Tuesday, April 23, 2013



Kill the Bass Drummer

I want to start this piece by saying that I have a great deal of respect for those men and women who have served, or are serving our country in the military. My grandfather fought in France and Germany during World War 1, my father on Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal in World War Two. My wife, the coveted Laura, recently spent over four years in Afghanistan. I, myself, spent a full day and a half in the United States Air Force. I certainly appreciate those who have given even more than their lives, who have had their minds disrupted, deleted, or even destroyed because of the horrors of war.

At age fourteen, I took employment as bass clarinetist with the Elk’s Band, a group of fine concert musicians who played in various locations around central Illinois and west central Indiana. Our repertoire consisted of classical pieces, the occasional show tune, and patriotic numbers by John Phillip Sousa and his ilk. One fine Sunday all forty-two of us climbed aboard the bus and headed for Danville, Illinois, to play a concert at the VA hospital. The director rose to his feet as we neared our destination, and cautioned us about the upcoming venue.

“We’ll park at the back of the auditorium,” he said. “Go directly inside. Do not look around, do not leave the group, do not talk with any of the inmates.”

Inmates?” I thought.

“I’ll pass out playlist when we get set up. The program will be very docile. When its over, pack up and get back on the bus as soon as possible. If there is any trouble, stay together. There’s safety in numbers.”

Safety in numbers?” I wondered.

I was sitting next to the bassoonist, long a member of the band, who explained that this particular Veteran’s hospital housed men who had, for whatever reason, lost their mental stability while in the service of their country. The Elk’s band had not played there in over eight years. The last time they had played there the director had called for some Sousa after his first two rather placid selections failed to elicit applause from the five or six hundred onlookers. When Stars and Stripes Forever lumbered into the section where the trombones come on strong descending down the scale, an overly excited worthy in the fifth or sixth row, moved by the stirring performance, leapt to his feet.

“Kill the bass drummer!” he shouted, and charged the stage.

A large number of his compatriots, equally moved by the music, buoyed by his fearless assault on superior numbers, took up the cause and joined in the rush. Cries of “Over the top, boys!” and “You wanna live forever?” filled the air. Dozens of veterans of the first and second world wars and Korea, attacked the musicians. The band, with most of their clothes, some of their instruments, and none of their dignity in tact, made it out the back door to the waiting bus. Injuries were minor, but the band refused to come back for eight years.

We played the concert. An hour and twenty minutes of things like “Sheep May Safely Graze and Pasture,” a truly boring experience. The audience never moved or reacted in any way. Back on the bus and out of danger, a Dixieland jam broke out, and we boogied all the way home.

Four years later a college professor I had a huge amount of respect for told me he believed it was in my best interest to leave higher education before I learned how not to think. I took him at his word and dropped out of college. Certain members of my family took exception to my escape, and pressured me heavily to return to the halls of higher learning as soon as possible. I enlisted in Danville Junior College. The year before, Danville Junior College had installed its campus on the grounds of the same Veteran’s hospital where sheep could safely graze and pasture. So could the students, the college propaganda said. The more troublesome inmates of the institution (veteran, not student) had either died off, or had been transferred to other locations. The population was down to about eight hundred patients, only outnumbering the seekers of education by about twenty percent.

I went to Danville Junior College for a while, passing through the large iron gate, locked and heavily guarded after sundown, off limits to the vets during the day, moving through the depressing stone buildings, going to class with students who felt and sometimes acted, like prisoners. It was not a happy place. A friend there, Jerry Bailey, decided once that since the mental patients out numbered the rest of us, if majority rule was in effect, we were the ones who were insane the minute we stepped on campus. As time went on, I became convinced he was right.

One afternoon, Bailey, me, and two other misfits were walking down the long sweeping drive to the front gate, two abreast, and just naturally fell into step. Down the road we marched for nearly a quarter mile. When we reached the gate and stopped, we noticed nearly a hundred of the vets were right behind us, in a column of twos. They also had fallen into step, increasing in numbers as they followed us to the street. There was no guard, the gate was open, freedom beckoned. Three of us freaked. Bailey, some years my senior and a Viet Nam veteran, remained calm. He looked over the column quietly.

“Ten-hut!” he shouted. They snapped to.

“Ha-bout hace!” They turned.

“Howard-harch! Yo lef, yo lef!” The entire assemblage marched away, back up the drive.

Bailey looked at me. “Rank tells,” he grinned. “I was a corporal!”

On that day, in that place, with that company, the boy was a full-bird Colonel.