Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Yesterday we said good-bye to José. I helped carry him to the sober vehicle in which he would make his last earthly journey.
It was fitting and proper that my being in Buenos Aires for this event should have come about as it did. It was the result of a journey, an unexpected one. Not the carefully planned thousand-mile trips that I usually organize for the three or so visits a year that I make from Patagonia to the Argentine capital. This one was spur-of-the-moment, as if there were some urgent calling that drove me to make it. Fitting and proper, I say, because what José and I mostly had in common were journeys and the call of the Patagonian wilds.
In this case, my wife was the voice of Destiny.
“Why don’t you book a flight to Buenos Aires?” she asked.
“What for?”
“Because you need it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re all uptight and finding fault with everything. That everything irritates you. You need to get away and relax.”
“Why don’t you go if you can’t stand being around me?” I growled.
“See what I mean?” she said.
She was right, of course. I’ve recently been going through treatment for the chronic arrhythmia that I’ve been living with for a decade. And I’m a terrible patient. I—like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets—hate pills (“I’m using the word hate here...about pills”) and like hospitals and going to the doctor even less (my record for not setting foot in a doctor’s office was the twenty-two years from 1978 to 2000...and I only went then because I had cut a tendon in my foot almost in two and realized I wasn’t going to be able to stick it back together with Loctite Super Glue). As in the case of that neurotic Nicholson character, however—and like it or not—pills, in this case, do me good, as do the trips to the cardiologist that I avoid for as long as possible and then take what he tells me with a grain of salt (“Oh, and about salt, Dan, lay off of it!”).
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or like no longer being able to be the hard-drinking, “indestructible” devil-may-care rascal I once was. And that makes me really irritable, because it makes me feel old.
So I made the arrangements—emailed a client who owed me money to see if I could go collect it and while I was there talk to him about an upcoming project, messaged a friend whose novel had just won a literary prize in Spain to see if he’d be available in Buenos Aires to celebrate before he left for Europe to accept the award, and made a few other contacts to ensure that I could justify what was basically a pleasure trip by making it also sound like work and thus not feel any guilt (Oh, but the Puritan work ethic doth die hard!).
I booked my flight and lodging on Wednesday evening and by midday Friday, I was on my way to Buenos Aires. The first thing I did on arriving was call Cris, José’s partner of 30-odd years, since Virginia, my wife, had let her know I was coming and she’d admonished that I had better get in touch as soon as I landed. Cris said I should plan for a cookout at their place over the weekend.
We’d agreed to get together on Sunday evening, but that never happened. On Sunday morning, Cris called to let me know that José had died during the night. So the get-together on Sunday evening was with numerous friends and family members who had come to accompany Cris, and many of us were present the next day as well for José’s funeral service in the chapel at Buenos Aires’s sprawling Chacarita Cemetery.
José’s death wasn’t unexpected. But it still came as a surprise. He was nothing if not stubborn and tenacious, and he’d been fighting death for several years now, despite having become permanently bed-ridden. He had put up such a valiant fight, that we’d all almost forgotten he could actually die at any time.
José and Cris
Virginia and I have known José and Cris ever since they met. They were both classmates of Virginia’s brother’s at the University of Buenos Aires School of Architecture and Urban Design. They hung out at my mother-in-law’s house working on projects together throughout most of their college years in the seventies and eighties and we all got to be very good friends. At first they were my brother-in-law Miguel’s friends and we were simply peripheral acquaintances, but eventually we became Cris and José’s friends in our own right.
My relationship with José was, I would eventually realize, a lot like the one I had with my father. José was enough like Whitie—and I enough like myself—that we often clashed despite having great affection for one another. And since he was considerably older than the rest of us—he had been a road-crew ramrod and later private building contractor for years before going to architecture school, and had an ex-wife and a pre-adolescent son by that marriage to show for it as well—he often tried to pull rank, which, belligerent cuss that I’ve always been, I wasn’t willing to put up with. Cris and I got along swimmingly, however, and Virginia liked them both a lot, so the foursome tended to work.
It was with José and Cris that we explored numerous localities in the vast Patagonian region. That was where we were in our element. Travel, adventure and a bent for driving interminably long distances were addictions that José and I shared, and our friendship flourished when we were on dusty back roads, our two cars loaded with gear and victuals, rolling in tandem like a miniature wagon train through that vast and mysterious region. Or anyplace else that we decided to camp, for that matter. Because Patagonia wasn’t the only place that we directed our convoy and pitched our tents. We also camped on the shores of the Atlantic in the sprawling territory of Buenos Aires Province. And on the edge of a lagoon known as Lobos, where activities including a little fishing, a lot of talking and a corresponding lot of barbecuing and wine-drinking.
