Unsung Heroes

Nick Hilscher and the Glenn Miller Orchestra

Nick Hilscher and the Glenn Miller Orchestra

Monday night Ron and I took Dad to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra perform in the fabulous Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. Big Band Swing is my dad’s music. He grew up in New Jersey, just over the Hudson River from New York City. As a teenager in the 30’s, living so close to the Big Apple, he not only heard Big Band on the radio (WNEW, he says), he saw it live. Growing up, I remember digging through his collection of Big Band 78s, but only in recent years have I come to understand what this music of his youth means to him. It literally transports him back to a time when his life had yet to unfold and there was so much more ahead than behind.

A few months after Dad moved to North Carolina, in early 2015, we learned that the Glenn Miller Orchestra would be performing in Greensboro. Who knew the Glenn Miller Orchestra even still existed? We got tickets. We weren’t sure how it would all work out, the 40 minute drive to the theatre on a cold winter night when Dad would otherwise have been fast asleep. But from the first strains of “Moonlight Serenade”, my father was transformed into a much younger, happier, more engaged version of himself. Through the entire show, he smiled, sang along (of course he knew all of the words—this was his music!), clapped and cheered. To relive this happiness, for the last couple of years, we’ve traveled around the southeast to see the Glenn Miller Orchestra perform four or five times each year.

In the course of becoming big fans, we’ve gotten to know the band leader, Nick Hilscher. We keep him posted on which shows we’ll be attending and Dad loves saying hello to Nick at the end of each show. Monday evening was the third of a three show streak for us—Saturday evening in Fayetteville, Sunday afternoon in Winston-Salem, then the Raleigh show. Dad was in Big Band heaven! Nick dedicated “The White Cliffs of Dover” to Dad and another World War II veteran who was attending. This lovely gesture got me thinking about heroes.

Heroes all around us

The veteran with whom Dad shared a dedication had been a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He flew 71 missions in the European Theatre and lived to tell the tale! Wow! What a hero! I’m humbled by his courage and tremendous service.

Pilots aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier receive last minute instructions before taking off to attack industrial and military installations in Tokyo. February 17, 1945. National Archives.

Pilots aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier receive last minute instructions before taking off to attack industrial and military installations in Tokyo. February 17, 1945. National Archives.

Dad’s story is less dramatic, especially when he tells it. He says he was just doing what needed to be done…it didn’t seem extraordinary to him. He is always a bit surprised when people thank him for serving. He was in the Navy in the South Pacific, an aviation mechanic on the USS Wasp, an aircraft carrier, from 1942 until just before the war ended. Dad says that his job consisted of crawling out to each plane, carefully avoiding spinning propellers in the dark, to check with the pilot that everything was in order for takeoff. He has never told a single story about his ship being under attack, or of the pilots who didn’t return, or of the battles they were in, though the Wasp was in almost every major battle in the Pacific Theatre. Dad is a hero, too—one of the many who served because it was what needed to be done.

But there are more heroes in my life. For example:

white bus.jpg
  • The Glenn Miller Orchestra—16 musicians, a female vocalist and the bandleader—tour 45 to 48 weeks per year, year in and year out, performing four or five shows each week. Let that sink in. I like to travel, but on a bus with 17 colleagues most weeks of the year? That’s a big price to pay in personal life to be able to play music you love. (I sure hope that every one of the people in that band loves that music and doesn’t do this just to have a job!) Now some members of the orchestra may be happiest to be constantly on the move. Maybe some like to be on the road to get away from something/someone at home. But I’m betting that most of them view the relentless travel as the price of admission to make a living playing jazz. And I’m forever in their debt for keeping this music alive for people like my dad…and because it’s a genre worth preserving. GMO road warriors—you are my unsung heroes!

  • Nick has been the band leader for eight and a half years, the entire lives of his two youngest kids. He and his wife, Sarah, have four kids, from ages 3 to 12 years. Most evenings of the year, Nick isn’t helping the kids with their homework or reading bedtime stories, he’s conducting and singing for audiences in Richland, Washington or Shipshewana, Indiana. During summer vacation, the family usually travels with him—the older kids have been to all 50 states and even the baby has seen more of the U.S. than most of us who are 10 to 20 times her age. Nothing in life is free—for Nick to pursue his musical career and love of Big Band music, he gives up daily life at home in Georgia with his wife and kids for most of the year. Not only the music, but the friendship and care Nick has extended to my dad and me, has an outsized impact on Dad’s quality of life. Thanks for what you do, Nick!

Behind the scenes heroes

The real unsung hero is Nick’s wife, Sarah. She makes things work back at home, parenting four kids real-time on her own many days of the year. After the kids are in bed at night, maybe she and Nick talk or Skype, but he isn’t there in person to talk over the day. Sarah is the support that keeps things going at home and allows Nick to stand on stage in front of us, many miles away. Nick will be the first to tell you, as he told me Monday night, Sarah’s support is the only reason he can do what he does. What a gift of love that is! Sarah, you’re my hero!

Nick, Dad and Ron after the show at the Crowne Theatre in Fayetteville, NC on July 13, 2019.

Nick, Dad and Ron after the show at the Crowne Theatre in Fayetteville, NC on July 13, 2019.

I have my own unsung hero. We devote lots of time and energy on a daily basis to making my dad’s life as interesting, full, and active as possible. I’m usually the one out front on this and I get lots of (embarrassing) praise from family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, for caring for Dad. People marvel at the things I do with Dad while most of his living peers are stuck at home…or in a nursing home. Make no mistake, going anywhere with a person with limited mobility is an undertaking. But Dad’s care is a team effort. The reason I’ve been able to devote many hours each week to my dad’s care and happiness is because of Ron’s unflagging support. Not only is he the one doing lots of the hands on care, especially the dirty work (and that’s no pun), his love shows in his every interaction with Dad. While I’m getting the praise, he’s putting up with the ugly underbelly of caregiving—the fact that I have little time and energy left for him, that our options for how and where we spend our time are limited by proximity to Dad and his needs. Caregiving is stressful enough, I would never be able to manage it without Ron’s all-in support. Sacrificing in the service of others is my definition of heroism…and Ron’s picture is right there, in my dictionary. Thank you, a thousand times over, Ron—you’re my hero!

Are there unsung heroes in your life? I bet there are…and today would be a good day to say thank you.

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