Our friend’s world ended in fire over the weekend.
Owen Goldsmith had been Tom’s friend since high school. He was his music teacher, but more, he was Tom’s music mentor.
Owen taught a rigorous music theory class, which Tom took when he was a sophomore. Music theory in high school is really unusual. For a final spring assignment, Owen asked members of the class to write something. When Tom came back with the beginnings of what he has called “a very bad imitation Mozart string quartet,” Owen said, “Well, this is okay, but I wanted you to write something of your own.”
In response, Tom wrote four Sketches for Woodwind Quartet. A year later, it was played at San Jose State University’s Festival of 20th Century Music, in a concert that also included pieces written by Ernst Toch, John Cage, Anton Webern, and Robert Palmer (who later became one of his teachers at Cornell). Tom was 15 when he wrote the piece, and 16 when it was performed. All because of Owen.
During Tom’s first year of college, a dorm fire took the lives of four students. Psalm 90 was read at their memorial. Tom was so moved by it, he set it to music and dedicated it to Owen and the Livermore High School a cappella choir, which was conducted by Owen. Their 1969 performance of it is flawless. College choirs have hesitated to take it on because it is too complicated.
And their performance is flawless. Listen to it here.
To say that we were blessed with the teachers we had in Livermore during the 60s doesn’t really do it justice. We were more than blessed.
Ed Brush. Art Duey. Claude Cameron. Judy Beery. Jack Beery. Ernie Dust. Roland Carlson. Bert Fraser.
To name just a few.
You know how you don’t teach people what to think, but to think? Well that’s what they did. And more.
There was a synergy to those years. They taught art, music, literature, history, math, and, science as living, breathing beings. I first read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in Bert Fraser’s English Honors class my senior year. I have returned to it often over the years, divining new meaning from it each time I read it.
When a group of us, high school and college students, formed a theater company called Auxiliary Players, they gave us their encouragement, came to the performances, participated in some.
One of our earliest performances included one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter. Three very depressing plays.
As he was walking out of the theater at the end of the performance Tom asked Owen what he thought. “I’m going to go home and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to cheer up,” he replied.
They let us fail. Acknowledged our failures. And we learned from them. Our next performance had much better rounded programming.
Tom and I stayed friends with Owen. He was part of out Thanksgivings, came to our wedding. We visited him in his home in Mountain Ranch where we sat on his deck and drank in the quiet beauty of the Sierra foothills. In his letters to us he wrote of the wildlife that visited his property. We talked to him often and called him every year on his birthday, October 8th.
Our most recent phone call with him was three or four weeks ago. It was clear that Owen was failing. He was having mobility problems. He was depressed, and his depression fogged his mind.
We worried when we heard that the Butte fire was heading his way. His family filed a missing persons report. Then yesterday we learned that his remains were found in the ruins of his home.
Owen would have been 83 this October. A phone call we will miss.
We will probably never know why he didn’t get out—why he didn’t evacuate. I personally think it was a conscious decision on his part not to leave. I don’t think he could have recovered from the devastating loss of his beloved home and the beauty that surrounded it. I suspect he had already died when the fire consumed him.
I have thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” since we started worrying and wondering about Owen. It’s a tribute to my high school teachers that I would turn to poetry and remember a specific poem at such a defining moment. It’s not so much it gives me solace, as it gives me a place to go when life becomes unfathomable.
Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.