Monthly Archives: December 2016

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Two

At the age of 18, I was among the highest paid trumpet player sidemen in Omaha making six dollars a night because I could and would play “Hot Lips” like Henry Busse and “Sugar Blues” like Clyde Macaulay (almost all of the other trumpet players in Omaha wanted to play like Harry James).
Three members of my popular 1939 Lyons band–Joe Casey on tenor, Dayton St. Claire on drums and Ronnie Garrett on bass horn—were playing with the 10-piece Gene Pieper band. They told Mr. Pieper about me. He called me in May 1940 to join his band for $30 a week at the Lake Okeejobee ballroom in northern Iowa. It was a “taxi dance” type of ballroom—the floor was cleared after every set and new tickets were sold.
Pieper, a big tall guy, fronted the band with his trumpet. He was good. Pieper’s band was one of the best bands in the “Territory.” We played Mal Dunn’s arrangements. While performing at the lake, we all lived in the resort’s band cottage. Then we went on the road playing one-nighters five and six nights a week all summer. Gene and his wife traveled by car, and the band in a sleeper bus. I learned a lot about being a band leader from Gene.
I did not smoke, drink or play poker so therefore I had few expenses. Sam got out of the CCC and matriculated at Wayne State Teachers College and in time got his accounting degree. I sent him $10 a week. He washed dishes, waited tables and made it on his own. We were all proud of him.
Marybelle Stone and I were high school sweethearts. She had a scholarship at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. When the Pieper band played at the Shermont Ballroom or Peony Park in Omaha Mary would come to Omaha and stay with my brother Howard and his wife Violet. Mary and I got to spend a little time together when I could get to Omaha or Lincoln.
The Pieper band was good, and I had a fun summer, but I remembered what Mr. Welk said about working with as many bands as possible so I quietly put out the word that I was available. I received a call from Eddie Dunsmoore whom I had met once in St. Louis. Eddie’s orchestra was a typical society-club-hotel orchestra: piano, string bass, drums, three tenor sax, two trumpets. Eddie fronted the band on violin, an additional violin. His beautiful wife was our singer. In October of 1940 I joined him at the plush—very private–Kansas City Club atop the Muelbach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
All the Dunsmoore band guys were single except the piano player whose wife traveled with us on the bus—not a sleeper—and helped with our uniforms, etc. Eddie and his wife traveled in their own car. From Kansas City we played some one-nighters at the small “Union City Supper Club”—a gambling club, in Union City, Illinois, across the river from Cape Giarardo, Missouri. We played for dinner and dancing—two shows a night. Off Monday. The band members and the girl dancers in the show stayed in a small “flea bag” hotel in Union City, going back and forth to the club in Eddie’s bus each night.
Next we went to Art Noey’s Supper Club in Saginaw, Michigan for the holiday season. Off Monday. Same routine—dinner/dancing, two floor shows a night. Joe the other trumpet player and I did a “funny hat” routine with the girl dancers. The band and the girl dancers all stayed in a big rooming house close to the club. I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t party much—so I stayed home Monday nights as did several of the girl dancers. I was a 19-year-old “kid” from Nebraska. I guess I was not very experienced in the “ways of the world”—I learned fast in Saginaw.
We were to close New Year’s Eve in Saginaw because we had to be at the Peabody Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, Jan. 3 for a 4 p.m. “cocktail hour and radio broadcast” a long way on a “sit up” bus. We would have to drive straight through to make it.
Another problem was that the new ASCAP song/music license for “radio broadcast rights” went into effect with new restrictions and costs on Jan. 1, 1941. The Peabody had not signed with ASCAP but was licensed by BMI but had no BMI songs. Eddie Dunsmoore had been notified. No ASCAP songs could be broadcast. We ate and slept on the bus all the way from Saginaw to Jackson and sketched out enough charts of public domain songs for our first broadcast. We hit Jackson about 2 p.m. with two hours to spare. We didn’t even change clothes, but went straight to setting up. The afternoon cocktail crowd started filing in. Eddie and Jan had arrived several hours earlier.