Cris, José and Virginia in their element: Patagonia
However, the deep southern reaches of Patagonia were not just journeys, but a dream we shared. Someday, we both insisted, we would all go there to live, he and Cris and Virginia and I, the four of us, and anybody else from our little clique of friends and family who wanted to come along. We’d find a place that struck our fancy and set up housekeeping there for the rest of our lives. And indeed we did our homework on the trips we took together, checking out the prices of land and housing, weighing the possibility of work, projecting ideas to make a living and still be reasonably free, talking to the locals to get a clear feeling for the region, giving our minds free rein to dream the dream we shared.
Together we journeyed to the strange Patagonian coastal region of Puerto Madryn, with its clear blue-green bay, coastal caves (where Welsh settlers made their first homes in the eighteen hundreds), the low mesetas sculpted by persistent winds, rugged steppe land, and the tall lion-colored cliffs above stony beaches where penguins and fur seals formed colonies, and within sight of which scores of southern right whales came each year to mate and give birth. While there we toured the towns that Welsh settlers in search of religious freedom had first established—Madryn, Gaiman, Rawson and Trelew, and indeed much of the rest of the province of Chubut as well.
Together too, we crossed the broad Patagonian desert from the coast to the Andes on a stunningly desolate highway where an Automobile Club service station every few hundred kilometers was what passed for civilization—that and blink-of-an-eye villages like Las Chapas, Las Plumas, Dolavon and the hidden settlement of Villa Ameghino where Reynolds and Jones were common names and the Chubut River was the artery whose flow maintained life there.
Cris, José and Dan on the road in Patagonia. 
Out of the gritty desert and raw steppes, we wended our way into the mountains and delighted to the lush forests and gentle valleys there, like the one that connected the pleasant Patagonian outposts of Trevelín and Esquel. We camped in the alerce evergreen and maitén forests of a national park on the shores of deep and cold Lake Futalaufquen, cooled our beer in a mountain stream that flowed by our tents and gathered watercress and mint there as well for our dinner salad. We pitched our tents on a tall table rock above the Río Azul and hung out at the artisan’s fair in El Bolsón. We camped in the heat of summer in Bariloche on Lake Nahuel Huapi, and curled up in our sleeping bags against the frost and autumn chill in San Martín de los Andes on the shore of Lake Lacar. And everywhere there was always a campfire, something to barbecue, spirits to drink and abundant laughter.
José was a cocky bantam rooster with a quick temper and a staunch resistance to backing down when challenged—traits he shared with Whitie. But he was also a joker with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for practical jokes. I recall once on a trip south, when I had charted our course for the day and was in the lead, seeing in my rearview mirror how José’s car suddenly veered off the road onto the earthen berm in a cloud of dust. We had just passed a field where manure had recently been spread, and the air was absolutely ripe with it (good ol’ fresh country air, as my mother, Reba Mae, used to refer to it).
I pulled over as well, and as soon as the dust had cleared, I saw Cris jump out of the car and start desperately inspecting the soles of her shoes. With the window down, I could hear her say, “No, José, mine are clean, it must be yours...but why can I still smell it out here?!” Meanwhile, inside the car, I could see José absolutely hysterical with laughter at the sight of Cris, a city girl for sure, checking and rechecking her shoes. Seems when she’d asked what that awful smell was, José said, “I don’t know, but whatever it is, you’ve stepped in it!” urgently stopping the car so she could get out and check.
One of many campsites we shared.
I have certain images of José etched in my memory. José getting up and hiking off to a nearby country store while the rest of us were still snoring in our tents and getting back just in time to offer us a breakfast of fresh French bread and butter. José with his half-glasses on the bridge of his nose, sitting at a camp table in front of his tent reading a newspaper, drinking yerba mate from a large gourd and using an enormous hunting knife to spread butter on his breakfast bread. José baiting his hook with sardine and casting from the pier in Villa Gesell, standing somewhat apart from the rest of the group, enjoying that moment alone with himself, never looking more relaxed and content than right then. José turning sausages on a grill over the campfire, cooking and talking at the same time regaling us with strange stories from his days as foreman on a road crew in Entre Ríos Province or from when he was an officer’s assistant during his obligatory military service.
There are ties that can’t be broken even when it seems they can. José and I had a falling out once. It wasn’t even our falling out. It was a tiff between him and Miguel, but I was tangentially involved. It’s hard to believe but for the next decade, Virginia and I didn’t see or speak to José and Cris. In hindsight, I would tell any young person who wanted my advice never to fight with good friends or family to the point of a break-up. Because in the end, it’s like cutting off an arm. Worst, it’s like cutting out a piece of your heart.
