into song to the accompaniment of a full orchestra whenever they feel joyous.

But wouldn’t it be nice if, occasionally, they did?

Wouldn’t that, as one of the King’s wives sings to Miss Anna in The King and I, be something wonderful?