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How to be human – and happy about it

Remembering Casper Vecchione, singer, trucker and lover of life

Dan Rodricks

6:59 PM EST, January 28, 2013

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I beg the reader's indulgence as I savor a memory of something that lasted for only about 10 minutes on a summer day 17 years ago — an encounter with a stranger on a bridge in Baltimore County. It was one of those remarkable moments in which something like the secret to happiness appears.

That sounds grandiose, but I think you know what I mean about moments like that. They're strange, beautiful epiphanies. Something happens — in the blink of an eye, in an act of kindness, in the sound of music — that answers some question you've had about what it means not only to be human but to be happy about it.

It was 1996, and I was having one of my blue days — depressed or overworked or bothered by something. I had to get away from the grind so I decided to go fishing in the Gunpowder River, in the Monkton area. "Cheaper than going to a shrink," a fishing companion used to say.

I parked my car and hiked to the bridge over the river near Corbett Road. I didn't feel like fishing right away. So I stood there, fishing rod at rest, and watched the river flow.

I turned to see a silver car approach the bridge. A large man in a polo shirt was at the wheel. I took him to be in his late 60s; he was handsome, in some aging movie star way.

Our eyes met. He stopped the car and got out, a big barrel-chested man with wavy white hair and a sense of playfulness about him. He stepped toward me and pointed.

"You're Sicilian, aren't you?" he declared, in a big, boom-box of a voice.

I didn't know what to say, except, "No," and that my mother's people were from the Naples area of Italy. My father was from Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco.

Good enough, the man said: Naples wasn't all that far from Sicily, and Sicily and Madeira were latitudinal cousins, and both islands.

Once the man was satisfied that we were somehow kindred, he shared some personal information — and all in the space of the next 60 seconds.

He told me that he was from Sicily, that he'd been a union truck driver, that he was an exceptional cook who made great spaghetti and meatballs, that he taught singing — cantors were among his students — and that he loved opera, and that he had quite a set of pipes, and would I like to hear him sing?

He didn't wait for the answer.

This big, jolly man gathered his breath, spread his arms, closed his eyes and, there on the bridge on a summer day, started singing — to me, to the sky, to the trees, to the sun.

He sang in French, and I think it was the baritone part from "Au Fond du Temple Saint," from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

Then he switched to Italian, but I'm not quite sure what he sang. I might have challenged him to sing "Non Piu Andrai," which is the bass aria from the end of the first act of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

But whatever it was that he sang, it was gorgeous — and delivered with theatrical passion.

Ladies and gents, this was no singing-in-the-shower voice.

This was a professional voice, highly skilled, with flashes of bravura.

My God, we're standing on a bridge over the Gunpowder River and here's this man with a rich baritone voice singing to a stranger out of pure and utter joy, as if his heart would burst otherwise.

It seemed to me that nothing in the world could ruin this man's day, and that he knew the answer to life's inevitable blues lurked in some deep place in the soul. Find that thing that makes you happy and never let go. Find that thing, and use it every day.

"If you don't use it, you'll lose it," he'd say of his singing voice.

This man turned out to be Casper Vecchione, something of a legend among serious singers and students, known for his big voice and big personality, a Renaissance man who drove a truck.

I just learned that he died last fall at 92.

"He was an opera singer and loved to sing for anyone, at any place and at any time," his stepson, Dave Moore, told me Monday. "He was quite a character."

There is a lot more to tell about the long life of Vecchione — Sicilian immigrant, son of a bootlegger, Peabody Conservatory student, veteran of World War II and POW — and his family will remember him at a service on Friday.

I thank Vecchione for singing the blues away on that summer day, and for teaching me something about how to be human and happy about it.

drodricks@baltsun.com