It was during that time that Virginia and I made the long-postponed decision to finally move to Patagonia. No one came along. No family, no friends. Just us. Our idea that if we went, others would followed turned out to be a self-indulgent fantasy. But go we did and there we’ve stayed, and no regrets.
With Cris and José on the Patagonian coast. 
But after we’d been there for a few years, one evening we got a call. It was Cris. They were in our area and wondered if we’d like to have a cup of coffee. I made no attempt to hide my delight at hearing from them and she sounded relieved. I asked where they were and she told me that they had bought a time-share, which, as destiny would have it, was less than two miles from our place.
“Stay right there,” I said. “I’ll be right over to pick you up!”
That evening at our place was a celebration, a homecoming, a return to how things should always have been. But it also marked another hiatus.
I enthusiastically told them that this was just the time for two architects like themselves to come to Bariloche where we lived. The resort was growing. More people were coming all the time, and they all needed to build homes. There was a fortune to be made for skilled people like them if they came right then. But that was no longer Cris’s dream. She was, she told me, heading for Spain.
When were they leaving, I wanted to know? Soon, she said, but José wouldn’t be going. Maybe later. Maybe once she got established. But José never went, nor could Cris even really go completely. We lost her for nearly another decade, but she remained in contact. Almost daily with José. He had no interest in Spain. And for the time being, she was through with Argentina.
In the meantime, we saw José whenever we were back in Buenos Aires and he always had news to share from Cris. And José also came down to visit us in Patagonia. That, he told me, was still his dream. He had never given it up. Whenever Cris got Spain out of her system and came back home, he would insist that they move to Patagonia. And as if to prove it, he did as we had always done on our journeys together, checking prices, looking at land, talking to locals. Patagonia was still in his plans.
And Cris did eventually come home. Not really by choice, but because there was no other option for someone of her high principles. When both her mother and José fell ill, suddenly, she was back, leaving the quiet life she’d build for herself in Spain because, simply put, there are ties that can never be broken, and on this new journey, she would accompany both her mother and José right up to their own last ones.
We said good-bye to José yesterday and in doing so I realized that nothing is random. There are ties that are meant to be, or so it would appear, and no matter how much we might test them or how much we might distance one end of the tie from the other, it simply can’t be cut, because it’s already tied to your mind and your heart. Once, José, Cris, Virginia and I were inseparable. Then we thought we weren’t. But in the end, we found out that we’d been right the first time—inseparable.
This last journey José had no choice but to make alone, and we had no choice but to let him go. But I’m not discounting the possibility that we’ll all meet up again someday, like the immortal Joe Cocker may well still be singing, “with a different name / and a different face” but with that same mysterious attraction that fosters ties that would appear to last forever.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


The first time I played with Doc, it was by pure coincidence. I was working as a relief drummer, but with a band I often played random gigs with, whenever their regular drummer couldn’t make it. They’d had a piano-player who, when he played solo gigs, played the Cordovox instead. One night they’d played a place that didn’t have a piano and he’d taken his Cordovox along instead, and they’d loved the fresh new sound that, in his able hands, the strange instrument gave to their dog-eared gig book and they’d decided to incorporate it full-time.
So anyway, one night when their keyboard man couldn’t make it and neither could their drummer, they called me—because I was available—and Doc, because Cordovox-players were scarce as hen’s teeth in the roster of Lima Ohio Local 320 of the American Federation of Musicians, and that was Doc’s exclusive “axe”. Their guy was an extraordinary Cordovox-player, but Doc had nothing to envy him. He had all the technique, but with a slightly different, more melodic, less aggressive style.
It was a jazz and swing sextet. Everybody was a little nervous at first with two subs working the gig, but after the first couple of tunes, we were cookin’. I had been a relief drummer for the better part of a year when I was seventeen, and now was back at it. I was used to accommodating myself to the different styles of the different bands, and Doc was a natural, a guy with an ear and a feel for every tune, every style, every tempo. This cat had listened a lot and everything he’d listened to had sunk in and become an integral part of him.
The Cordovox was a crazy instrument. Unfortunately, they quit making them, because they had a unique and wonderful sound. To the uninitiated, it looked like an plain accordion, but it was so much more. It was practically a synthesizer in “squeeze box” format.
