Evenings of Great Songs & the Stories Behind Them

This is an article written about Evelyn & George Honts, the subject of Alan Smith's Vignettes song cycle:

 

Correspondence from a soldier, dying young, to his Nevada-born bride still resonates more than 60 years later.

 

Evelyn English's voice is one of the most distinctive things about a very distinctive woman.

Hers is a reassuring voice, a graceful voice, a teacher's voice. It is also a gentle voice, a voice not of limitation but of possibility. It is a voice that says, "I have a story too, if you'd like to hear about it."

Most of all, though, at age 88, her voice is that of a woman who has loved and who continues to love all that there is to life. She has seen her share of triumph ... and, unfortunately, her share of tragedy. She is the last of a group of six remarkable children from John and Louise Semenza still living, and each day she remem­bers the faces of her beloved brothers and sisters, their memory as delicate as an old, yellowing newspaper clipping.

Throughout her life, she has retained a rare nobility, an ability to see good in the most unlikely places. Though she is alone, she is never alone. She is an unrepentant keeper of letters and records, duty-bound in her love for her family to make sure her family is never forgotten.

In Roots, Alex Hailey's classic tale of the triumph of an American family, he writes of the tribes of his ancestors, and. of the most esteemed of all tribal positions, that of "Greot," or storyteller. The "Greot" holds all stories related to the tribe, and passes the stories on to the next generation through story. In many ways, English is a wizened. practitioner of the "Greot" tradition. The stories flow forward from her with a tender thrill. Hardly any of us know the significant events in our lives as they are actually happening, but through the prism of time and understanding, she weaves her stories in a soft-spoken, understated manner. Of all the memories she has retained, though, one related to a beautiful, yet tragic time in her life, has stood out.

One evening, composer Alan Smith, a music professor at USC, was talking with English, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., about a project he was having difficulty completing. Smith was to compose a song cycle for the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts in celebration of the 80th birthday of the great soprano Phyllis Curtin. English, a 1936 graduate of the univer­sity, happened to say that she had held onto all of the correspondence she had received from her late husband, George W. Honts, who was killed during World War II.

What Smith found in the letters was remarkable. Nearly 60 years old, the letters contained a love, both for Evelyn and for life, that was undeniably fresh and real. The love letters have become the centerpiece for "Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn from the Private Papers of a World War II bride," which made its West Coast debut in early 2003 at USC's Newman Recital Hall. Inspired, Smith wrote the piece quickly, using lyrics taken directly from Honts' letters, with the telegram informing English of her husband's death forming the emotional center of the composition.

The attraction between the two young people, naturally enough, came at a party at Fort Ord, Calif.... through the sound of a young first lieutenant's voice.

"He had such a beautiful voice," English says. "1 didn't have my glasses on and I wondered what he looked like until he came over to me. He was such an attractive man, with such a beautiful voice, and he was so intelligent."

Even through her nearsightedness, she saw a pair of trusting, thoughtful blue eyes smiling back at her. He was a person who loved picnics, and wondered if the young school teacher from Reno would like to picnic on the beach. that Sunday.

Evelyn and George were married only a few months later, on Dec. 24, 1942.

George, from Los Angeles, a conscientious objector who had studied medicine, was part of a medical unit that successfully landed during the Normandy Invasion. His letters came regularly to English, who returned to Reno and worked in the Riverside Dress Shop. They read almost like poetry:

descriptive and evocative, lyrical in their joyful ode to living.

They usually began in firm, clear cursive: "Ron jour Evelyn - "The sun has just come up. It's a beautiful

morning. The grassy downs are sparkling like myriads of diamonds. Sheep are placidly grazing around my tent, satisfied with the prospect of getting both food and drink in the same mouthful and displaying their wooly youngsters with great pride.

"From the top of our hill the great sea is as quiet as a lake. The anchored hulls of all the cargo ships are quietly swaying to and fro keeping rhythm with gentle swells that do not end in surf This morning my heart goes out to you."

The young doctor survived D-Day, and seemed destined to be reunited with his bride. He was killed in March 1945 - a scant few days before the end of the war - near the Rhine River.

In a cruel twist - almost impossible to imagine in today's information age, with the instant, hyperactive, updated-by-the-minute graphics of the recent Iraqi War - Evelyn continued to receive George's letters in the weeks after she received the telegram with news of his death.

"The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regret that your husband Lt. Honts George W was killed in Germany 25 Mar45 Confirming letter follows"

Followed by:

"My heart, my mind, my soul is yours My best to everyone ... Must run now, my sweet- Gotta run now baby

Love George"

It was as if George was not dead at all, his soothing, carefully crafted words offering a strange, elegiac sense of comfort to his despon­dent young wife.

Perhaps, just perhaps, they were words that were not meant to die at all.

Everything that dies, perhaps, one day comes back.

It is not surprising, then, that as George's words continued fo live in the weeks following his death, they continue to resonate today, more than 60 years latet

Words buried in the bottom of a chest in a closet have taken on new life.

"What Alan did with them was just wonder­ful," Evelyn says. "I never knew what I was going to do with all of those letters, who to share them with, because I have no children."

During the March 1990 funeral for Evelyn's sister, Nevada, who moved 38 times in her life, those gathered were instructed in Nevada's eulogy to "Don't be afraid to close chapters and start new ones."

All of her life, Evelyn English has known that the first novel a person ever knows is not written by Charles Dickens, or Ernest Hemingway or even J.K. Rowling. Rather, the first novel that a person ever knows is that of family. The chapters of family are begun at birth and end at burial, and wind through disappointment and accomplishment, through the pain and joy of love, through the wonder of life and the finality of death.

And it could be argued. that in the telling of the story of her own family, the greatest story of all has belonged, all along, to Evelyn - the one person who for more than 88 years has not allowed the distinctive, remarkable and memorable voice of her family to ever fall silent.

What was I going to do with all of those letters?

Now we know.

 

Story by John Trent

Nevada Silver & Blue - March/April 2004

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