I had a choice of an elective, one of the few choices I had, being a twelve year old Army brat stationed on a base overseas.  “Home Eck”, ‘something sports’, or join the band.   However, as I said, choices were limited and even those were whittled down by the parents, peers, and doctors I had.

“You can’t play basketball – you might fall,” my parents had said, based upon an Army doctor’s advice.  Nor could I play football – or even climb trees! – or run, jump, or do anything but walk and swim.  Walking – I’d done a lot of that! – going on 20 kilometer marches, sometimes with a backpack, and climbing trees?  I still did it as best I could.  But the doctors had forbidden me any decent physical activity a boy of twelve or thirteen might have.

It was my knees, of course – those worrisome, troublesome things that hurt and ached and swelled up like grapefruit at times.  The doctors were so interested in them that they kept x-raying them every month or so.  It’s a wonder they don’t glow.  It took them six months to diagnose the problem, and there was a bone tumor as well.  They had to ship the x-rays overseas – back to the USA – then wait for a reply afterwards.   And then they proclaimed their ban.

Home Ec – “Home Ick” to us boys – was a girl sport, one which I or any boy would have been horrified to be in.  Plus my mom had already taught me how to sew and cook a bit; I made up my room, cleaned – the whole bit.  Not to mention my father would have been as horrified – if not more – than the little boys my age, had I shown such a desire to sign up for such a course.

So there was only one thing left: the school band.  Military schools – even army ones run by civilian principles and guarded by some really weird teachers – had those.  Or at least most did.  While the schools were consistent, the courses weren’t – some ahead or way behind, some far, some near . . .

You could find me tripping (knees made me unsteady) reading a book in one hand while navigating between classes; a book on the table while I ate, or a book neatly tucked into another book so I could pretend to read one thing while reading something else.  I was an avid reader, gobbling novels down.  I used to go to the base libraries (when I could) and rob them –  huge stacks at a time.  That’s where my love of reading really blossomed and grew.  By the time I was 17 I had read every science fiction book I could get my hands on.  Anywhere.  So I had to give them up.

“What instrument do you want to play?” my parents asked when I announced my decision (such as it was).  It wasn’t the first time I’d played an instrument (besides those little recorders  in elementary school – though the teacher usually handed me the tiny cymbals nobody wanted.  She didn’t want me, too.).   I thought about it for a moment – just a moment – then I said:

“I wanna play the tuba.”

(Now, at a later date, I wish I’d been much smarter and gone with a violin – or flute – or harmonica instead.  Something I could haul in my back pocket rather than this big old brass tube I’d have to hang around my head!)

“The tuba?  Why?” they asked quizzically.  After all, it’s not the most ‘normal’ instrument to want to play.  But I had my heart set on it.  I loved those big bass tones, that thumbling subsonic under-roar that accompanied most bands.  That deep bass tone drew me like a charm.  To my credit, I also liked the kettle drums – but imagine hauling those around!  At least with a tuba I could play in a marching band . . . something I was to discover later on.

And so I got it – and as I found out, it was easier to play than say, a trumpet or French horn.  The mouth piece was huge by comparison, and suited my misjoined lip from an accident I’d had.  The French horn was tight – you had to pinch your lips together so hard! – and my lip made it difficult to operate the reed on a woodwind (or so I was told).

All would have been wonderful, had it not been for one lad – a black boy, my age, who hated whites with a passion – and who had been there for some time, and resented this white interloper who sat in the class beside him.  He, too, played the “Sousaphone” as the marching band version of a tuba is known – and made my life torture in that class.  Our teacher, too, was black, but I didn’t mind.  He was a good guy.  But that boy taught me all about racism, that’s for sure.  However, that  for another story about how racism can be taught by those who are prejudiced against you, because it was never an issue in my own home.  Not even back then.  We were all Army and the only color was green.

And so it was that I joined the Omp-Pah! band, and the school?  They gave me a Sousaphone to take home to practice on.  This in military apartments.  And truth be told, I loved making “Chicken Heart” sounds from an old Bill Cosby story (about a  “Chicken Heart”, of course).  How our apartment neighbors stood it! – the “OOOMMMMPPP! . . . . PPPPPAAAAAAA!!!!” rattling their walls . . . but then again those old World War Two German barracks had some mighty thick walls . . . .

Time went on – I stayed in this school almost all year (joining late) – Mz. McManus would become a steady threat – I became more  bewildered – and then hateful towards my fellow tuba partner – and I joined the symphony band – playing concerts for the G.I.’s late at night (yes, a real tuba, sitting in my lap and all) – enjoying the show their kids put on . . .

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