Up From the Ashes
Over a half century ago, when I was a junior at Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee, my close friend Anita Barker’s parents were shot to death by Anita’s estranged brother-in-law.
Oak Ridge was a unique town, established as a part of the Manhattan Project during the Second World War and operated and guarded by the military. After the war, eventually the town became independent but it was still a safe place. Of course, in the nineteen fifties the entire country was very different. What happened when Bob Duke walked into the Barker house and gunned down three people (the third person was Anita’s other brother-in-law, who lingered in agony for several months before succumbing to his horrific wounds) was a terrible shock to the entire town. The three Barker daughters, of whom Anita was the youngest, were orphaned in mere minutes that night.
Anita was a talented girl who aspired to be a singer and actress. The shooting happened the weekend before auditions for the annual high school musical, which was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel that year. Since she’d had a nice supporting role the year before, Anita was hoping for a lead in her senior year and it seemed she had a good chance to earn one of the three female principal roles.
The directors, primarily the school’s chorus and orchestra teacher, chose to reschedule the auditions so that Anita would have a chance to audition. She won the leading role of Julie Jordan. Seeing how being immersed in the musical drama helped Anita through the most difficult period of her young life – she was eighteen ─ had an impact on me that I only fully realized decades later.
My part in her drama was peripheral. I didn’t have to bury my parents and go on stage some seven weeks later in an emotionally draining role. But my family and I did everything we could for her, all the while feeling helpless. It was a journey she and her sisters had to take by themselves.
I learned only recently the terrible toll those events took on Anita for the rest of her life. She died of breast cancer while in her fifties. I feel sure there was little if any understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the time. I doubt Anita received the help she so badly needed. While she had not been home at the time of the shooting, her world was blown apart.
Directing a high school production of Carousel – a musical which deals with life and death ─ in 1994 brought her very much to mind. And a second production two years ago, in the same high school, made me think even more about what she had been through. Each time I directed Carousel I shared Anita’s story with my cast, and it added depth to their performances.
It was that second production that opened my eyes to how much I had been affected by being with her during that experience. I keep saying I wasn’t “directly affected,” but I certainly was changed. I looked at the world differently. I thought more about death and its aftermath, and realized at a very young age how fragile and uncertain life is. People were not supposed to die suddenly and violently while they were still young. Yet I had attended a funeral of two such people, people I had seen only a short time before, when I was barely sixteen.
But at the same time, seeing my friend’s strength and courage bolstered by her participation in Carousel, I also became aware of the healing power of creativity, particularly of music. I think the experience helped me understand beyond question that music was my calling, and it has been my life.
To see the extent to which gun violence has burgeoned in this country during the past decades is saddening and distressing. To think how many young people these days have to deal with these events and their aftermath is – I can’t even find the right word. Horrific. Awful. Unthinkable.
The remarkable group of twenty-first century young men and women I directed in 2013 performed Carousel with love, respect, and skill, moving their audiences at each performance with the beautiful story. Not long after that production, I wrote my first book, How I Grew Up, giving Anita, finally, a voice to tell her story.
From the pages of that first novel came two additional stories of young people who had been part of that Carousel production. I am in the process of making slight revisions in How I Grew Up to tie it more closely to Eli’s Heart and You Are My Song. While the books are stand alone stories, they all began in that brief period when a group of young people shared an intense, life-changing experience. How I Grew Up with be re-released in early November as the first book in “The Carousel Trilogy.” These are coming of age stories of young men and women who face challenges with courage and hope. Music is very much part of their lives – and part of their courage.
Cover designs by Tristan Flanagan