It went well. We checked into the big rooming house where the whole band and the show girls were staying. We all ate our meals there together where the cook piled it on the table. When the bell rang, it was first there, first seated. We were off Monday. I had always been fascinated with the New Orleans old blues and jazz bands. I went alone, catching a bus late one Sunday night to New Orleans and made Bourbon Street. Back to Jackson in time for the four o’clock cocktail hour/broadcast Tuesday. Tired, but the trip was worth it. My first of many to come over the years. New Orleans is the “Cradle of American Music.”
From Jackson we played a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana. A couple of one-nighters and then on into Dallas where we had ten days off. I knew Blue Baron who was playing the Dallas Baker Hotel needed a trumpet player. I played with him, but he was headed back east. I stayed with Dunsmoore who was headed west.
We were booked into “Mattie’s” outside of Kilgore, Texas, a club in the Texas oil fields. A good job. Two complete gigs each night: an early start 8 to 10:30, a break at the oil field shift change at midnight, and back on the stand at 12:30 until ? for the second shift party. The house was always packed—nothin’, nowhere else to go. The band and the girls all stayed in a rooming house in Kilgore, all rode on the band bus to the club each night.
From Texas the band headed west to California with gigs in Denver, Colorado Spring, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Francisco, on the coast to Pismo Beach, and on to Hollywood. We were scheduled to open the big Figueroa Ballroom on Figueroa and Washington in downtown Los Angeles, following the Skippy Anderson Band out of Omaha.
The Figeroa was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Henry who had owned and operated a big ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa, before buying the Los Angeles ballroom. They catered to the mid-western dance customers, many of whom had moved to Los Angeles to work in the defense plants and preferred the Midwest style dance bands over the big west coast swing bands like those of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Glenn Miller.
Five of us guys wanted to do the town, the first time for any of us, and dressed in our sharp double breasted tan gabardine suits. We hit the first club with a big neon sign we came to, walked in and sat at the bar. The barkeep was strange. He wanted to know who we were and where we were from. A couple of the guys caught on right away. Not me, a farm kid from Nebraska. It was a lesbian joint. The “bulls” were dancing with their partners.
The barkeep said very quietly, “Guys, I suggest you go out that back door at the end of the bar now. Just go and don’t say anything.”
We did. Some of the guys thought it was funny. I was sure learning the ways of the world. The next day we checked into a small hotel off Washington Street close to the Figueroa. Six nights a week—off Monday—nine till one, a thirty-minute broadcast on radio WLAC-Hollywood each night.
Eddie was often ill, off and on since the whole trip west so many nights I fronted the band. Mr. and Mrs. Henry’s manager was Mr. Lynn Giles who also announced the radio broadcast. He and I became good friends. The customers liked us. We were a “success.” But we were a touring band. The Figueroa had to pay the AFM local 47 a ten percent traveling band tax.
The Dunsmoore band next appeared at the private San Clemente Beach Club south of Los Angeles. It was a private, plush dinner/gambling club right on the beach. Great. Needless to say we hung out most of the time on the beach. Lots of gals.
The band was scheduled next for the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, but I wanted to stay in California. I had fallen in love with California and hoped to stay. The Lawrence Welk Band was playing at the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. I called Mr. Welk’s office and brought him up to date about my career. He came to San Clemente to see me.
“Hal, you may be in luck. You got your AFM card while with me. The owners of the Figueroa ballroom in downtown LA are looking for a Midwest-type house band, and they remember you from the Dunsmoore band.”
Mr. Welk set me up with Mr. and Mrs. Henry and Mr. Giles, the ballroom manager. I would form at 10-piece band. Mr. Welk helped me hand pick my men, gave me copies of some of his special arrangements, as did arrangers Bob Calame and Mal Dunn. I also got arrangements from the Pieper band. I hired Ray Lee, a local tenor sax player and arranger whose special new charts featured my trumpet in my own style. Ray became my assistant leader. By then I also played the flugelhorn and valve trombone. Some arrangements gave us three trumpets, or two trombones and six saxes. Several of us did vocals. Good local musicians. I was 20 years old. No one asked my age.
