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Some Enchanted Evening: July 31, 1981

Program for the Schoolhouse Players' production of South Pacific, 1981

It is only in hindsight that we can see what will become the defining moments of our lives. For me, one pivotal moment happened forty years ago, but still feels as close as yesterday. On July 31, 1981, my dad took me to see a community theater production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific at the North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Although I was only nine years old, I was no stranger to musical theater. Both of my parents were fans of Broadway and movie musicals, and I was exposed to that genre of music at a very early age. By then they had taken me to see productions of Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and West Side Story. I knew all the words to the songs from those shows, plus many others.

Our tickets to South Pacific, saved for 40 years!

My dad was especially fond of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I gravitated to their shows, as well. I liked all their musicals, even if the plots were not entirely clear to me. South Pacific was especially baffling with songs about a mysterious island called Bali Ha’i, washing a man out of one’s hair, men singing about dames, and Bloody Mary, who was always chewing betel nuts. And she didn’t use Pepsodent. I didn’t even know what Pepsodent was, let alone betel nuts!

Sheet music for "Younger Than Springtime"

By the time the curtain fell and the last note faded at North Penn High School that evening, I was thoroughly enchanted. Bali Ha’i had cast its spell on me, and I felt an inexplicable connection to the time and place depicted in the play. That directly led me to learning everything I could about World War II, particularly in the South Pacific. A couple years later, I read James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the novel upon which the show was based, and was even more drawn to the era and events he described so vividly.

First edition of Tales of the South Pacific

On that night forty years ago, I could never have imagined where answering the call of Bali Ha’i would lead me: writing my own novel; making a pilgrimage to an island with a much less melodious name called Guadalcanal and helping to recover an American soldier missing there for almost 75 years; identifying a missing B-24, lost on a remote island since 1943; traveling to Peleliu to search for a Marine from Philadelphia, PA, just like Joe Cable from South Pacific; becoming friends with some of the last World War II veterans left to tell their stories; helping numerous families learn about a relative’s World War II service; and getting to do research for the South Pacific World War II Museum in Vanuatu, on the very island where Michener wrote his book with a view of “Bali Ha’i” in the distance.

Bloody Mary’s wisdom still sounds like as good advice to me today as it did all those years ago:

“Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,

Talk about things you’d like to do.

You gotta have a dream,

If you don’t have a dream

How you gonna have a dream come true?”

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