It was by chance that I had earlier worked with a Cordovox player when I landed a steady gig while I was still in my senior year of high school. That was when I was with an outstanding band called The Doug Price Trio, the trio being thrilling Berkeley Jazz School-educated trumpet-player and front man Doug Price, myself, and an absolutely amazing Cordovox-player called Gene Wallenhaupt, a veteran musician who was also a high school band director. Wallenhaupt’s exciting and multi-faceted sound eliminated any need for a bass-player (part of the usual trio format: piano, bass and drums) and added an incredible range of accompaniment and rhythm capable of giving us the sound of a much larger musical ensemble. Put that together with Doug’s absolutely wailin’ trumpet and the band was amazing. The final touch was added by Doug’s brother-in-law, Tom, with his easy-listening style voice, who sang a few songs a set between instrumentals.
Anyway, Wallenhaupt used to get really irritated when anyone mistook his mega-versatile Cordovox for a simple accordion and was always dumbfounded when we’d just done an eclectic set of everything from Miles Davis and Duke Ellington to Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach, with a smattering of sophisticated fusion music thrown in for good measure, and some drunk would stumble up to the bandstand and ask, “Hey guy, can you play the Hoop Dee Doo Polka like that guy on the Lawrence Welk Show?” It drove Gene insane and at the end of each set, when we’d take a break, you could hear him mutter, “Next sonuvabitch that asks if I can play Lady of Spain or the Beer Barrel Polka, I’m deckin’ ‘im.”
I had quit the trio at the end of the year before and traveled to South America to visit the exchange student I’d fallen in love with during my senior year. That’s why, now that I was back, I was just gigging again on the weekends with whatever band needed me and attending classes a couple of hours away at the Ohio State University music school during the week.
But back to Doc. It wasn’t until the first break on that gig with the sextet that I first noticed that Doc was blind.  It was when we all bellied up to the bar and Doc and I ordered Cokes (he because, I assumed, he didn’t drink, and I because I was still underage for hard liquor and never even drank three-two on a gig), while the rest of the band ordered beer or whiskey. I know that nowadays it’s PC to say “vision impaired”, but Doc wasn’t vision-impaired. He was lights-out blind. I noticed when I talked to him and he looked toward my voice but seemed to be focusing on a point somewhere over my shoulder. Before that, I just thought he was one of those musician-types who liked to wear shades even in the low lights of a nightclub.
But no. The super-dark shades were to cover his disability. Still, they made him look cool, with his trim well-groomed, dark Italian look and sharply-pressed dark blue suit.
We liked each other right off and started feeling each other out and matching each other’s licks on the thirty or so different tunes we played that night. Doc lent a new feel to the band. He knew every tune we played like he’d learned them in the cradle, but since he couldn’t read the fake book, he gave a new dimension to the arrangements, a new skillfully-improvised feel that sought to blend, even as it modified the sound.
It turned out to be a really fun gig.
After the show was over and we were tearing down our equipment, Eddy, the trumpet-player, came over to me and said, “Hey Danny, you and Doc are both from Wapak. Would you mind taking him home?” and I said sure thing.
I went over to Doc and said, “I didn’t know you were from Wapakoneta, so am I,” and he asked me my last name and I told him and he asked, “Are your folks Whitie and Reba Mae who owned the Teddy Bear restaurant.” And when I said they were indeed, he said he knew them well.
But it wasn’t until we were back in Wapakoneta and I’d pulled up to his house and recognized it that I realized that, besides being a helluva musician, he was also the well-known chiropractor that both my dad and my grandfather had gone to for their sciatic pain. Granted, Whitie and I didn’t talk to each other much back then, but I was surprised I’d never heard him mention that his chiropractor was blind.
Anyway, it was as we were unloading Doc’s stuff from the backseat of my ’63 Chevy Nova—the trunk was full of my drums—and taking it inside, that Doc said, “Hey Danny, I like how we play together. I’m about to start a gig every Saturday for the summer, and maybe beyond, at a place in Bellefontaine. I thought maybe we could form a duo if you don’t have anything better to do.”
And that’s how I started working with Doc for a string of Saturdays, the summer before I turned twenty. 
Doc and I didn’t share the usual musical relationship, where you meet up at the site of the gig, say, “Hey man, how’s it goin’?” and just about all communication after that is through the music. No, in this case, I spent a lot of time with Doc. I drove us there and home, obviously, every Saturday night and on two-lane roads back then, it took the better part of an hour each way, so we talked—a lot. But I also always arrived a little early at his house to pick him up and his wife, who was also his nurse and receptionist, would invite me in to wait for him to finish getting ready.
She would show me into what was essentially Doc’s waiting room for his chiropractic patients. But honestly, it felt a lot more like a comfy sitting room with overstuffed armchairs and a big old couch of the type that we called davenports back then. The house itself was of the rambling old two-storey type with a dark varnished staircase up to the second floor and wall-papered walls, like many other of the turn-of-the-century places that formed the core real-estate in Wapakoneta, with the more modern ranch and modified A-frame houses being relegated to peripheral neighborhoods known as “additions” in those days.
