Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THE SOUND OF MEMORY [T, 11-14-17] [REPEATED FROM 11-18-11]

We picked up Grandson Joe from school yesterday. He was grinning as he got into our Inferno Red PT Cruiser. [1] He is in 6th grade and has just become a member of the band. He got his new clarinet yesterday. He already plays mandolin and ukulele, but those are not band instruments, even though he thinks they should be. He says he chose the clarinet for band just because he likes the sound, which is a very sound reason for choosing an instrument. [2]

When we got to his house, I helped him assemble the clarinet. I knew how to do it, for I, too, was a 6th grade clarinetist. We heard the first sound he made on it. We liked the sound.

I’m not sure I even knew what a clarinet sounded like when I was in 6th grade. I just knew I wanted to be in the band; I wanted to belong. Also, there was something in me that wanted to be a part of making music with others.

I could sing, and did, especially with my older sister, Mary Virginia, as we washed the dishes together. Down in the Valley was a favorite. But I wanted to be in the band, too.

We lived on a farm and did not have a car. Starting in 7th grade, I walked and hitch-hiked back and forth to town, but in 6th grade I couldn’t do anything that required staying after school. Transportation was school bus in and school bus out. But band had its own period in the school day. I could be in the band and still ride the bus home and do evening chores. I could be a part of something, like the other kids. I could make music.

But my parents said no band. They were reluctant to say it, but they had no choice. We didn’t have money for an instrument. I can remember standing out in our back yard, trying to hold back tears. I knew that we lived in poverty, but that was the first time I really understood that my life would be limited by it.

Mary V. came out to talk with me, as she always did when I was unhappy, from the time I was five and she was nine and she talked me out of running away from home. “Let’s see what we can figure out,” she said.

I had a war bond, a gift from Grandma Mac, I suspect, that I could cash in for $20, and a nickel and a dime at a time, we came up with another $5. I became a clarinetist not by choice but simply because it was the only instrument available for $25. One of our teachers, Mr. Grubb, was selling the one his now-graduated daughter had used. It was metal.

It was the only silver-colored clarinet in the band. All the others were black, wood or ebonite. My metal clarinet stuck out, not only for its looks but for its sound.

Thousands of metal clarinets were produced in the first third of the 20th century. They had two good qualities: 1] They were not damaged by weather and so could be used outdoors in marching bands. 2] They could be easily and cheaply mass produced.

The second quality was their downfall. Professional quality metal clarinets had as good a sound as wooden instruments, but the market was flooded with cheap clarinets designed primarily for students. Those did not produce a very good sound, so metal clarinets in general developed a bad reputation. As soon as World War II was over, metal clarinets were over, too. Except for mine.

Together we produced some very strange sounds, that metal clarinet and I. After a year or so, the band director said the clarinet needed a makeover, new pads and such, or it could not remain in the band. It just didn’t sound right. The makeover would cost more than we had paid for it.

But, he said, we need a second bassoonist.

Bassoons and tubas were so expensive that no one could buy one personally. [3] The school furnished them. I could play bassoon and the only cost would be the double reeds, available at Troutman’s Drug Store. I became a bassoonist. Because I was the poorest kid in the band, I played the most expensive instrument.

I like the notes that come from Joe’s new black clarinet, but to this day, when I hear a band or orchestra, I listen for the bassoons. I like that sound.


1] Joe is now a HS senior in Marshalltown, Iowa. When he got his driver’s license a couple of years ago he borrowed that Inferno Red PT Cruiser and we haven’t seen him or it since! It is rumored that he drives it to school every day.

2] In 8th grade he switched from clarinet to tenor sax, which he plays in marching, jazz, and concert bands, and in a saxophone ensemble for state contests.

3] Wikipedia says current prices are $8,000 to $25,000.

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