Robert Francis: The 20-Year-Old Smile

Bob Thiele and Louis Armstrong (Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum)

Burleson – March 2, 2021

It was a bright late-winter day when I pulled into a parking lot at a Burleson middle school. I looked for a parking place. There were plenty but I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I parked once, then realizing I was actually far, far away, I moved a bit closer and got out of my car.

A man in a golf cart pulled up next to me. “Want a ride?” he asked. He looked like a typical Burleson retiree. I didn’t answer; I hadn’t realized rides were available. This wasn’t Six Flags. This was serious business.

“I’ve got to drive up to the door anyway,” he said to tempt me further.

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Sure, I said, as I hopped aboard.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he said, “but still, why walk when you can ride?”

I agreed.

“Besides, if I don’t have business, they might not need me and then what do I do? Go home and do my honey dos?,” he said.

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“You don’t want that,” I said.

“No, no, no, don’t want that.” He chuckle-laughed. It was a too-unfamiliar feeling.

Small talk. A casual conversation with a stranger. Did I really miss getting on an elevator and talking about the weather? Apparently. I couldn’t really remember the last time it happened. It had been, to quote a song from Fort Worth’s Stephen Bruton, quite a trip around the sun.

Dec. 31, 2019. From the World Health Organization:

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The WHO China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. By Jan 3, 2020, a total of 44 patients with an unknown pneumonia have been reported to WHO. Of the 44 cases reported, 11 are severely ill, while the remaining 33 patients are in stable condition. According to later media reports, the concerned market in Wuhan was closed on Jan. 1, 2020, for environmental sanitation and disinfection.

Some patients had been operating as dealers or vendors in the Huanan Seafood Market. Based on the preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team, no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and no health care worker infections have been reported.

WHO requests further information from national authorities to assess the risk.

Las Vegas – 1967

At the age of 66, jazz giant Louis Armstrong had just signed a new recording contract. Hits had been few and far between in recent years. This was the heyday of the Beatles, Stones, Herman’s Hermits and Strawberry Alarm Clock. Still, the one-time kid from a New Orleans orphanage had knocked the Fab Four off the charts in 1964 with his exuberant version of Hello, Dolly! Yep, the legend, who had turned American music on its head way back in the days of the Great Depression with West End Blues and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, still had a few syncopated tricks behind that effervescent smile.

Now, newly signed with ABC Records, Armstrong was playing a series of gigs at Las Vegas’ Tropicana Hotel. They set up a recording session after his show, for midnight, at Bill Porter’s United Studios. No matter how legendary you are, a gig is a gig.

Washington State – Jan. 21, 2020

A Washington state resident, having returned from Wuhan on Jan. 15, becomes the first person in the United States with a confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

China – Jan. 21, 2020

The 2019 novel coronavirus has killed 4 and infected more than 200 in China. The WHO mission to China issued a statement saying that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but more investigation was needed to understand the full extent of transmission.

Fort Worth – 2003

I was in my loose-end years. The economic downturn of 1999 had left me – a technology business reporter – without a mooring. I was freelancing. To make ends nearly meet, I was playing piano or keyboards at the occasional gig. I could be playing Floyd Cramer licks under a neon Budweiser sign at a country bar at night and chording out Amazing Grace under a cross on Sunday morning. A gig is a gig.

Berlin – 2018

Dr. Ugur Sahin tells a room of infectious disease experts that BioNTech, the company he founded with his wife, Dr. Ozlem  Türeci, might be able to use its messenger RNA technology to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic. The company had yet to bring a product to market.

Las Vegas – 1967

At the recording session were record producer Bob Thiele, who had produced and issued recordings by jazz greats like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and others, and songwriter George David Weiss. Thiele and Weiss had a song they had written they wanted Armstrong to record. Some say they had pitched the song to Tony Bennett, but he had turned them down. Also at the session was another producer, Artie Butler, who had suggested Weiss and Thiele pitch the tune to Armstrong. Armstrong had agreed. The song was unusual for 1967 when counter-culture songs like Incense and Peppermints and Whiter Shade of Pale were topping the charts. For one thing, it was a ballad and, musically, it was unusual as it was written in 12/8 time, rare for a hit, though it worked for Unchained Melody.