Doc had a pretty German shepherd seeing-eye dog called Pepper, who would always find her way into the waiting room when I was there. We got pretty friendly after a few Saturday evenings. I was a young wise-ass and so naïve that I actually thought if I could keep Pepper from going to Doc when he came downstairs into the room, he wouldn’t know I was there. So when I’d hear the stairs creak, I’d hold onto Pepper and pet her to see how long it would take Doc to figure out that I was in the room. I was always amazed that he was never more than halfway down the steps before he’d call out, “Hi Dan!”
Once I said, “How the hell do you know I’m here, Doc?”
And he said, “Well, let’s see...you smoke both pipe and cigarettes. Not sure of the brand, but the cigarettes are menthol and the pipe tobacco’s probably Sir Walter Raleigh.”
“How do you know that when I never smoke in your house?”
“Well, hell, Danny, I’m just blind, not dead! I can smell it on your clothes...And then there’s that English Leather cologne you wear that Pepper and I can smell a mile off. You know, Dan, you shouldn’t be so friendly with Pepper. She should only be friends with me.”
I laughed.
“I’m serious,” Doc said. “A pilot dog’s no good to a blind person if it’ll make friends with any Tom, Dick and Harry who comes along.”
Adolescent that I still was, I was hurt, but after that, Pepper and I never shared anything more intimate than a handshake. Doc didn’t take her along on the gigs, so he had to teach me how to be his guide dog.
I always remember Doc when I see the Al Pacino version of Scent of a Woman, the scene where Pacino’s character, Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, who has lost his sight, turns on a street-corner to his weekend chaperone, a private school kid called Charlie Simms, and snaps, “Are you blind? Are you blind?”
“Of course not!” Charlie says.
"Are you blind? Then why do you keep  grabbing my goddamn 
“Then why do you keep grabbing my goddamn arm? I take your arm.”
Well, Doc and I had that same conversation on a street-corner in Bellefontaine, Ohio. “Don’t grab my arm,” Doc said. “You’re not dragging me anyplace, see. Just let me rest my elbow in the palm of your hand, as if you were my dog’s harness, so I can feel when you step up or step down. And for chrissake don’t go telling me, 'Careful now, there’s a step here or a curb there.' I’ll feel it by how you move. It’s like when I’m on a plane and ask for a cup of coffee and the stewardess comes and says, ‘Here’s your coffee, sir. Careful now, it’s hot!’ Well, of course it’s hot! If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t want the damn thing!”
He was always telling me that I was a terrible guide dog. Pepper had me beat all to hell, he’d say. When we got to know each other better, if he bitched and told me what a bad dog I was, I’d lead him into a parking meter for spite and then laugh about it. I was easily entertained back then.
“Funny Dan. Really funny,” he would say with half-mock anger. “Playing tricks on a blind man. Real nice!”

Once when I showed up early, I was amazed to find Doc sitting cross-legged on the floor, rewiring his Cordovox sound mixer. This, I figured, would take ages with a blind guy doing it.

"Hey Doc," I said. "What gives?"

"Hey Danny," Doc answered, "a minor wiring problem...And you're just in time! What color's this wire? And how about this one? And this one over here?" And just like that, bing, bang, boom, he had the complicated circuitry rewired and the cabinet put back together.

Once I asked him about being blind. Thinking aloud, I said I didn't know what I'd do if it were to happen to me. I was sure I'd be desperate.

"Look Danny," Doc said, "being blind's a pain in the ass, but it's not the end of the world.You can't see, so you just learn to do other things a lot better." 
The hour-long drive was always interesting. I remember having an attack of hay fever one summer evening, as we were driving along with the windows down in my non-air-conditioned car, and having a sneezing fit over near Indian Lake.
“What are you allergic to?” Doc asked.
“No idea,” I said.
“Because back there where you started sneezing there was ragweed, golden rod and ryegrass among other things.”
Another time, we’d ridden along in silence for a long time, when all of the sudden, Doc said, “Coming up over the next rise, there’ll be an S-curve. Coming out of the second one, you’ll see a big white farmhouse with a barn right up close to it.”
Sure enough, as I pulled out of the second curve, there was the house.
“Damn!” I said. “You’re right!”
“Don’t sound so surprised. Of course I’m right. Listen, if we’re still playing this gig in the wintertime and get into bad weather coming back, we can always stop there for the night. They’re old friends of mine.”
