A picture in last week’s Lamar Democrat caught my attention. It was a photo of the Lamar County High School Band. I didn’t count, but there must have been 50 or more people in it. There’s a story about how many awards they had won, and so on.
Let’s talk about roots, and some of my most pleasant memories of high school. Mr. Guy Goodwin had been a major in WWII. He came to our town to start a restaurant, a nice restaurant, Steaks and seafood and all. Food for the upper crust. It didn’t go. Our upper crust was about five families thick. Most of us had never seen a sirloin, rib-eye, T-bone, New York strip, or the like.
Our rare steaks were the kind you beat on with a saucer to make them tender. And there was not even a store in town where one of those exotic cuts could have been bought anyway. They were something you read in slick magazines about, like banana splits, also not available. So it didn’t go. But Mr. Goodwin made a tactical retreat, came up with another plan, and attacked again. This time, it was The G & H Cafe. It served breakfasts and blue plate specials and home cooking…and the best beef stew I’ve ever tasted.
But he had a family and still needed more income. He was a musician. He had been , before the war, the leader of the University of Tennessee equivalent of the Auburn Knights. He talked with Mr. Lee, the high school principal, and they worked out an agreement about starting a band program. There had been a previous attempt several years earlier. I bought my trumpet from someone who had been a member of that band.
You talk about starting from scratch! Most of us had never seen a trumpet or clarinet up close. He’d have a class for the trumpets, and a class for the clarinets, etc. In my case, we learned to “buss,” to make a sound come out. We finally learned to play “Abide With Me.” And there came a time when we all got together to blurt out a piece or two, a thrilling moment when, once in a while, we all hit the right notes together.I was first trumpet, mainly because I was the oldest member of our four-member trumpet section.
Sometimes, when we missed the bus for some reason, cousins James (baritone) and Ross (mellophone) would have to walk home. W’d play as we marched along, some very simplified arrangements of Sousa marches. Mr. Dink Reeves had some mean dogs. They’d challenge your right to just walk down a public road., growling and barking and threatening. But when we played, they’d tuck their tails and run under the house and whine in a most mournful way, showing no appreciation of the finer things at all. Understand, we never even got close to having a marching band, but we put on a few little concerts.
Mr. Goodwin arranged a tour of the three other county high schools for us. The idea, I suppose, was to get those schools interested in starting a band program. We probably set that project back twenty years or so.
There’s a picture I treasure of our band, playing in front of the court house for some occasion, Memorial Day, maybe. No uniforms, but kind of dressed up, all 16 of us. I remember, I didn’t know if I’d be able to hit “free” in the Star-Spangled Banner or not, but I did, if waveringly. For a real case of nerves–why didn’t they have Valium or something back then–there was the time Mr. Goodwin drafted me to play “Taps” at a military funeral.
I was out behind some bushes. When the rifles tired, I was to play. Would I hit the right note to start? Would my quivering lips stay on the mouthpiece? It was probably the most poignant version ever played, but I made it. Daddy said the soldier’s mother held up fine throughout the program…until she heard “Taps.” Then she broke down. I tear up every time I hear it.
Somebody out there has never heard the Dupree story, so let me share that one. Near the end of each school year, the teachers would have a little picnic at a lovely place called Dr. Box’s Park. The band was to be the entertainment. Mr. Goodwin wanted to kind of show off how far he had brought us from an absolutely dead start. It was a beautiful day. The sounds of Sousa (very simplified) rang through the pines. We were, like, swingin’. Mr. Goodwin almost smiled. Finally, he said, “All right, let’s play number 18.” Dupree Pennington,from the back side of the band, with his sousaphone wrapped around him like one of those Everglades pythons, emitted a squeak like one of Mr. Reeves’s dogs: “But, Mr. Goodwin, I just played Number 18.” In his most authoritative voice, Mr. Goodwin said, “Play it again, Dupree, play it again.”Dupree went on to become sheriff and, later, mayor.
The name Cooper Green pops up now and then, concerning a hospital in Birmingham. He was the speaker at our graduation. Also on the program, Sarah Kate (clarinet), Charlotte Bragg (clarinetist, usually, but pianist for this gig) played a number. Can’t remember what it was. Maybe “Lover, Come Back to Me?” Anyway, Mr. Green seemed like a very nice man. After our performance, he was said to have said he’d never heard anything like it.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note.