Growing up with an older brother (Garland) and two order cousins (Earle and Harvey) who lived across the garden from us meant that I often was assigned to the more inconsequential roles in games and sports. For example, all us neighbor kids played baseball in a clearing in our orchard; actually, the clearing was the infield, and any ball hit out of the infield went into the orchard. I was stationed to the right of 2nd base where a pear tree grew about 10 feet behind the bag. I positioned myself securely behind the trunk, placed my teeth firmly into the thumb of my baseball glove, and prayed "Dear God, don't let the ball come to me". I kid you not; I still have that glove, complete with the tooth marks of a seven-year-old.
If I ever ventured forth from the safely of that spot in the crotch of that comforting old pear tree, I have no memory of it. I think I played out several seasons in that position, which might partially explain why later, when I went out for high school baseball, I was less than awesome. I tried to play shortstop like a normal person, but when you're used to a pear tree shielding you from hard ground balls and line drives, it's hard to get accustomed to standing out in the open. I tried hard, too, not to bite my glove, but the taste of leather seemed so soothing that it was a temptation I found difficult to resist.
My baseball career came to a crashing halt when I was playing for the 8th grade team at E.V. Cain Elementary School. It was a pop fly to the infield, and the 2nd baseman and I both called for the ball, then collided, allowing the ball to drop untouched by human hands, in turn allowing the winning run to score. The incident itself was common enough, but when really teed off my coach was that I apparently had the thumb of my glove in my mouth while I was looking up at the ball.
"Shinn, I can't believe you had your glove in your mouth! If you need to suck your thumb, find someplace else to do it. A baseball field is not the place."
I suppose that's why I took up the trombone. Nobody yells at you when you have a mouthpiece in or around your mouth, and I didn't have to worry about line drives or collisions with other band members. Besides, my big brother Garland played the trombone, and he helped me get started. Tommy Dorsey was big in those days, and he played a piece titled "Tromboneology" that Garland was learning, and that intrigued me, too, with its' clever and jazzy moves. I visualized myself up on the bandstand, adoring fans staring at me in starry-eyed adulation, playing the great swing tunes of the day. I improvised deftly through the multi-faceted chord changes of Cherokee, and then suavely broke into the smoothest version of Stardust you could imagine. The crowd went wild. I could hardly finish my solo before the thunderous applause drowned out the band.
My fantasy-dream was rudely interrupted by the annoyed voice of Mr. Newcomb, my 8th grade band director.
"Shinn, what in the world are you doing? The rest of us are playing "Stars And Stripes Forever." Would you care to join us?"
The rest of my trombone career went somewhat better. In high school I worked my way up to 3rd chair, sitting behind Sybil McKenna, the excellent fat first chair, and Ola Lee Murchison, the 6'6" skinny multi-talented athlete and 2nd chair (who went on to play football for that new expansion team, the Dallas Cowboys), and ahead of a friend named Gary, who wasn't much in music but later saved me from flunking chemistry by cramming me full of formulas the night before the final. Even if we hadn't sat in that order, you could always tell who the best trombonists were, as the eyeballs of the rest of us would be titled toward them seeing what position their slides were in. Trombonists can't turn their heads without moving their slides, so eyeballs had to swivel dramatically to the left or right, depending upon where the superior trombonists were sitting. But since we sat in the order of our ability, all eyeballs of the entire section were leaning left, toward the first and second chairs. I was the closest to the only two trombonists who could read music, so I would watch Ola's slide, Gary would watch my slide, and so on down the line. Our director once suggested that we would save on eyestrain if we learned to read the notes ourselves, an idea that had not occurred to us until then. I worked on that some, but found Ola's hand a more direct route to the correct note. Nevertheless, between note reading and eyes-left-to-Ola's-slide-reading, I did pretty well in high school band. Well enough, in fact, that by my senior year I was selected as the third most likely band member to succeed. A buddy named Mike, a wonderful tenor sax player, was chosen as most likely to succeed, followed by Ola. And while we certainly appreciated the selections at the time, they turned out to be fairly inaccurate. Neither Mike nor Ola nor I play our instruments much anymore, but a kid who nobody noticed and played oboe; the only oboe in our band; now plays with the Portland Symphony. Funny how things change as time goes by.
In our band building were a series of small practice rooms, with little windows in each door so that you could look in to see if the room was occupied. All sorts of wild and wonderful things went on in those little rooms, including the conjugation of Latin verbs to the tune of the 1st three notes of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# Minor. "Vini, vidi, vinos" we would sing in unison, and then laugh so hard we thought we would throw up. Mr. Walker, the bachelor choir leader, never thought it was funny, however, and we often found ourselves ejected from the practice rooms. It was a wonderful learning aid for Latin, however, and the "B" that I got from Miss Estes owed a great deal to those musical conjugations.
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