The place we played on the main drag in Bellefontaine was a bit “divey” and was frequented by beer-mellowed rednecks and belligerent rural roughnecks as well as a crazy-quilt mix of local regulars. But they tended to be an appreciative crowd and Doc and I enjoyed their applause. Still, we enjoyed playing together even more. It never felt like “a job”. It was always fun.
The only time things got dicey was once when this mean drunk came up to the tiny bandstand (on which Doc with his Cordovox and speakers and I with my full drum set barely fit), and wanted to sit in on the drums.
“Sorry, pal,” I said, “Doc here’s real touchy about who he plays with, and I never lend my drums to anybody.”
I thought that would end it, but the guy was back every few tunes to ask to sit in and every time, I tried as nicely but firmly as possible to get him to understand that it wasn’t happening. Finally, I said, “Look buddy, how about going back over to the bar and having a beer and coolin’ it. Just stop annoying us before I ask the bartender to throw you out.”
The guy had a few choice words for me, but in the end, turned and weaved his way across the barroom and out the door.
“Good riddance,” I thought, and figured it was over.
But as we were playing the next set, I was riding the high-hat and looking toward the wall when I heard a whoosh and whistle and then the clatter of a tire iron hitting my ride cymbal and then the floor. Doc’s right arm was over his head blocking the skull-crushing blow the mean drunk had tried to lay on me, and now, with his left he was punching the guy in the face with a haymaker that knocked him off the stand onto the barroom floor, where the bartender and a couple of other men were already picking the guy up and giving him the bum’s rush into the street, opening the door with the top of his skull.
“What the hell are you doing for eyes?” Doc turned and shouted at me. “You almost got your goddamn skull split!”
All I could say was, “Thanks for the save, Doc. Man, you are amazing!”
There was this one very special night. On the way to the gig, I had told Doc about the time I’d spent in Buenos Aires. He knew I had a “foreign girlfriend” but I’d never told him about the adventure of traveling on my own to South America when I was only eighteen.
He asked if I liked tango and I said that I loved it, but that “nobody in the States knew how to play it.”
He didn’t say a word in response. But that night, during the second set, he said, “Let’s do a tango.”
And I thought, “Oh god, get ready for Hernando’s Hideaway.”
But then he said, “Sit back. I’ll play this one solo. And with that, he played an amazing version of what was practically the national anthem of tango, La Cumparsita, and followed it, almost DJ style, with La Canción de Buenos Aires, Caminito, Sur and Adios Muchachos. He followed those with a couple of progressive tango pieces by Astor Piazzolla, Adios Nonino and Oblivion and I could have sworn that he had turned his Cordovox into that quintessential instrument of tango, the bandoneon. I just sat back and listened, dumbfounded.
After that, I would always think of him as Doc, The Tango King. He was nothing short of incredible.  
We did indeed get that gig for the rest of the year and even played New Year’s Eve. But I decided not to go back to school that spring. I wanted to travel a while. What actually happened wasn't what I had in mind, but travel, I did. By March, I'd been “invited” by the US government to serve in the Army. I joined instead of letting myself be drafted and for the next three years played with Army Bands in the States and Europe following Basic Combat Training and a stint at the military school of music.
I couldn’t have imagined at the time that I’d never see Doc again after that Bellefontaine gig was over. Never imaged that warm, friendly relationship Doc and I had formed would end with a handshake and a “see ya” after our last night on that steady gig. But sometimes that’s just the way things work out.

NOTE: It's really hard to find anything on the Internet even remotely close to the way guys like Doc and Wallenhaupt played the Cordovox but the closest thing to their style from when I was in the duo with Doc and or the trio with Gene is the jazz style of Wynton Marsalis and Richard Galiano. Take a listen:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


This is the second in a series of vignettes about growing up in the American Midwest that I'm currently writing and hope to publish as a collection later this year.

Davey was born with a hole in his heart. That was how my mother, Reba Mae, described it to me.
He was, she explained, what was known as a “blue baby”. But I should never call him that, or mention it, or say anything at all about his condition, period. But hadn’t I noticed how he had blue lips, and blue fingernails, and a bluish cast to his milky white skin? Well, that was caused by this blue baby condition, by the hole in his heart, which didn’t let him get enough oxygen pumped into his heart and brain and so forth. The way she understood it was that the poor little kid was always starved for oxygen.
Reba Mae was always making me privy to this kind of momentous information and then swearing me to silence about it. Like the time I mentioned that a girl friend of mine’s brother looked a lot like his dad, tall and lanky, and that my friend looked a lot like her mother, kind of short and stocky, and my mother said that was impossible because they were both adopted.
“But for godsake don’t ever say anything to them about that because I don’t know if they know. And don’t go telling anybody else either, because it’s nobody else’s business...Although half the town probably knows it anyway. But still, just don’t say anything to anybody about it, understand? No reason for you to go around telling everything you know!
