Some of the worst moments of my mother’s life were the best moments of my life. I didn’t plan it that way.
My sixth grade class at P.S. 40 performed the musical South Pacific. I can still sing some of the songs. It is a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, You’ve Got to Be Taught, and There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame. The play was considered progressive by New York City public school standards. It touched on war, race, and privilege without referencing Vietnam, the civil rights movement, or white flight. Subjects we did not discuss much at home or in school.
Our class probably performed a sanitized and abridged version of it. When I listened to the original 1949 cast album some of the songs were unfamiliar. My memories of the play are sketchy. It was set on a island, there was a love story, one of the male characters had a scene where he wore a grass skirt and a coconut cup bikini top, and the play had a bittersweet ending. All I remember clearly is that I was a Seabee in the chorus.
Everyone in the class had to be cast in the play. Most of us ended up in the chorus, either as a nurse or as a sailor. Because I was a girl I was originally cast as a nurse, but I objected and requested to serve as a Seabee. I had short hair and already had the costume (blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and white canvas sneakers).
It never hurts to ask for what you want, but you need to be prepared for the consequences. My request was granted. I was issued my Seabee hat, a classic “Dixie Cup“, and went off to practice with the boys. There were a lot of rehearsals for only one performance. I told my parents that I was in the chorus.
The Dixie Cup hat was the prize. I always wanted to dress up as a sailor, and even though I was eleven, and a little old for it, I was game. I knew I was on the cusp of “womanhood”, but I still desperately wanted to be a boy. I practiced getting the tilt of the hat just right, like a real sailor.
The afternoon of the performance I changed into my costume and adjusted my hat. I was the chubby kid in a Seabee outfit proudly and enthusiastically belting out “There ain’t a thing wrong with any man here, that can’t be cured by putting him near, a girly, womanly, female, feminine dame.”
My mother had a meltdown at the party after the performance. “Why did they cast you as a sailor? Why were you the only child who didn’t have a solo line? What is wrong with you? Why didn’t you say something? How could you embarrass me this way?” We left before I got a piece of cake.
It was true that I didn’t get to sing a solo, and it was true that I didn’t have any spoken lines. I wasn’t keeping track of who sang or spoke. All the class misfits were in the chorus. I was happy to be a Seabee and to be singing the truth.