Pittsburgh & Greenville, PA
Alive with the sound of music
In The Sound of Music, the hills were alive with the music, if you can call the towering Austrian Alps “hills.” Where Erla Cramer lived, in central Nebraska, there were no Alps, or even hills. But there was music to enliven the waves of grain and the fruited plain.
That’s where future soprano Erla Mae Cramer was born in 1923, in the small town of Giltner. And that’s where baritone John Maxwell won her heart with his singing.
John was born in Pittsburgh in 1920. His musical ability blossomed while he was still in Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. He was offered a music scholarship to Carnegie Tech, but his father, an immigrant from Ireland, wouldn’t hear of it.
“My dad was determined that I was going to have it better than he had,” John said. “He said there’s no money in music. You’re going to be an engineer. So I went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology to study engineering.”
He participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps and entered the army as a second lieutenant. He was assigned as base engineering officer to Harvard Army Air Base in Nebraska.
“My commander wanted to go to some of the local service clubs to explain the base’s mission,” John said. “The base organist and I accompanied him to provide some entertainment.”
At the Lions Club, a soprano named Erla Cramer was also on the program. Her father invited John to come to his home in Giltner, because he had equipment to make wax disc recordings. He said Erla would play accompaniment for him.
“When I arrived there,” John said, “she was having a date with her fiancé, who was shipping out the next day for overseas. He seemed to recognize the fact, even when we met, that this was his last time there.”
It was at Harvard Air Base that John first experienced the gruesome side of war. Erla and John were dancing at the Officers Club on the night the first B-17 arrived. It crashed on landing, and John had to leave the club to assist in the rescue effort.
“We ended up going out with plastic bags to pick up body parts,” John said.
In spite of this reality check, John applied for flight training.
“I had never flown in an airplane before,” he said. “I washed out. But I still wanted to fly, so I applied for navigation training.”
After completing his training, John was assigned to bomber duty with the 8th Air Force in England.
“While we were training, we won crew of the week awards two weeks in succession. That didn’t help. We were shot down on our first mission.”
Later, in prison camp, John wrote an abbreviated description of the frightening event: “Close bursts of flak under left wing & under radio room just after bombs away on target Berlin – radio op wounded in leg and arm. Waist gunner cut by shattered waist window. R/O not in pain, requests landing in France. Fire on L. wing noted. Code from ship on L.W. observed. Pilot warns crew to attach chutes. Fire spreads to averon. Pilots find ship losing control. Bail out order given. Nav. gives pos. “North of Hanover.” Spot jammer leaves by waist door, observes two men at w/window with chutes. Tail gunner did not answ. interphone. Warning bell sounded for bail-out no heard in nose. Eng. c-p, B, N bail out.”
John parachuted safely, but was immediately captured by the Germans.
“Luckily, at Peabody, I took German as a foreign language. That certainly helped me out. While we were traveling, They didn’t want anyone who could speak German to be asking questions for everybody, so they put me with one of the guards in a separate compartment. He, too, had been a musician, and he spoke good English. So we had quite a friendly chat.”
John ended up in Stalag Luft 1, on a peninsula north of Barth, Germany. He was confined for 40 days, along with about 9,000 other American and Allied prisoners – almost all officers. There was a shortage of food for both prisoners and guards, but the prisoners weren’t treated as badly as prisoners in other camps were. According to the Geneva Conventions, officers were not allowed to do physical labor. Their biggest challenge was to fight off boredom.
John spent his time drawing sketches of prison life in a notebook distributed to POWs by the Y.M.C.A.
“In every picture, I drew a part of myself in it. If I was lying in a bunk bed looking down at men eating their breakfast, I copied my hands drawing the picture, or if they were outside, and I was sitting, I drew my feet in it.”
He filled the notebook with poems, lists of various sorts (names, contents of Red Cross packages, uniform items), and recipes.
The Russian army arrived at the camp on May 1, 1945. The liberation was anything but orderly. The Russian commander ordered the prison commander to have the barbed wire fences torn down. The POWs tore them down enthusiastically. About 700 of the prisoners left the camp to make their way to the British lines. The war was still going on, and some of them were accidentally killed.
John wrote in his notebook that there was a great deal of confusion. “The Russians were drunk and running wild in Barth and shooting anyone on sight.”
The British and Russian armies met 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) from Barth. John wrote, “Germany reduced to such a state as to make war impossible for 1000’s of years. Everyone will soon be home, eating good.”
By May 15, the 8th Air Force evacuated the prisoners to England. Then it was on home to the USA.
“When we disembarked in New York,” John said, “they gave us theater tickets. I went to see Oklahoma with Alfred Drake. When I came out of that show, I was determined that some day I was going to play the role of Curly.”
Erla completed her music education degree at Columbia University, then started teaching at the College of the Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.. John got a job with Douglas Aircraft Company in California.
“John came to visit me in Nebraska for my birthday,” Erla said, “and that was when we got engaged. Then he went back to California and I went to Tacoma. At Christmas time we met in San Francisco where his aunt and uncle lived, and we spent New Year’s there. We didn’t get married until February.”
After they got married they moved back to Pittsburgh.
“I got hired at Blawknox Company,” John said. “They manufactured mills for rolling aluminum foil. After a year there I moved to United Engineering and Foundry, which later became Wean Industries. I started out there as a draftsman, and then I applied for my license as a professional engineer.”
John went into domestic sales for several years, then into international sales. His travels extended to a total of 475,000 miles, to such countries as Japan, India, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and Romania. Erla traveled with him whenever she could.
“We sold a huge plate mill to the Romanians, but it ended up being a disaster. Romania was a communist country. They were not able to operate the mill, so they stopped payment. They owed us $160 million. Our company went bankrupt on that account.”
John retired as a senior vice president in 1986.
So what happened to the music? Well, it was there all along.
“We both were professional singers,” Erla said, “so we did a lot of singing. We sang in churches, classical music programs, and theater.”
John’s dream of playing Curly was fulfilled about 1956. He and Erla joined the Glenshaw Players, which staged a production of Oklahoma.
“We spent 20 years with the Glenshaw players, and John did leading roles in almost 20 shows. I played one – Kate in Kiss Me, Kate – and I was music director for several shows.”
John performed the role of the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz, Emile de Becque in South Pacific, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and John Adams in 1776, as well as roles in Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, The Red Mill, and Amahl and the Night Visitors.
“I loved it, and we had a great time,” John said.
After John retired, he and Erla retired to a cottage in St. Paul Homes in Greenville. John became active in the Greenville Kiwanis Club and served as its president.
He also joined an exclusive group called the Caterpillar Club. It’s an informal organization whose name derives from the insect that spins the silk used in parachutes. To be a member, a person must have had his life saved by an emergency parachute jump.
During their years of working and singing, the Maxwells raised four children: Jane (born in 1948), Patricia (1951), Cathy (1954), and John III (1956).
Their gift of music passed through their children to their eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“Our kids never went into music seriously,” Erla said, “but we have a granddaughter who sings exceptionally well. She’s a good musician. She teaches music.”
So the Maxwell family is still doing more than their fair share to keep the hills, valleys, and plains alive with the sound of music for generations to come.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009