Burleson – March 2, 2021

The Burleson retiree stopped the golf cart and pointed at stairs leading up to a porch. “Go in that door and turn left. Then you’ll see a line and they’ll call you,” he said. “You got your QR code?” he asked. I said yes, thanked him and did as I was told. A group of first responders stood at the top of the stairs talking shop. They must have been there  awhile, as they shifted their weight several times. They seemed calm. Life as usual. Yet, here we were, working together to end a pandemic that had taken more U.S. lives than World War II. For them, it had become another day at work. My father told me stories of World War II all his life. What will these first-responders tell their children one day?

Jan. 30, 2020 – From the World Health Organization:

WHO situation report – 7,818 total confirmed cases worldwide, with the majority of these in China, and 82 cases reported in 18 countries outside China. WHO gave a risk assessment of very high for China, and high at the global level.

Fort Worth – 2003

I started playing some regularly with a trumpet player I had known for years. We played a few times at the Fort Worth Club. Ira at some point in his life made the brave decision to be a professional musician. He played everything and everywhere, from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz bands to Sunday morning worship services to senior living centers. The senior living centers often had nice pianos, he said. If I wanted to join him on one of those gigs, I could. Sure, give me a call. A gig is a gig.

China – Jan. 21, 2020

Researchers in China publish a draft genome of the newly discovered coronavirus.

“Potentially really important moment in global public health – must be celebrated, everyone involved in Wuhan, in China & beyond acknowledged, thanked & get all the credit,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust in London, wrote in a tweet. “Sharing of data good for public health, great for those who did the work. Just needs those incentives & trust.”

Jan. 23, 2020 – From the World Health Organization:

In just 2 days, 13 more people died and an additional 300 were sickened in Wuhan. China makes the unprecedented move to not only close off Wuhan and its population of 11 million, but to also place a restricted access protocol on Huanggang, 30 miles to the east, where residents can’t leave without special permission. This means up to 18 million people are under strict lockdown.

Mainz, Germany – January 2020

Dr. Sahin of BioNTech reads an article in the medical journal The Lancet about the coronavirus spreading quickly in parts of China. Vacations canceled; the company sets to work on what they call Project Lightspeed.

Burleson – March 2, 2021

How had I arrived in Burleson on March 2? After signing up with every county and health system I could think of within driving distance, I happened to see a tweet from the City of Burleson touting their Drive-Thru Vaccinations on March 6. I clicked on the link just to check and there was an offer to sign up for a vaccination.

Even though I’m in the news business, I didn’t know Burleson had a vaccination site, so I signed up. I had done this before. One of the health system websites where I had registered had been sending me a daily email about vaccinations. After I recovered my password, which I probably changed 10 times if I changed it once, I would jump through all the HIPPA hoops to finally reach a message that said: “Sorry. No appointments available. We’ll contact you when there is an opening.” That repeated for several days.

But I signed up on the City of Burleson site and what do you know? Burleson had a slot available for me the next day. I had to take a photo of a QR code and bring that to the appointment. I did, but I was a bit suspicious. Was this some elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like pandemic snipe hunt?

Las Vegas – 1967

There was one person who wasn’t very excited about the song. Unfortunately, that person was ABC Records President Larry Newton. He had also come to Las Vegas to meet with Armstrong. Newton wanted something up-tempo, like Armstrong’s previous hit, Hello, Dolly! A slow-tempo ballad? He wasn’t having it. It got heated, Newton tried to stop the session. The musicians, songwriters and producers did what anyone would do when their boss asked them to do something. They proceeded with their session, locking their boss out of the studio. Newton screamed at them as they set about recording the ballad. Truly, the song is pretty sentimental. But Armstrong, with his gravelly vocals – due to a prolonged stint playing jazz in the cold on a steamboat in the ’20s – gives it the gravitas and heft needed to propel the song to another level.

Melbourne, Australia – Jan. 29, 2020

Scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity announce they were able to grow the Wuhan coronavirus from a patient sample in the laboratory. This was the first time the virus had been grown in a lab outside China. This means testing – and potentially work on a vaccine – can begin.

Fort Worth – 2003

Ira asked me if I could play at a senior living facility with him. Sure, I said, as he gave me the details. He made sure to let me know that sometimes we would just be sonic wallpaper. We went over a few tunes to play. Some big band tunes, some pop music and a few ballads. I had played most of the list, but there was one I hadn’t played before. “Give it a try, it seems pretty popular with this crowd,” said Ira, the voice of experience at this kind of gig.

