Monday, February 13, 2017


By the time I started smoking openly at home, the habit had become, I fancied, an added mark of sophistication in the new life I was suddenly setting out for myself. During the summer before the winter in which I would turn sixteen, my high school band director did me the honor of asking me to give summer private percussion lessons to beginners and junior high kids who were in the band. I could use the band room at the high school, he said, and earn a little extra money.

I was thrilled to say the least. But that wasn’t the end of the honors bestowed on me. The director also came to me during the following school year, and said that, if I wanted it, there was a part-time job for me at the top music store in the nearby city of Lima, Ohio, Monday and Friday evenings and Saturdays from nine to five, teaching whenever I had students and working as a sales clerk in between time. They’d let me have the use of a studio free of charge and the money from the lessons would be all mine. They would pay me about a dollar an hour (certainly not awful pay for a part-time high school kid employee in the mid-1960s) for the hours I accumulated on the sales floor, where I’d be expected to do some light maintenance and inventory as well.
I explained that while I’d love to say yes, it’d be another few months before I could get my driver’s license and even then, I’d have to see if my parents would lend me one of their cars to be able to commute the twelve or so miles that separated my home town of Wapakoneta from Lima. The director said not to worry, that he lived in Lima and on Monday and Friday evenings when the store was open until nine, he would take me, since he also taught there. Until I got my license, then, I’d only have to have my parents drive me home those two nights and take me in to work and pick me up on Saturdays.
Shaking my head, I said that my mother was too busy and I really doubted if I could talk Whitie (my dad) into coming to get me after he’d worked all day. But he insisted, saying it was a great opportunity that I shouldn’t miss. He was a regular customer at Whitie’s restaurant, the Teddy Bear, and evidently considered that would count for something in convincing my father, so he added, “And leave your dad to me.”
To my surprise, Whitie accepted the deal. Not only that, he had me take out a learner’s permit, and on the way home when he would pick me up after work, he would have me get behind the wheel of the big nine-passenger Olds 98 station wagon that he was driving at the time. Other than a certain penchant for road rage, Whitie was a more than competent driver and, surprisingly, since patience was not usually one of his virtues, also a serene and patient teacher.
I admired...

I recall one late-fall Monday evening, when I already had numerous trips under my belt, driving home to Wapakoneta from Lima, via the old North Dixie Highway, with Whitie in the passenger’s seat. It was raining pretty hard and visibility was far less than optimum. By this time, however, Whitie was no longer watching my every move and we were relaxed enough to chat a little as I drove, on topics beyond the scope of the myriad instructions that he had given me in the beginning. At one point, Whitie was sitting sideways, turned toward me on the broad bench seat—there were no seatbelts back then—and having just made some point in our conversation, had paused to pluck the hot cigarette lighter out of the dashboard, and was just then lighting up a Pall Mall, when suddenly, on the left, I saw a pick-up truck pulling out of a roadside tavern parking lot onto the two-lane highway in front of me as if I weren’t there.
I hit the brakes and lay on the horn simultaneously, saw Whitie fall sideways, shoulder first, against the dashboard, felt the big Olds start to fishtail, let off the brake, saw the pick-up’s brake lights and knew he’d stopped mid-lane, dropped two wheels onto the berm and gunned the engine to pull out of the slide as I slipped ever so closely past the side of the truck, still blasting the horn, before easing back onto the road.
Back under control on the pavement, shaking from head to toe, I saw Whitie calmly push himself back up onto his seat. He then went ahead lighting his smoke and after a deep drag, he said, “See that’s good training. And you handled it well. Know what the lesson is?”
“Be on the lookout for drunk assholes?”
“Nope. It’s that you have to drive defensively. You can’t take for granted, ever, that the other guy will do what he’s supposed to. In fact, you have to figure he won’t, that every other driver on the road is a stupid jerk, and know at all times what you’re going to do if the other guy screws up. It doesn’t matter who’s right. You’ll be just as dead if you’re right and the guy who plows into you is wrong.”
Smoking, to a certain almost imperceptible extent, changed, somewhat, my usually semi-hostile relationship with Whitie. Our feelings about everything from politics and sports to those about work and culture, our views and preferences were almost diametrically opposed and I’d come to find that avoidance was the best way to stay out of troubled waters. So at this stage, we seldom talked. But like boxing—one of the few passions and surely the only sport we shared as avid fans—smoking became a point of shared neutrality between us.
It wasn’t as if my father was glad I smoked. On the contrary, he early on told me it was a mistake to have taken up the habit. Afterward, however, he no longer preached about it. And as I say, there was a sort of tacit bond between us as smokers. It wouldn’t seem like much to anyone seeing us from the outside, but I could feel it. Like when I’d come home from somewhere and find him sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a smoke and I’d serve myself a cup as well and sit there with him in brief, uncontroversial communion for the length of a cigarette or two.
A few weeks before my sixteenth birthday, and thus only days away from having my driver’s license, the band director said he had the solution for my travel problem. He had a car to sell me. A ’57 Dodge Royal that had belonged to his son, who was currently in the Army, serving a hitch in Vietnam. I said I was really grateful but didn’t have the money to pay for a car right now, since I was buying a new drum set in installments from the store where I worked. If he could, perhaps, wait a while...
“How much do you have to spare right now, Danny?” he asked.
“I don’t maybe fifty bucks.”
“Done, fifty bucks and I’ll throw in tax and title fees.”
It was like a dream come true! I had a job as a musician. I was no longer being treated like a high school kid but as a responsible adult. And one of the old hands at work, a locally renowned organist in his sixties had just said, “Hey kid, my sax player and I are booked to play a four-hour gig at the Milano Club and our drummer just backed out. It’s a New Year’s Eve gig so it’ll pay fifty bucks for four hours. You free?”
Was I ever! My first pro jazz gig. I was in heaven. And now I had wheels! The very first day I had my license, the band director drove his son’s Dodge to school and had me drive him to work at the music store and then home. The car was now mine. Leaving his house, I flicked on the radio, dialed to a jazz station I knew and lit up a smoke. I felt like my whole life was changing and it was all good.
On the way home, I stopped off at a truck stop, ordered pie and coffee, put a quarter in the juke box and as Reg Owen’s rendition of Manhattan Spiritual started playing, I sat there with my coffee, pie and cigarettes feeling like a character from a movie about the Beat Generation. The menthol cigarette smoke and the strong black truck stop coffee felt like fluid happiness as they entered my gullet. It was a brand new world, and it was all mine. I was suddenly somebody.
To be continued...

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