TORONTO/WASHINGTON,DC REFLECTION: Remembering Tom Fox upon the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of Americ


31 January 2009
TORONTO/WASHINGTON,DC REFLECTION: Remembering Tom Fox upon the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America

by Jim Loney

"Let's listen in now to the Marine Corps Band," the CNN commentator says. The camera pans across the Washington Mall. People, as far as the eye can see, waiting for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America, the first African American to ever hold this high office.

The music projects a holy canopy of sound over these proceedings. "Democracy's most sacred moment," the CNN commentator calls it.

George W. Bush appears through an arch of velvet curtains, waving, smiling, his last presidential appearance. The signal is given. The Marine Corps Band bursts into "Hail to the Chief." The musicians know it cold, having played it a thousand times before.

"This is the last time George W. Bush will hear ‘Hail to the Chief' being played for him," the CNN commentator intones as the president descends red-carpeted stairs, making his way to his seat of honour. "The next time you hear it, in just a few moments, it'll be for his successor, President Obama, who will then hear it for the first time being played for him."

It strikes me with the force of a physical blow: Tom, you used to play "Hail to the Chief" all the time. You were a member of the Marine Corps Band. This was your job, for twenty years, through four successive administrations, to play your clarinet, wherever and whenever required, in herald of the nation's Commander-in-Chief, making glorious and smooth the presidential way.

You never talked about it much. You were too modest for that. Or maybe because it just wasn't that important. It was something you did for awhile, when you were young and wanted to be a professional musician, a way to serve your country without going to Vietnam.

So you played at the inaugurations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. Bush, each a day just like today. Might you be here now?

"And now we have a musical treat for you," Senator Dianne Feinstein announces. "It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, Gabriela Montero on the piano, Itzhak Perlman on the violin, and Anthony McGill playing the clarinet, a work composed by John Williams entitled ‘Air and Simple Gifts.'"

"Simple Gifts"? Could it be? Surely not.

Violin begins it: a bold, vital pluck. Then cello, flowing immediately forth, piano and violin joining, a slow irresistible force gathering, a dissolving sweetness, doors of the heart opening...Clarinet reveals the melody--yes, clarinet--first in a whisper, merely hinting, then running, then lifting, song wings soaring. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.

My mind flashes back to Baghdad. You're sitting next to me, in a plastic lawn chair, wearing purple track pants and a grey sweater. Captor clothes. It's cold; the light is gloomy. Your face is grim, your beard grey and haggard, your body skeletal. There's a chain locked around your right ankle and wrist. Your left wrist is handcuffed to my right wrist. Your eyes are closed. I can hear you breathing, your chain clinking on the floor. You're passing it through your fingers, one link at a time, using it like a rosary to keep track of your meditations.

All of this is because you laid down your clarinet and became a Quaker. You weren't sure at first. It took you awhile. Sitting in the light, meeting after meeting, an uncertain conviction grew slowly into an irresistible clarity: you were being called to go all the way. When the Twin Towers came tumbling down, and the presidential finger pointed, instead of hailing the warrior chief's way, you looked to where the finger was pointing and said, that's where I have to go, to Iraq, and get in the way.

If it became necessary, you were ready to offer your life. "Armies expect casualties when they go to war. Those working for peace in war zones have to expect the same," was how you'd put it. Under no circumstances would you take up a gun. A disciple of Jesus was a disciple of nonviolence.

Our kidnappers called themselves mujahadeen, holy warriors fighting for the freedom of their country. One lost his parents when his house was bombed in Fallujah. Another lost seven family members, four of them young children, when U.S. soldiers fired on their vehicle. They told us they were negotiating a ransom with our governments to finance their struggle.

Because you were an American, because you had been in the military, they thought you were a spy. They took you away on February 12, 2006. We never saw you again. Twenty-five days later, your body was found inside a plastic bag wrapped in a sheet. You hadn't been dead long, at most a few hours. There were eight bullet wounds in your head and chest.

You loved Simple Gifts. It was your spiritual anthem. You chose it for your memorial service. We knew the tune, of course, but you taught us the words. The turning part was your favourite. We sang it often.

‘Tis a gift to be simple
‘Tis a gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

Tears pour down my face. Can that be you, Tom, your spirit in those fingers dancing on the clarinet? Can that be you, heralding President Barack Hussein Obama with "Simple Gifts," (Hail to the Chief! Hail to Grenada and Panama! Hail to Afghanistan and Iraq! Hail to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo never again no more!)? Can that be you, heralding the day "when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream"-the words of Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction prayer at the end of the inauguration ceremony?

May it be that we are turning. May it be that Barack Obama is turning, that a whole nation is turning, coming round right, no longer ashamed to bow and to bend, but yearning for the valley of love and delight. And may it be that you are turning with us, Tom--your clarinet and your life heralding the way.