We opened at the Figueroa ballroom on July 4, 1941. Six nights a week. Broadcast each night on WLAC Hollywood at 10 p.m. Lynn Giles was the announcer. Off on Monday night. We were an immediate success. Four rhythm, four sax, two trumpets, trombone and me, fronting the band on trumpet. We were a pure dance band playing for dancers. The Figueroa business boomed, even the kid “Zoot Suiters” came. All my players lived in the Los Angeles area. I was single, so I moved into Lynn Giles’ apartment near the ballroom. From that opening night, at the end of every broadcast, including all those many broadcasts after becoming known as “The Band of the Stars,” I closed with “Thank you, Mr. Welk, wherever you are.” Ladies would come by streetcar or car in their long flowing gowns. The men dressed in suits/sports coats and ties. The Figueroa was a true Midwest dance hall. No booze. Just dancing.
Luck has always been with me in my career. The wife of one of my trumpet players was the hair beautician for Betty Grable. Betty came down to the Figueroa with her several times and fell in love with our band. One night she brought George Raft. During the intermission we sat in a booth and somehow the subject of the Hollywood film gang never having an outdoor pool party came up. In Chicago high society garden parties were quite popular in the summertime. The idea was born! I explained how they would put a portable dance floor around the pool, set up a tent for the bar and guests. That Sunday afternoon George Raft’s “Hollywood Garden Party” was born. He lived on a beautiful estate in the wooded hills of north Beverly Hills. At his party were Hollywood’s Who’s Who. Betty Grable and several other stars followed that summer with parties. I played them all. Good luck again.
I had a scholarship at the University of Southern California. My dad influenced me to go to college until I would be drafted. I registered, went to school during the day and played with my band at night. Many nights I fell asleep at the kitchen table studying. I loved USC. World War II was in full swing in Europe, and it would be only a matter of time I before I would be drafedt.
I had not seen Mary in over a year. She was in college at the University of Nebraska. I called her late one night and asked, “Would you like to come to Hollywood and get married?”
“Yes,” she said.
We made plans. She would quit school, go home for a week or so, catch a train to Los Angeles. Mary had an aunt in Pasadena where she would stay for the three-day California waiting period. I rented us a small apartment but didn’t tell anyone. We were married at her aunt’s preacher’s parsonage early that evening. I went to work and introduced Mary to the Henrys and others. Lynn Giles introduced her to the ballroom crowd as my “new bride.” The Henrys decided to have a reception for us in the ballroom after it closed and invited many of our “regulars.” It was a wonderful evening.
At one of the pool parties I was introduced to the manager of the famed Beverly Hills Hotel, the watering hole for the Hollywood film community. Its ballroom was Hollywood’s showcase for its stars, hope-to-bes and wannabes. It was the place to go, to be seen. The manager liked my band and offered me a deal. The Henrys were happy for me and my chance.
My band opened in the Big Room–the famed Polo Room upstairs off the lobby–Saturday, December 6, 1941. We usually played from about 8 p.m., took a break, then played again until 12:30 or one, depending upon the house. I got home late, dead tired and went right to bed. I never turned on the radio. When I awoke it was Sunday, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor.

New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve got some New Year’s resolutions for you—accept the fact that life is not fair, that you cannot control anything or anybody, and that nowhere is safe.
We’ve all seen people on television accepting an award or read about someone’s uplifting struggle against the odds in Reader’s Digest. Each one of them will say all you have to do is set your mind on reaching your goal and you will succeed. We teach our children never to give up, don’t listen to naysayers and keep a positive attitude.
Now all of those things are good. None of us should ever give up. It is a fact that you will never achieve anything if you never even try. Here I am at sixty-eight years old and still writing, not wanting to believe that dreams don’t come true for old people.
On the other hand, I know that no big New York publishing house like Doubleday or Random House will discover my writing on the internet and offer me a huge advance to publish my novels, which will also win a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe I’m not really that good of a writer. Maybe I didn’t really try hard enough. Maybe I am a failure because of inherent character flaws which I purposefully chose not to correct.