China and United States – February 2020

China’s COVID-19 deaths exceed those of the SARS crisis, which totaled 774 deaths in 2003. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the CDC says COVID-19 meets two of the three required factors for a pandemic: illness resulting in death and sustained person-to-person spread.

Las Vegas – 1967

A record company president screaming outside a recording studio, a Union Pacific freight train roaring by near the studio, blowing its horn. Armstrong laughed it off. Like his music, Armstrong’s good humor was contagious and the musicians continued on.

 Burleson – March 2, 2021

The line was short. It seemed too good to be true, unlike the earlier stories of long lines, extended wait times and haphazard, frustrating disorganization. This was faster and more organized than a Chick-fil-A line so far. Score one for the government. Several people sat behind laptops checking people in. I was called forward and a male paramedic stepped in front of me to say something to the young woman who had called me forward. I felt like he was going to turn around and say, “Sorry, this site is closed.” But he didn’t. He was just flirting. Life goes on, pandemic or no. The grinning paramedic, who had obviously just said the funniest thing in the world to the woman at the desk, moved on. The woman checked me in on her computer and handed me a piece of paper. “Now, we’ll contact you …” Immediately, I thought she was going to say, “We’ll contact you when you can come get your vaccination” and this really was some COVID vaccine snipe hunt.  But no, she said they would reach out when it was time for my second shot of the miraculous, life-saving vaccine. She pointed me down a corridor and told me to go the gym where I would be given “the jab.”

March 11, 2020

The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.

Fort Worth – 2003

I arrived early at the senior living facility. Since I had never done one of these gigs, I wanted to check it out. I walked out to the common area where there was a nice-looking Yamaha piano. There were a few people already there, some sitting in chairs, some in wheelchairs and a few family members with them. The woman in charge of social events welcomed me and said they were excited we were there. I went over to the piano and hit the A note below middle C. I was excited. It sounded in tune. It would all be up to me to make it sound good. No excuses.

Texas – March 13, 2020

Gov. Greg Abbott declares that the new coronavirus is a statewide public health disaster. .

United States – March 30, 2020

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) begins “Operation Warp Speed,” in an attempt to expedite a COVID-19 vaccine. HHS de-risks the typical vaccine development process by guaranteeing the manufacture of any successful vaccine candidates and also purchasing allotments of the vaccines prior to knowing whether any of the funded companies would be successful.

Germany – March 2020

BioNTech and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who have been working together on flu vaccine since 2018, agree to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.

Las Vegas – 1967

Trains, screaming record company presidents be damned – Armstrong and the musicians finished the session around 6 a.m. Since it ran long, the musicians were due extra pay. The man who had liberated American music from the shackles of European musical monarchy accepted the basic scale of $250 to make sure orchestra members got paid. Yep, a gig is a gig even when you’re a damned legend.

Mid-summer 2020

Moderna and Pfizer establish themselves as the leaders in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The results are more than promising.

Burleson – March 2, 2021

A ramp has been constructed down to the gym floor. Again, there is no wait. From the top of the ramp, I observe about 15 stations where people are being given vaccinations. Each station has two people, one to check you in and one to give “the jab.” I am directed to station 6 where four arms are waving to me, like passengers in a lifeboat. Only, I am the one in distress, not them.

My wardrobe choice is shot-friendly, a T-shirt with wide sleeves that can easily be rolled up for maximum access. A woman checks me in, asks a few questions about allergies, my preferred arm of choice and whether I know my own name. I sit down. Seconds later, before I am even comfortable in the chair, the nurse says, “We’re done.” I felt nothing from the shot. But I do feel some barely perceptible tension release from my body. It surprises me. The reaction is from me, not from the injection.

The woman instructs me to sit in one of the chairs on the gym floor for 10 minutes in case there are any adverse reactions. The gym clock is one of those big lighted scoreboard clocks that looks like it came from my school days in the 1960s. It makes it easy to watch the time.

I sit and immediately feel more relief wash over me, like a giant weight has been lifted. I wonder how long I carried that weight. Since this pandemic began a year ago? I remember going to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon just after this all started and getting tense when people reached out to shake hands. Force of habit, I couldn’t stop shaking hands either. It was ingrained.

I didn’t realize I had kept all this pent-up tension, but it was there. Once I received “the jab,” I felt a palpable sense of relaxation throughout my body, like deep breathing at the end of an aerobics workout.

