Do you remember odd things from your past?
I was eighteen years old, draft eligible, just out of high school, very patriotic and religious, back when those two things were separate but equal. The singing group I traveled with was back in town for our one weekend off that summer. Our manager had scheduled us to do three songs in a patriotic observance at the local high school football field.
He did so without telling us. We were a religious singing group. We had no patriotic songs ready.
He said, “You have a whole day to practice. Do two gospel songs and one patriotic. You’ll be fine. This will be good exposure for the group.”
And, he was holding the check book when he said all this to us.
So, the singing group learned a patriotic song and off we went. Or, I should say, on we went.
Our singers and players did a short set between a country singer and a western quartet. We were quite literally the chair folding act between the two, a young “act” between two locally well known acts with their own following. People were changing the set behind us, around us, sometimes in front of us, while our singers belted out two gospel songs and “America the Beautiful.”
The audience went for concessions or a potty break while our group sang its short set, on and off, no talking, just sing three songs and unplug your guitar.
We were outdoors on the field where I played high school football in the little town of Joshua, Texas.
Okay, I did not actually play football. I stood on the sideline, quietly, watching a pretty good, undersized bunch of kids play their hearts out every Friday night. I had a uniform, helmet and all, a mind of good intentions and a withered right arm from a summer stupidity injury. I played (ok, I stood and sighed deeply) for a good man named Andy Anderson who was too kind to cut me and too smart to play me.
So, I was back where I had stood before, standing yet again, thoroughly divorced from the high school graduation exercise held two months ago in the same space, mindful of my instructions and tired out of my mind. Nine straight weeks on the road sounds romantic when you say it but try driving all night every fifth night and doing your “gig” for four nights, complete with the set up and tear down, in small venues with iffy acoustics and smelly clothes.
Oh, how I miss those days.
We finished our set, unplugged the guitars and made our way off the flat bottom trailer-set. The night was thick with heat and humidity, no breeze, mid-summer in Texas before global warming but hot, thick with moisture and even thicker with the rednecks who made the country great before we found out, to our surprise, we were not a great country and rednecks were not good people.
Imagine our chagrin.
Our lead guitarist (Quick Joke: How do you get a lead guitarist to stop playing? Show him the sheet music.) who had been without his girlfriend for eight weeks, wanted to go faster than the rest of us. He unplugged his Wilson before the patriotic song ended and was half way off the trailer-stage when the western quartet was coming on from the other side of the cotton hauler.
He would later marry the girl friend, who would divorce him after a few years, throwing him into a paroxysm of grief, which lasted for years, until finally he “found the strength to go on” and wrote a book about his experiences, titled “The Strength to Go On,” which almost no one read, except her mother and her mother’s lawyer who objected to his characterizations of her as a “cheap, hateful woman who vowed to love him and broke her word.”
The lawyer also objected to some other things he said but that is another story for another day.
On his way off, the young man knocked over the chairs the western quarter would take to while the announcer announced and when the tenor sang his solo set. They had some three part stuff, too, and needed a place to sit and grab a smoke. theirs being a long set and nicotine addiction being what it is.
Of course, he knocked over the chairs, carefully set by young men who wanted to tell their girls they were road managers for a well loved local western quartet. They would sigh wearily, set their eyes in a world weary dim that suggests long trips they had never taken, dark nights on a road they had never seen, smoky bars where they never drank and say, “Yeah, you know, it’s hard, but when someone really turns on to the music, well, you know…” and let their voices trail off in the smoke ring the girl blew from the cigarettes they gave them.
Our guy knocked over the chairs. They fell the five feet from the back of the cotton trailer, hit the bare grass field and settled there as happy as if they were still in the public eye, chairs being inanimate objects and all. I thought it was rude to just kick the chairs off the platform and, with nothing else to do, I walked around to the back of the trailer, distinguishable from the front by the fact it was facing the empty part of the stadium and picked up one of the chairs.
I planned to lift it up to the trailer and let the wistful young man realize all his works had gone to nothing. When I hefted the first one up, it was taken by the third member of locally-famous western quarter. His name was Neal, I found out later, and he was a mechanic in real life. God just gave him a nice baritone kind of voice and an ear to hear the harmonies, which, my wife says, you either have or you do not, and she always adds, I do not have but she does, which is just one of the ways she is better than me, along with the whole gestation of life thing and longer life span, and Neal was known to work on old ladies cars for free, along with being the third voice for a locally famous western quartet.
Neal took the chair from my skinny hands with his thick hands, complete with oil stained nails and the scars from a thousand nicks and dings from when the wrench slipped or the jack did not hold.
Neal had hair like Elvis. You know, that Elvis, with the hair, and, if you don’t know that Elvis, with the hair, there is no one like him these days, so you are just the poorer.
Neal had the mutton chop sideburns, thick, black hair on top, styled up and thrown back from the crown, wings on the side and a mighty duck tail where it met in the back, all carefully presented but appearing completely natural.
He took the chair from my trembly hands, piled it up on the trailer, looked down and with the most genuine of smiles, simply said, “Thanks, son.”
And, for a moment, I felt like I was his son.
He took the other chairs from me, one at a time, and I left.
And, forty one years later, I still remember the kind man with the Elvis hair who over thanked me for handing him a chair.
But I didn’t like their music and left pretty soon. After all, I was tired.