What good was knowing such important things if then you had to keep them a secret?
Blue Baby - a sculpture by Robert Bleier
I’d made friends with Davey at school. Leave it to me to pick the most unique kids in my class to be my friends. He was clearly unique. On top of his heart condition he had dark almost cherry-red hair and marble-white skin and was almost painfully thin, all of which made him stand out like a lighthouse beacon amid the more normally-complected kids. In pictures, he sort of looked like an alien from another planet who had infiltrated the class—a pod person or a body-snatcher, perhaps.
He was bright. Almost scary bright. If his brain lacked oxygen, it surely wasn’t obvious from his intellectual prowess. Kind of made you wonder what he’d be like if he was getting enough oxygen. Like I say, scary bright. While we fumbled and struggled with our first adventures in reading, writing and arithmetic, he wowed us with his conversant knowledge of just about anything our teachers brought up. Sometimes he even left the teachers with their mouths hanging open.
For some reason, Davey liked me. I wasn’t particularly smart or particularly interesting, but he gravitated to me early on in grade school. Then we moved from the south side of town to the west side, and his parents’ place was only a couple of blocks away from our new home. So Davey wanted to hang out.
And I wanted to hang out with him, as well. But Reba Mae wasn’t very sure that was such a good idea. It was such a responsibility to have a kid like that over. What if he had some kind of crisis or something? What the heck would she do?
So we reached a kind of compromise. I could go play with Davey at his house, but he couldn’t come to play at mine. That was, until Davey’s mother called once and told Reba Mae that she had to go out for a couple of hours. Would it be okay for Davey to come play with
Danny a little until she got back?
So after that, the play dates were pretty evenly split between Davey’s house and mine. But I always got the Reba Mae Blue Baby Lecture before the kid arrived. I was strongly reminded that Davey wasn’t some ordinary everyday kid. That I had to be gentle with him. No rough-housing, no running, no hitting or tackling and no over-tiring the child of any kind. Did I understand? We’d have to find something quiet to do.
But Davey wasn’t having any of this kind of molly-coddling. He’d come over wearing his dual-pistol Hopalong Cassidy rig and black dimestore cowboy hat, and if I got out the Monopoly game, or checker board, or the Old Maid cards, he’d scoff and whine, “That’s boring!” and insist we play cowboys.  
It was hard not to rough-house with Davey. He was full of life despite his condition, and he had a kind of “come-get-some-if-you’re-so-tough” attitude that egged a fellow on. So I mostly just tried to hold him when he’d come at me with his toy Peacemaker, bent on pistol-whipping me with it, or when he’d rush me like a screaming banshee to try and wrestle me to the ground.
Clearly, I always had the advantage and managed to resist without actually fighting back. But that didn’t always work either. Davey knew when he was being condescended to in our cowboy games and didn’t take kindly to it. He tired easily, so when my holding action got the best of him, he’d sit down on the couch or hassock to catch his breath and then, sweet as could be, he’d say, “Hey, lemme see your hand a sec,” and as soon as you were within snatching range, he’d reach out and grab your wrist in those two spidery, bony little mitts of his and twist the skin back and forth until he managed to give you an incredibly painful “Indian sunburn”—never knew another kid who gave a nastier one. Davey was the Indian sunburn champ.
It was once while he was trying to give me a “sunburn” and I was trying to avoid it that our hands slipped and my fingernails raked across the delicate back of one of his hands, leaving three furrows that suddenly started to ooze blood. At first, I was just fascinated to see that Davey bled just like me, that it wasn’t some strange blue blood that came dribbling like ink from his wounds. This was the genuine article, real red blood.
But then I got scared. I wasn’t even supposed to be playing rough with him, let alone injuring him! Clearly, these were just some minor scratches, but I was worried sick about them. How did I know what even a minor injury could do to a fragile little kid like Davey?
And Reba Mae didn’t make me feel any better. When she brought us each a glass of chocolate milk, she immediately saw the scratches on the back of Davey’s pale little hand and said, “Oh, my gosh, Davey! What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing,” Davey said emphatically. “It was an accident.”
But as soon as he went home, I got a riot-act version of the Blue Baby Lecture. She’d told me to be careful!  Hadn’t she told me that? How in the hell had I managed to hurt that little boy? Was I out of my mind? Wasn’t I ashamed of myself, picking on that poor sick little boy? How did we know how vulnerable he was? Didn’t I realize he might get blood poisoning and die from scratches like that?
