I had my first official put-on-the-necktie chat with someone in Wichita about a line of work I might take up now, post-layoff.
He asked what anyone in his chair should ask:
“What do you want to do?”
What I said surprised me, even as I blurted it out.
“I feel like I’m an old blues musician who’s suddenly been banned from playing in all the bars and dance halls in town,” I told him. “And I just want somebody to let me come play again. I just want to play.”
That’s odd, I thought later. I can’t play a note on a guitar, or even a kazoo.
I had blurted out something I had not said to anyone else, or even to myself until then:
I don’t want to give up real writing.
No matter what it costs me.
But maybe there was a reason I reached for that metaphor.
In 1978 my farmer father was baling hay one day, using an early model of one of those balers that make those big round hay bales we all see from our roadways.
Making those tight heavy bales requires a lot of machine pressure.
The baler stopped working. My Dad got off the tractor, and stuck his head into the round bale iron circle to fix it.
My father never much liked farming, I learned many years later. He farmed because farming supported his family. What he’d really wanted, as a child, was to be a musician, or an engine mechanic with a job that paid well and would let him play music more.
Anyway, the iron circle of the hay baler busted loose, with tremendous, sudden force. An iron bar slammed into my Dad’s mouth. It almost lopped his head off, and tossed his body end over end.
The surgeon told him later that one reason he survived was that he had a strong upper body, with shoulders and neck thick with muscle. It held his head in place.
An injury like that was devastating, and not only because farmers can’t ever afford the downtime.
My Dad was also a musician who lived for playing trumpet in dance halls.
I did not think he was a great musician. But HE thought he was a GREAT musician. He had blown his horn in his own band in dance halls for decades.
Now his mouth was a mess of black and blue and broken teeth and soft tissue — his upper jaw broken. He couldn’t play. At first.
So, his band fired him, the geniuses. Even though he’d formed the band.
They hired another horn man.
He sank into a depression. He and I had a yelling match out in a cow pasture not long after, when he admitted to suicidal thoughts.
But he started blowing his horn right away.
He sounded terrible.
Trumpets are loud. To spare our mother, my younger brothers banned Dad from blowing the horn in the house during trumpet practice.
They told him to go play outside, even when it was freezing out there.
I felt bad for him, though I made him laugh one night: I joked that the prairie coyotes that had sung for decades outside our farmhouse were probably terrified into silence by the blaring of that terrible horn.
Anyway, Dad’s mouth healed, and he formed another dance band. And all the dancing couples from miles around came to hear him play.
But before that happened, while his face was still black and blue, I found my Dad playing on the front steps of the farmhouse one night.
I listened to the terrible trumpet for a few minutes. Then I made him stop to listen to me:
“What are you going to do if you can’t play in a band anymore?”
“Then I’ll just sit here and play to the coyotes,” he said. “We have an understanding. The coyotes sing, and I play.
“It’s what we do.”
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