Lili Marlene

The headline was brief, Composer Norman Schultze Dies. Had there not been a semicolon followed by a second line, he would have passed it by. He had never heard of Norman Schultze, ignorant, as he was, of most modern composers. It was the second line which jogged his memory, Wrote WWII Hit ?Lili Marleen’ . The writer of the obituary obviously was not familiar with the song. Credited to the Associated Press, some unidentified individual had muffed the title. Not Lili Marleen, but Lili Marlene. Another example, he thought, of the historical ignorance of the present age. The song was popular with German as well as British and American soldiers. The Nazis, it turns out, tried to ban the song. To no avail, it was enormously popular with the German troops. British commanders also were not pleased with its popularity with their troops. They had no argument with the song, they just didn’t like their men singing the song in German. A lyricist was hired and the English version of the song was born.

The obituary went on to relate the fact that it was not the composer’s favorite work, but that he was plagued by its success. Not unusual. Many composers came to hate their most popular works. Beethoven came to resent requests for his Moonlight Sonata and became abusive when asked to play it. Still, Lili Marlene, for those of an age to remember, evokes a specific memory of the war years. The obituary listed Greta Garbo, Edith Piaf, and Marlene Dietrich as singers who performed the work. Three great singers reduced to tokens by this offhand remark. Garbo and Piaf aside, the piece was uniquely Dietrich’s. He could see her still, dressed in her trademark black dress and illumined by a single spotlight, singing into the darkness. She owned that song.

The writer of the obituary didn’t say, and probably didn’t understand, that the death so improperly summarized closed yet another page on the war. Fifty years ago, on another fall day, came word that the last Civil War veteran had died, closing the book on that war. He did not know how many veterans of WWI survived. Surely only a handful, and he knew that the number of WWII survivors was rapidly thinning. The news media, he thought, was as much to blame for our historical ignorance as anyone. Veteran’s Day, which honored the signing of the armistice which ended WWI at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, had been broadened to include the veterans of other wars. Yet, if you watched news coverage of the event in recent years, you saw only veterans of Vietnam as they gathered at the Wall in Washington to read all of the names of those killed in Southeast Asia; a ceremony lasting 4 days. The wrath laying at Arlington Cemetery aside, no mention was made of those who fought for this country in two world wars or Korea or any other of the scrapes we got ourselves into. History revised in penitence to those treated so shabbily for their service in Vietnam.

He had happened to see the obituary as he was about to set our for his morning’s run. Normally, the paper is ignored until after his run, when a proper breakfast could be had. This morning he scanned the paper as he waited on the weather. It had rained earlier and he had no desire to get caught out of doors if the rain were to resume. It was the only article he read before deciding to tough it out. Marlene Dietrich sang to him as he headed out into the cold fall morning.

The clouds broke as he ran along, revealing a few stars in the predawn darkness. There was Orion, with Saturn just above it. He was always sorry to see Orion. It meant that winter truly was on its way. Orion, with his two dogs, pursued the fall and brought long nights and cold. He would look for it again in December and January as it entered the night sky.

The leaves toyed with his feet as he ran along. His mind turned from Orion. Christmas would be here soon, he thought. Running past a stand of pine, his mind went back to earlier years when he would go into the woods in search of a Christmas tree. The tree, or at least one of several candidates, had been selected during October ramblings. A week or so before Christmas, sled in tow and an axe in hand, he would head into the woods towards the trees he had scouted out earlier. For the most part, they were scrub trees; Scotch pine. Most stood between 5 and 6 feet tall. Even so, there was always something special about those trees. None were perfectly shaped, but each had its own character, and each lent to the magic that was Christmas in the Midwest.

It was full light as he approached the end of his run. The tops of the oaks, Maxfield Parrish golden, caught early morning light. Crows, disturbed from their night’s slumber, began rising silently from the trees. Stopping in front of the house, the steam began to rise from his sweaty clothes, clouding his glasses. A new day ahead, and it was his.