Or maybe I can decide that life is not fair and I’m not going to let the “bastards”—whoever they may be—keep me from writing, keep me from feeling good that I have written, and keep me from hoping there are people out there who have read something I’ve written and they feel better for the reading of it.
As the great entertainer Roger Miller wrote, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”
No kidding, don’t try to control a herd of buffalo. They will run right over you and won’t even know you were there in the first place. You can’t control Simon and Schuster. You can’t control how everyone else will vote in the next election. And if you think you can control your spouse or your children, you are in for a lifetime of grief. Not only can you not control them, you will also end up alone and frustrated.
I understand why a person would want to control another human being. My mother-in-law’s mother told her to follow her father home from the coal mine and keep him from going into a bar after work. That is a worthy goal—to keep your father from drinking himself to death—but how frustrating and guilt-inducing is it for a child to fail both her mother and father. My mother-in-law believed if she had only tried harder she could have saved her father, so she tried even harder on her family to make sure they never made a mistake.
There’s a lot of money to be made in telling people if they buy a high-tech security system for their home they will keep their families safe. Many people believed if they bought Humvees they could make sure their children would not die in a car accident. Of course, someone else’s child riding in a sedan hit by the Humvee was a goner, but at least Humvee’s owner kept his children alive.
I’ve read news stories of families that moved from the big city to a rural community to keep their children safe. But the first time they sent their child to the corner store that child was never seen again. No place is safe. Never flying because airplanes crash will ensure you never see the world, but you can still die in your own home when the next tornado hits town.
A big debate is going on about how vaccinations can permanently injure or kill your child. Not vaccinating your child can leave open the possibility of contracting rubella, small pox or a dozen other loathsome diseases which have killed children through the ages. But, yes, giving your child the vaccination has its own dangers. No matter how hard you try, you cannot keep your children safe.
So if you resolve to accept the fact that life is not fair, you are not the captain of your own destiny, and there is no such thing as safety, you have a chance to be happy. If you have a mind to.

Toby Chapter Two

A few minutes later Harley exited, feeling fairly full of himself until he saw his boss Roy Fox waiting for him, with his arms across his chest.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” Roy demanded. “This is the absolutely worst performance I’ve seen you give!”
Harley chose to ignore the accusation. “Mr. Fox, will you do me a favor?”
“Don’t be too hard on him, Mr. Fox,” Sam said. “He’s in love.”
Roy shook a finger in Harley’s face. “You can be in love offstage, but when you’re on stage you’re Toby, and Toby’s too shy to fall in love!”
“I want to talk to her after the show,” Harley explained, “but I’m afraid she’ll be gone by the time I get out of costume. Will you give her a note for me?”
“In love? Really?” Roy sighed and shook his head. “I thought the only thing you’d ever love would be a tent show.”
Harley’s brow furrowed. “I don’t have anything to write it on….”
Mike, the actor who played the sheriff, ambled up smacking on a wad of gum. He was in training to be leading man one day.
“Hey, Harley, can I borrow five dollars?”
“Spent your money already this week?” Roy asked with extreme prejudice.
“Roy, you know how it is in this business we call show,” Mike replied expansively. He returned his attention to Harley. “What do you say about the fiver?”
“Don’t give it to him,” Roy advised. “He’ll just spend it on cheap booze and cheap women.”
“That’s a lie!” Mike retorted. “I never buy cheap booze.” He pulled another stick of gum from his pocket and unwrapped it.
“I’ll give you the money if you give me that wrapper,” Harley offered.
“Fair swap.” He handed over the wrapper.
“Come by my dressing table after the show for the money.”
Mike nodded absently as he listened for his cue.
“You’re not going on stage with that gum in your mouth, are you?” Roy demanded.
“No.” He took the gum out of his mouth and stuck it behind his ear as he entered the stage.
“If I’m lucky they’ll draft him and send him to Europe with Pershing,” Roy mumbled.
