Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Closer

Music connects us to memories.  Just a few notes on the radio can take us back to a place and time, bringing with it a flood of memories and emotions.  There are lots of tunes that do that to me, I can be taken back to preteen days, high school, my Navy days, my wedding and so on.  Sometimes there are very strong emotions, sometimes just a smile or mild discomfort.  This is about the one musical trigger that is the strongest in my life.

When I was ten years old, my parents pushed me into the drum corps world.  They thought it would be a good experience for me and also keep me “off the streets”.  I struggled trying to learn to read music, something I still can’t do, but when the instructors at the St. Brendan Cadets found out I was much better at marching than I was at 2nd soprano bugle, I moved up from a new kid in training mode to a marching member of the corps, even though I was told to avoid trying to play my horn during competitions.  During the summer of ’62, I marched in competitions every weekend all over the tri-state area.  It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had and for more than 50 years, drum corps moves me more than any other form of entertainment.  Let’s say the connection is strong.

At the end of the year, I dropped out of the activity, largely because I hadn’t mastered sheet music and hadn’t really learned to play.  My two brothers were later able to keep learning and polishing their musical skills, and today they both are very accomplished musicians.  My sister makes music with the language and like me, is connected to music mainly through the ears.

Junior drum corps, where you may march in competition until the last season that you can finish before turning 21, formed Drum Corps International in 1972.  DCI in its early years convinced PBS to televise their annual Championship competition and I used to tape it every year.  I would then transfer the music to a cassette and loved to listen to it in the car.  After several years of TV broadcasts, DCI figured out that they could drastically cut their fan base by making it a pay-per-view event and then selling DVDs and MP3s, so I wore out a few of those cassettes.  Enough background.

Shortly after our son was born in 1976, in a what-were-we-thinking moment, we got a puppy.  He was a black and gray Benji type and had a great disposition.  He became the best dog I’ve ever owned and set an unrealistic standard that our only dog since had no chance of coming close to.  We named him Scooter.

Almost everybody thinks their dog is smart, or the cutest or well-behaved.  Scooter was cute as hell, he would understand commands and do what he was told for an incredible range of things I told him to do.  My tone or my exact words didn’t matter, he seemed to actually understand.  He was very affectionate and he and I had a very strong bond.  I would say “go lay down” and he would back up a few feet and lie down.  If I then said “in the kitchen” he would get up and trot into the kitchen.  He would obey if I combined the two and would fetch a named object.  I was proud of him.

He would wake from a nap and go sit at the front door about five minutes before I got home from work.  He would intently stare at the door, and start wagging his tail when my car was half a block away.  When I came in, he would wag his whole body, so excited to see me, and would loudly greet me with what sounded like “Hello”, at least as well as all of the YouTube videos you’ve seen.  He sensed your mood so well that if you glanced at him, he would either come running or stay put, as appropriate.  Rare in my life.

When he and our son were teenagers, he got sick and lethargic.  Scooter stopped eating and after about a week, he went to the vet.  Nothing specific was identified and we went home with instructions to wait and see,  He got better.  He started eating again and had more energy – it didn’t last but a few weeks.  I remember the day that I came home from work, and when I opened the front door it hit him.   He didn’t move and Helen, who was standing at the top of stairs simply said “he can’t get up” with as much pained emotion as anyone is capable of.  I picked him up and rushed to the vet.  They would do some tests and try to find out what was wrong.

I was working in Basking Ridge at the time and Helen was working at the Andover A&P.  The vet called my office the next day and told me that they ran blood tests and took x-rays and that they had found a massive abdominal tumor.  It was inoperable and they recommended putting him down.  They needed one of us to come and sign a permission form.  I called Helen, and she was able to leave work and drive the two miles to the vet.  It was right after lunch as I recall and as much as I didn’t want to, I hung in there until 5 and then started the 30 mile ride home.

The tape that was in the dash of my truck was my direct-from-tv recording of the 1988 DCI championships.  That year was the only one where the order of appearance was not determined by previous scores.  Normally the corps with the highest preliminary scores would perform last; second place would perform next to last and so on.  This practice tended to ensure that the results would follow appearance order.  The judges would award scores “leaving room” for higher scores for the performances to come.  In 1988 they had a lottery for appearance order and the Madison Scouts, one of two remaining all-male corps and a BSA Explorer troop were to perform last.  They finished fifth in the semifinals, but had a very strong performance.  They went on to win the ‘88 championship, so DCI abandoned the lottery and went back to the old ways – still followed today.  Madison was what was playing when I turned on the player.

As I drove North on 206, my mind was racing.  I alternated between extreme sadness and worry for my son.  But when Madison began playing their closing number, I broke down, pulled over and began to cry.  There is a French horn solo a little after the 4-minute mark.  While this young man soulfully wailed away, I sobbed uncontrollably.

No single piece of music evokes more feeling in me than this one.  It will always mean Scooter.  I give you “Malaguena”.

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