Singing the praises of men and women who fought the good fight A song moves the frail to tears, and to their feet WAR IN THE GULF

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 10, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Gerrie Highto ends the evening by unintentionally moving the world.

"In honor of our boys coming home from the Persian Gulf," she says simply, "we want to sing 'God Bless America.' "

She is standing in this big room on Belvedere Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, at the Concord House residential center for the elderly, looking out at maybe 200 people who have come to hear her Covenant Guild choral group perform.

The audience is beautiful. They're sitting there, many of them, in wheelchairs. Lots more have walkers and canes, and they're bundled in sweaters and housedresses. Some are around 90, and one lady has been playing an imaginary piano all evening in sync with the singers. And they've been listening to old Yiddish songs and Broadway tunes and humming along and cheering warmly.

And now Gerrie Highto turns her back to the crowd, and she gives a signal to her 24 singers, and they begin to burst with the familiar words:

God bless America,

Land that I love.

Stand beside her

And guide her

Through the night

With the light from above . . .

At first she can't figure out what's happening. She notices one of her singers has tears coming out of her eyes. Then she sees another and another beginning to cry, and some are stifling sobs, and she thinks, "What is going on here?"

From the mountains

To the prairies

To the oceans

White with foam . . .

Now she begins hearing noises behind her, chairs scraping, the little tinkling of things moving about. And just as her singers get to the words God bless America, she turns around and sees a little miracle happening in front of her eyes.

People are climbing out of their wheelchairs, and some are getting out of their seats by gripping their walkers, and they're holding onto each other as they clamber to their feet.

Now their ancient voices are rising in song, and a lot of the men are holding up their hands in salute. Many are clutching each other for support as they stand there. And behind her now, Gerrie Highto notices something new.

She can barely hear the voices of her own singers. Most of them are sobbing too loudly to get words out now, caught up not only in the sweetlyrics at this moment of the closing of the war, but in the sight in front of them, all of these frail and elderly souls struggling to their feet to sing a song about their country.

And now the whole room is filled with voices singing, and with sobbing, too, and when it ends a few moments later the Covenant Guild singers start to rush out of the room. They want to compose themselves, they want to dry their eyes. But they can't get away. The audience is grabbing them, and they're hugging them, and they're kissing their hands.

"A magic carpet ride," Gerrie Highto says last week, a few days after the performance. "We've sung 'God Bless America' before. You always get reaction, but sometimes you wonder if some people think it's corny. But there's never been a reaction like this."

Covenant Guild is a service and philanthropic organization of about 500 local Jewish women. They've raised money for the oncology department at Sinai Hospital and the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital and the Kennedy Institute and for buses for senior citizens at the Jewish Community Center. In all, they've supported about 500 charities.

Also, they perform. Once a week, the choral and entertainment group rehearses, and then they sing before local groups, and any money they raise goes to help more charities.

"But I've never seen anything like this," Highto says. "It came with standing up and crawling up out of everything and tears and holding onto each other. You know, most of the women in my singing group are grandmothers, and they're standing there crying hysterically.

"The more people stood, the more they sobbed. And the singing is coming out so meekly because the sobbing is so hysterical. And everybody's standing, even if they were holding onto somebody. Then we rushed out, but you could have swum out from the tears.

"It was a sight to behold. Not just the elderly standing and saluting, but the empty wheelchairs sitting around, the empty walkers sitting there, and my girls sobbing."

It's a kind of microcosm of the country. In the wake of victory in the Persian Gulf, everybody heaves a sigh of relief. More than a decade after Vietnam, it's OK to feel good about ourselves again.

"If anything came out of the war," Gerrie Highto says, "it's patriotism, a togetherness of all people. I don't care who, black or white, Jewish or gentile, it's a feeling of oneness and of being proud, and of God bless America."

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