My mind inevitably goes back to another big vaccination event in my life. I was six or seven going to get the polio vaccine at Rosemont Junior High. I didn’t really understand it. But it was in a sugar cube, easy enough. I wondered if my parents, who had experience with people who had lived through or with polio, breathed a sigh of relief after I downed that sugar cube at Rosemont Junior High in 1961. I didn’t, I probably just said sure, I’ll take two.

I then wondered about my grandparents, who had lived through the 1918 flu pandemic. They never talked about it. No one talked about it. It’s like a giant vacant spot in history. There was no vaccine then, scarcely many good ideas how to combat it except our old friends masks and social distancing, which worked. We argued like hell about it back then, too. I hate that George Santayana’s well-worn line about “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it” is so damned apt.

My grandmother did tell me once of nursing her sister through a severe illness, feeding her crackers to keep her strength up. I always wondered if that was the 1918 flu. But there were no easy answers then, no way to feel that sense of relief I felt so vividly until that whole damnable nightmare was over and the living were living and the dead were dead. Let the counting begin.  

United States – 1968

ABC Records President Larry Newton – you know, the guy they locked out of the studio – wasn’t done. The record was barely released in the U.S. but it did get distributed in England by ABC Records’ partner EMI. It became the top-selling UK single that year.

Newton gave it no promotion. Besides, the year was a mess. Assassinations, riots, turmoil. Who wants a ballad? Armstrong felt like the song needed to be heard, saying in a spoken word introduction to the song:

“Some of you young folks been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?’ But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other we’d solve lots more problems.”

But Armstrong was used to taking it from all sides. He became a superstar, but he was often accused in the late ’60s of not speaking up enough on civil rights. Those late ’60s protesters didn’t remember that Armstrong did speak out, during the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the ’50s. By then an unofficial ambassador for the country for the U.S. State Department, Armstrong was taken to task by government officials as well as segregationists. Despite the accolades, awards and medals, Armstrong – friend to kings, presidents and paupers alike –  could probably tell you as well as anyone how being true to yourself can be a bitch.

Washington, D.C. – Dec. 11, 2020

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. It is a record time for a vaccine development. Pfizer activates its U.S. and European manufacturing network, including thousands of highly skilled U.S. workers in multiple states and localities, to prepare to produce the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on current projections the company plans to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

Fort Worth – 2003

Ira and I play through our standard repertoire, Autumn Leaves, Summertime, Take the A Train, among others. We throw in a few new – but old – ones we haven’t played together before. We get a good reaction. A woman on a walker comes over and asks us to play a song again. It’s her favorite she says. Her son is with her and I ask what it is called. He doesn’t know. She doesn’t either, only that it is her favorite. So, Ira and I play through our repertoire again. Finally, we hit on the right song. How can we tell? The woman in the walker smiles so big it would do Louis Armstrong proud. The son gives us a thumbs up. Who needs words when you have music to communicate? It is universal, the language of the heart.

New York – Dec. 14, 2020

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse from Northwell Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, is vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, becoming the first person in the country to be inoculated against COVID-19.

Corona, New York – July 6, 1971

Louis Armstrong dies of a heart attack. He is 69.

Hollywood – 1987

Choosing music for his film set in 1968, Good Morning, Vietnam, director Barry Levinson pulls out Armstrong’s almost forgotten song. The nearly 20-year-old recording reaches No. 32 on the Billboard charts and the song becomes a standard.

Burleson – March 2, 2021

As I sit in the gym watching the giant clock, I look around at those around me. Most seem fairly young. I wonder why. The ramp to get to the gym floor was sort of steep, probably too steep for those with walkers and wheelchairs, but they are, after all, the target audience for this vaccine. The giant gym clock tells me my 10 minutes are up, so I head up the stairs to the exit.

As I get to the top of the stairs, I hear a laugh and look to my right. There are all the people with walkers and wheelchairs, receiving their vaccine, where they don’t have to deal with the ramp. A nurse is laughing while a woman with a walker has a broad smile. Some moment has passed between them and it hits me. I start to tear up and I have to search my mind to figure out why.

Suddenly I’m back at that senior center 20 years earlier, playing the piano and seeing that smile on the woman’s face as we play her favorite song. I can’t help but sing to myself as I head out of the building to catch a ride with my friend in the golf cart: “And I think to myself, What a Wonderful World.”