“Do you have a pen?” Harley asked.
The boss give him a hard look, shook his head and handed over the pen. After Harley wrote the note he returned it and placed the gum wrapper carefully in Roy’s palm and explained where the young lady was sitting. The boss drudged out to the audience and knelt by Billie’s seat. Her smile of enjoyment from watching the show faded as she noticed Joe who looked like he was delivering a warrant. He whispered to her, handed her the wrapper and left. Billie opened it, and her friend leaned in.
Printed in big letters: “Wait for me after the show. Harley.”
“What was it?” her friend asked.
“What I was hoping for.” Billie smiled to herself and bit her lower lip.
After the actors took their bows—Harley received the most applause—the curtain came down and the audience milled out. Billie lingered near the tent entrance, glancing back at the stage. In a few minutes Harley, out of makeup and wearing a spiffy suit with hat in hand, bounded out the curtain, off the stage and down the aisle. Two teen-aged girls stopped him.
“Oh, Toby!” the first girl gushed.
“That’s Mr. Sadler,” the second one corrected her.
“Oh Harley, you were so funny. And—and you’re even cuter without your freckles!”
He bowed nervously. “Thank you.”
The second girl maneuvered her way directly in front of Harley. “Honestly. Children. Mr. Sadler, I think you’re a wonderful actor. Have you ever thought of Shakespeare?”
He bowed again and edged away.
“Not often, I’m afraid. Excuse me….”

Cancer Chronicles

My son and I spent our first Christmas without Janet, and it went about like everything else in our lives.
Last Christmas Eve we had been in the emergency room with Janet. She awoke that morning with a splitting headache and terrible dizziness that kept her from standing on her own. It turned out some of the breast cancer cells had escaped the chemotherapy and double mastectomy to go to her brain. She was dead three weeks later. My son and I agreed we needed to get out of town on this first anniversary of that awful experience.
My son made reservations at a fancy hotel two miles from Disney Springs in Orlando. It used to be called Disney Marketplace, Disney Village and Downtown Disney. It’s a place with a bunch of restaurants, shops, movies, music clubs and even a Cirque du Soleil. Each time they add something new or remodel, they change the name. Janet liked going there but we hadn’t been in several years. The plan was we would eat at one of the nice restaurants, visit the new Star Wars store, listen to music on the street and watch the Christmas light show. The next morning we’d have a nice Christmas dinner and drive home. The hotel had a Christmas buffet. Sounded good.
The first problem was that the Christmas buffet wasn’t until 3 p.m. and we had to check out at 10 a.m. We decided to take a nap instead of figuring what to do about Christmas dinner.
The second problem was that Disney Springs was harder to get to from the hotel than we thought. Traffic was heavy. Half the world thought the same thing we did. It would be neat to spend Christmas Eve at Disney. We had to park on the fifth floor of a garage and follow a lot of signs to elevators and escalators before we got to the place with the food and music.
Pretty much we stopped at the first restaurant we saw because we were getting hungry by then. While we waited for our food to arrive I called my daughter, sang Jingle Bells to my granddaughter and handed the phone to my son so he could say merry Christmas. The meal was pricey but delicious. Tender, flavorful beef, fancy French fries stacked like Jenga blocks and salad with huge chunks of blue cheese and cherry tomatoes.
As soon as we left to walk around I become sick to my stomach. Finding the first rest room, I went in and had the dry heaves. I have no idea why. We listened to a band play Hava Nagila. I sat on a bench while my son went into the Star Wars store. We watched a laser light show. We went back to the hotel. I still felt like retching.
Fortunately, my son slept well. I was up half the night watching Christmas specials on PBS. I finally drifted off but awoke about eight because I knew we had to be out of there by 10. We did bring our Christmas presents with us so it was fun to sit on the bed and open gifts. How Santa found us in an Orlando hotel instead of at home I’ll never figure out.
After we checked out, we decided to head home instead of looking for an open restaurant in Orlando. I was feeling better but not all that good. When we arrived home we realized nothing was open there either. I remembered I had some frozen turkey and a box of Stove Top dressing. A Christmas casserole. Not too bad. Could have used a spoonful of cranberry sauce on the side.
