It wasn't the typical Hills School Elementary assembly. I knew that beforehand because my mother, as a member of the cultural arts committee, had helped plan the event.
As kids shuffled into the linoleum-floored cafeteria and slid across the smooth, white benches that were attached to our lunch tables, there was a charge in the air.
It was 1976, and none of us could have imagined at the time that, because of declined enrollment in the Half Hollow Hills School District, the walls of our school would be demolished within a few years and it would be gone forever.
All most of us knew before the assembly was that something big was happening. I smiled to myself as my second-grade classmates tried to guess what all the fuss was about. I spotted my brother's fifth-grade class as it walked past our table. His peers noisily moved about, but he cast a steady, knowing gaze my way.
I glanced around and saw my mother standing along the cinder block wall, her arms crossed in anticipation.
And then, there he was on the wooden stage, being introduced by the PTA president. My heart raced. I craned my neck to see. His shaggy hair flopped around on his head. He smiled brightly and arced his arm in a huge wave.
"Who's Harry Chapin?" a boy near me asked, as the splotchy applause of school-age hands echoed. I shot him a baffled look. Harry began to strum the opening chords of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" and a hush fell over a space that was usually chaotic. Young faces stared in awe. Within minutes, Harry had the entire crowd shrieking in glee at his whimsical story-song.
He moved on to others: "Tangled Up Puppet," "Better Place to Be" and his most popular, "Cat's in the Cradle." The teachers had tears in their eyes as they sang along to his lyrics.
Our sixth-grade friend and neighbor, Nadine, had written him a letter, asking him to come to our school. This was the '70s, when famous singers were accessible in a way that is unimaginable today.
My mother once ordered and paid for a Harry Chapin poetry book that never came. She looked up his number in the phone book, called his home and nearly fainted when Harry answered the phone himself! When she told him what had happened, he apologized, assuring her that he would have another sent to her immediately.
Harry Chapin concerts are scattered across my early childhood memories. Sitting on the floor at Huntington High School for one of his shows, listening to Harry croon, was a treat that broke the repetitiveness of soccer games, gymnastics and piano lessons.
Running onto the revolving stage at the Westbury Music Fair, after Harry had invited all the kids in the audience to join him there, was a thrill far greater than birthday parties at Elwood Cinemas.
At one concert, he had his young son by his side, dancing to the music. My brother, sister and I spent the night chuckling at the boy's endearing dance movements as he shuffled side to side robotically.
Mementos of our fondness for Harry dotted our world: my mom's poster of him, on which was handwritten, "Dear Judi, You're beautiful"; her friend Marilyn's framed "Taxi" album cover with the black-scrawled writing, "Keep the change." As time went by we had eight-tracks, and then cassettes of his music. And much, much later there were CDs.
His voice filled the rooms of our house many evenings and weekend afternoons. I always looked forward to seeing him perform live, watching his big, soulful eyes give meaning to the words he sang so beautifully.
We revered Harry Chapin as a celebrity. Though his venues were humble, he remained a god to us. That day in the cafeteria, as Harry sat on the same stage where I played flute during band concerts, he looked like an ordinary guy, and in many ways, he was.
He called my neighbor Nadine to the stage, sat her down next to him and sang "Circle," as she beamed up at him. The smell of Tater Tots wafted out of the open doorways of the food area in the back, as the hair-netted lunch ladies began their daily preparations.
Unlike other days, no one seemed eager for the assembly to end and lunch to begin. Afterward, my mother brought my brother and me backstage to meet Harry. I stood there, speechless. My brother told Harry he played the guitar, too. Harry shook his hand and told him to keep practicing.
Five years later, Harry Chapin was dead, at age 38. I remember the exact spot I was standing in my cabin at a New Hampshire sleepaway camp when I heard the news. It was rest hour. A counselor casually related the tragic story to another counselor. Harry had crashed his car on the Long Island Expressway.
My bunkmates didn't know who he was and went back to writing letters or playing Jacks. I ran into the woods and cried.
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