Thursday, June 29, 2017

Homage to Tom Fox: Musician, Marine, Quaker Martyr

The Wigglesworth duet--where was it?

I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find it, because my sheet music lies scattered in piles that have only the vaguest whiff of organization, so something last played 30 or more years ago would have migrated so many times from box to shelf to box to filing cabinet and back to shelf that it could be anywhere--or not there at all.

Luck was with me. After only a few minutes I found it in the fourth stack, about halfway down: 

[The picture is a composite of the cover and the first two staves of music]

The sight of the music brought the sound back to me with instantaneous clarity: the oboe's opening fanfaronade ascending into nosebleed against the clarinet's dusky thematic assertions. How many times had Tom Fox and I played that for it to be so engrained in my memory?

I would have been fall of 1968. I was a sophomore at Chattanooga City High School; Tom was a senior. Tom was also a god of music at City, at least in my mind. A friend and classmate of my older brother Kevin, he was a wizard of a clarinetist. I do not doubt that he was principal in the top All-State band, and that is saying something given the level of competition (there are lots of high school clarinetists).  I was an aspiring oboist, having played the instrument for two years at Northside. I was ok, for a kid. But Tom was a god.

By some quirk of fate, my sophomore year happened to coincide with the return from retirement of A. R. Casavant, a path-breaking guru of the marching band who had put City High on the map. Despite his enthusiastic advocacy of the marching band, he also respected that an instrument like the oboe--which does not march--required time to master, so, rather than assign me to glockenspiel or saxophone during marching season, he allowed me to practice alone during band rehearsal time in exchange for being a "manager" who loaded and unloaded sousaphones and bass drums on the band bus for away games.

By some other quirk of fate, Tom wasn't marching either. I suspect that this had something to do with Tom's being such a stellar musician that he could make demands on Casavant that others could not, and his demand was, "I'll be happy to be your musical star if I don't have to waste my time marching." I don't know this, and I might be wildly wrong. I can't imagine a physical reason, since Tom became a Marine.

In any event, I did not practice alone that fall. I played duets with Tom Fox. I don't remember how this started. I'm sure it helped that he and Kevin were friends, so I was known to him, and he to me. Tom was a very reserved person, with a quiet, self-assured dignity that some might interpret as aloofness or haughtiness. His outstanding musicianship did not translate into boorishness--as it does in some people. He was always patient and kind with me.

He wanted to be challenged, though. We started with duets out of a collection put together by Franco-American oboist Albert J. Andraud, who published a slew of mish-mash arrangements as well as the monumental mish-mash of mish-mashes, the Vade Mecum of the Oboist

(Lo and behold, what do I find in another stack of my music?)

These duets involve nothing more than assigning the melody to the flute or oboe and the bass part to the clarinet. Tom disapproved. I remember him complaining, "This guy sure doesn't trust the clarinet player!" So we moved on to the Wigglesworth, which apparently met Tom's standards for appropriately challenging fare. We woodshedded that sucker. We played it that whole fall until concert band started and our duet practice time came to an end. After that we never hung out together, but the following spring Tom allowed me to convince him to play it with me before judges at the glitteringly-named Solo and Ensemble Festival. There was never anything festive about it, but you got medals if you did well. Tom and I did well. I got my medal.

After that I completely lost track of Tom Fox. It was not until recently that I was talking with Kevin--reminiscing--and I happened to bring up the subject of Tom: he was one of the best musicians I'd ever known, and I wondered if Kevin knew what he was up to. "Tom was killed," was Kevin's answer. "He was on a Quaker peace mission in Iraq. Al-Qaeda captured him as a hostage and executed him."

Hearing this, I was shocked and saddened. How had I missed this? There is fortunately a Wikipedia page devoted to Tom that preserves information (with links to more) about his life and death. This is where I learned that he spent a 20-year career in the United States Marine Band (where he would've gone not too long after I knew him), but Wikipedia lists his occupation as "peace activist." 

How had he made the transition from Marine to Quaker? Or is it possible to be both? One of the links on the Wikipedia is to a blog that Tom wrote in the last year of his life, much of which he spent in Iraq. It is somehow comforting to be able to read words of his own--more than just words about him. What comes through most strongly in his blog is a strong faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ and a fearless devotion to Quaker doctrines (as well as other, similar ones, such as Gandhi's).

One of his entries, "Country and God," addresses the issue of patriotism and religion. In it, Tom quotes Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding: "Those who love their country in the light of their love of God, express that love of country by endeavoring to make it respected rather than feared, loved rather than hated. But those who love only their country express that love by trying to make it feared and succeed all too often in making it hated." Tom applies this to the situation at the time (August, 2005): "We are seen as a militaristic superpower, bent on imposing our will on others, rather than the keeper of the flame of the hope and promise of democracy." What is to be done? In what is to me a remarkable passage, Tom writes:
We must come from a spirit of love and compassion to help our leaders and many of our fellow citizens come to see that if we truly love God then we must make a drastic change of direction in the course of our country. The only way we will gain respect is by showing it to others, even those we disagree with. The only way we will gain love is by giving it to others, even those we disagree with. Love of country must always be subordinate to love of God. Love of country alone sets us on a course towards the disasters that have befallen other countries over the centuries. Charting a new course must begin now before it is too late. 
Not long after writing this, on November 26, 2005, Tom was taken hostage with three other members of a Christian Peacemaker Team. Among the reactions was Rush Limbaugh's, who on a November 30 broadcast said,
Any time a bunch of people that walk around with the head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds if necessary, and have things sized up. ... I mean, these people are liberals, they're warped. Well, I mean, that's why there's--I'm telling you, folks, there's a part of me that likes this.
I've been thinking a lot about hate recently. We are being told that there's more hatred than ever before. I don't think that is true, although I do think that we have much more access to expressions of hatred than ever before, which is disconcerting. For myself, I have a hard time not hating Rush Limbaugh for being "kind of happy" that Tom Fox should be taught some kind of lesson--one that would lead to his death. This mockery is the mockery of Jesus' executioners, is it not? Who if not Jesus confronted reality with an idiotic theory? Love thine enemy? Turn the other cheek? Not to mention that it doesn't take much reading of Tom's blog to know that he knew exactly what he was getting into. He was confronting reality with the steadfast strength of someone who knows what he believes and who is unafraid to act on that belief.

In an incredible entry called "Fight or Flight"--written a year before his kidnapping, and which I highly recommend to all to be read in its brief entirety--Tom lays out his clearheaded, prepared approach to fear:
It seems easier somehow to confront anger within my heart than it is to confront fear. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right then I am not to give in to either. I am to stand firm against the kidnapper as I am to stand firm against the soldier. Does that mean I walk into a raging battle to confront the soldiers? Does that mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign that says, "American for the Taking?" No to both counts. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and if I lose it to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan. I struggle to stand firm but I'm willing to keep working at it.
I only regret that I did not get to become re-acquainted with such a saint as Tom Fox.

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