Tryouts for the Navcad Choir

Published 1:23 pm Saturday, September 22, 2012

By James D. “Archie” Howell

Midway through the Preflight School, a notice floats around: Tryouts for the Navcad Choir, with a date, place and time.

I’m interested.

I joined the Elon College Choir during my time there and enjoyed the music and the travel. I showed up at the appointed time and place, go through some light music reading and harmony, and am accepted.

Members can participate throughout their basic training assignments; advanced training means a long-distance move. Members are required to maintain a satisfactory academic and disciplinary record.

Practice is weekly, and weekend performances generally relieve me of morning formation and weekend parade duties. I like that. Each practice eases my apprehension, and the prospect of travel is exciting.

Preflight passes quickly, with no major trips. Every Sunday we perform either at the base or at a local church downtown; I find yet another extended family in this group.

It changes in size and tone with time; members arrive and depart according to their place in individual flight training.

For travel, two aircraft are assigned either two R4D’s (DC3) or one R5D (DC6); most trips have 50 to 60 cadets.

We are an a capella chorus and have no support musicians; the starting tone is from our conductors pitch pipe.

We normally land at a military base near the engagement and travel by military bus locally. Bus rides are great fun and generally include some rendition of several bawdy songs or barroom ballads handed down from those who have gone before. Sometimes our conductor isn’t too pleased.

A summer morning in Oklahoma City we are in the bus early and arrive on the television set for NBC’s “Today” show with Dave Garroway.

Television is still in infancy and productions are live. I saw my first television set barely eight years ago; this is the first of many shows for our group as performers.

The Fred Waring Show, from his music workshop at Shawnee on the Delaware; Pennsylvania follows in the fall. It is a nighttime show and we line up alongside a large pool single file and sing to an audience across the water.

We regroup and follow with more. Outdoor nighttime productions are difficult for television.

The choir is abuzz with excitement. We are invited to escort the Miss Universe contestants at the pageant in Long Beach, Calif.

It’s a four-day trip and includes a recording session with the Armed Forces Press and Radio Service, escort duty for Miss Universe contestants at their Grand Coronation Ball and a performance scheduled at Disneyland.

Somehow an impromptu performance at Slew Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe Saloon also occurs; we sing “Oklahoma,” having learned it for the “Today” show.

Fall and winter is a succession of appearances at colleges and universities, mostly in the eastern half of the country. We are comfortable in our role in public outreach publicity for the Navy. After all, it is our country, our Navy service, responsible for the flight training that we receive.

We perform for the commissioning of the USS Ranger, a slant deck carrier over a thousand feet long in Newport News. We perform on deck, against a backdrop of the superstructure; it’s impressive.

December brings us to New York City. Our plane lands at Floyd Bennett Field and we bus downtown to Rockefeller Center. An ice skating rink, with skaters, loads of decorations and a huge Christmas tree are waiting to be lit.

We perform to a very receptive audience; maybe some liquid enthusiasm has been spread among the crowd. Maybe.

We are free to roam New York, with instructions to not miss the aircraft’s departure the following morning. All of us make the flight, a little worn, but present.

It’s still cold when we arrive in Washington, D.C. The Christmas tree is larger, and it is erected on the mall. Down there is the nation’s Capitol building; the other way is the Washington Memorial and other memorials.

We stand at attention as the commander-in-chief and two future commander-in-chiefs ascend the platform. President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, along with their wives, and House Speaker Lyndon Johnson, stand directly in front of the choir while we perform.

Eisenhower greets the nation and gives the order for the nation’s Christmas tree to be lit. It is. Other musical groups perform and the ceremonies close.

I continue to perform with the choir on road trips and local venues until I depart for advanced training. It is a time cherished during the following years.

If I listen closely, I can hear a rousing, rollicking rendition of the current bawdy favorite, followed, not far behind, by “Eternal Father, strong to save……..”.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at