I was devastated. I wanted so badly to take it all back, let Davey Indian-sunburn me until my wrist caught fire. Nor was I the kind of kid who could just say, what’s done is done. Nothing I can do about it now. And forgive myself for what was obviously an accident. No. I stewed about it instead, went around feeling like I’d caused a major tragedy. It was hard to go to sleep at night because I kept seeing Davey’s bony white hand with the three scratches across the back of it and wanting to kill myself. And in my mind’s eye, I could see the blood poisoning, the red lines moving through his thin blue veins, away from the scratches and toward his ailing heart. My god! I was a monster!
That happened on a Saturday. On Monday, I saw Davey at school and the scratches were scabbed over like they would be on the hand of any normal kid and during recess, he and I hung out on the playground together as usual and had a great time. Later in the week, I went to his place after school and we raced wild around his house playing cowboys and rough-housing like always until we drove his poor mother crazy and she finally said it was time for me to go home so Davey could do his homework.
We were both nine and still close friends when Davey started missing some school here and there. His mother told mine that they were trying some treatments on him, preparing him for a new kind of operation to correct the sort of problem he had. If it worked, he might be able to end up living a pretty normal life. So toward the end of that year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Davey and I didn’t see much of each other, and finally not at all, as the time for his operation drew near.
My sister Darla and I were busy. Our little brother Jim was still very little, so he was still just enjoying the magic of the holiday season. But Darla and I had saved our allowances to buy Christmas gifts and were raiding the dime stores to see what our budget would allow. And then there were activities at church that we were participating in, rehearsals for the Christmas cantata and the live Nativity and the Christmas pageant, then Christmas vacation from school. And snow to play in and Christmas cookies and candy canes and other treats to be eaten.
I really wasn’t giving any thought to Davey and what was going on in his life. Out of sight, out of mind.
The Sunday before Christmas, I was sent to Sunday school as usual. Christmas was way later in the week that year, if I remember correctly, maybe the following Wednesday or Thursday. And Christmas was about all I could think about. Back then, I loved the Christmas season and reveled in every festive minute of it.
But then Sunday school began and my Christmas joy came crashing down.
“Before we start the class today,” said the teacher, a pious woman in holiday red and green with a matching pillbox hat and half veil, “I want us to take a moment and say a prayer for the soul of little Davey who passed away last week on the operating table in the hospital. Let us pray also for his family, since it will surely be a very sad Christmas for them without him.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! Her words were like high voltage that passed through me from head to toe. I felt dizzy, sick at my stomach. Davey, dead? Kids didn’t die! There must be some mistake.
The class began but I couldn’t hear it, couldn’t concentrate. I sat there with a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes, trying not to cry. I didn’t want to be there in stupid Sunday school class. All I wanted to do was run home and be with Reba Mae.     
At home, my mother sat down beside me before she put the fried chicken, rolls and mashed potatoes on the table for Sunday lunch. She wanted to know how I was doing. I started to cry. She put her arm around me and apologized for not having told me before. “I never thought your dumb-assed Sunday School teacher would open her big mouth. I wonder how many other poor little kids found out that way? I just didn’t know how to tell you and was kind of waiting for the right moment.”
I asked how little kids could die. I was confused, inconsolably sad and scared silly. “Oh you don’t have to worry,” Reba Mae said. “You’re so healthy. All you kids are. Poor little Davey was so, so sick. He was born sick. He never knew anything else. It’s just a shame the operation wasn’t a success.”
But why was he sick, I wanted to know? How could God let that happen? If God was so good, why had Davey died? I had always hated the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, the part about, “If I should die before I wake...” Why would a kid have to pray that? Dying was for old folks. Kids shouldn’t die!
“Only God can answer that,” Reba Mae said. “But did you ever stop to think that maybe Davey was never supposed to live longer than that? That maybe God just sent him here to learn some little lesson before taking him back home to heaven?”
I wasn’t buying it. What lesson? How to be sick and die? And although I was saying a prayer several times a day for God to “play nice” and not kill me or my brother and sister, or, while He was at it, my mother and father, no matter how much I fawned over God and told Him how much I loved Him and asked Him to please, please, please, protect us and give my family long life and good health, His killing Davey had given me an involuntary picture of Him at the back of my mind as a sort of mean bully with a can of lighter fluid and a box of matches, sitting on the sidewalk lighting up ants (us).
For a year after that, I had trouble sleeping at night and when I did, it was often with nightmares. Including some in which Davey was the protagonist, a luminous presence who came to visit and said nothing but showed me the pale scars on the back of his hand where I had scratched him.
Angel Davey had given me my first taste of death and it wasn’t a terror that was going away any time soon. Suddenly, it was a reality I had to face, an inevitable part of life that, sooner or later, was coming for us all.