All this reminded me of life with Janet for 44 years. We bumbled and stumbled around but everything always turned out all right because we still had family to bumble and stumble with us.
It also helped that in my head I kept hearing Janet laughing, “Are we having fun yet?”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Forty-One

His mission for God was finished, Boston Corbett thought as he made his way to the train station in Washington, D.C. Praise the Lord. Because nosey newspaper reporters had spotted him at the impeachment trial, Corbett had to delay his departure several days. He never considered the thought that he could have just turned down all their requests for interviews. They harassed him with question about the impeachment trial. He tried to explain humbly that he was a mere servant of God and the truly important people were Secret Service founder Lafayette Baker and former District Marshal and good friend of President Lincoln, Ward Hill Lamon. The newsmen would have none of his demure declarations. He was the man who killed the assassin. He attended the trial to remove Lincoln’s successor. They wanted to know why.
Only Baker stayed by his side as he underwent interview after interview. Corbett could tell Baker was relieved at the restraint he exhibited.
“No,” he told newspaper reporters, “I didn’t know Andrew Johnson personally.”
Did you know anyone connected with the political investigation, they asked.
“No,” he repeated, “except for Mr. Baker.”
“How did you come to know Mr. Baker? When did he become such a good friend, to stay by your side as you talk to us?” a reporter asked.
“It is God’s will,” Corbett replied without hesitation. “God intervened to ensure we sat next to each other. We have very much in common.” He looked over at Baker who smiled.
“And what do you two have in common?” another reporter asked.
“We both love our country and our God,” he continued. At this point Corbett began to tell the journalists his journey through life, his tragedies and his triumphs. When he reached his story about the time he castrated himself with a pair of scissors, the reporters lost interest and moved away.
Even the magazine writers lost interest when Corbett mentioned the castration, and he could not fathom why they did not find that experience fascinating. Realizing no one else wished to interview him, Corbett thought about what to do next. His evangelical mission was going nowhere, so he decided to return to his adopted hometown, Boston. Once back in town, Corbett went from hatter’s shop to hatter’s shop looking for employment.
He did not have to look for long because all the hat makers smiled in recognition when he told them his name. They viewed him as a national hero. His long experience in their chosen trade impressed them. Samuel Mason, the man who eventually hired him, took great pleasure in introducing him to all his customers as the man who shot President Lincoln’s assassin.
Corbett smiled graciously and accepted their congratulations, but, deep in his soul, he knew he did not deserve the credit. The man they thought he killed still lived and that fact made him uncomfortable. A nagging doubt lingered in the back of his mind. He felt he clung to his sanity as though grasping a tree root extending through the side of a high cliff. Corbett did not want to abandon all reason and tumble down into eternalmadness; but, he asked himself, what was he to do?
One day he must forsake all other missions the Lord may lay out in front of him, Corbett decided. He knew he must search for John Wilkes Booth, the man he should have killed in that burning tobacco barn in Virginia. While Corbett believed Lafayette Baker was sincere in his efforts to end the killing and spare Booth, he also knew that the man was wrong. God wanted Booth to die. God wanted the truth told, because the truth will set Boston Corbett free.
Ward Hill Lamon sat in his favorite chair in the parlor of his Danville, Illinois, home and felt older than he had ever felt before. He had not even been up to taking his large carpetbag up to his room after arriving from the train station. All of his life he had been chasing after one thing and then another. This last quest had left him drained, devoid of any of the emotions that had stoked his engine to keep him moving. For the past decade he had devoted his life entirely to Abraham Lincoln, first to serve and protect him and then to avenge his murder. And in the end he had to face the consequence of not fulfilling any of his duties particularly well at all. Why had he allowed Stanton to convince him the President had been secreted away for his own protection? Why had he conceded that the justice system could not properly punish Stanton? At this very moment, Stanton could be laughing at him. He could be lifting a glass of sherry, toasting himself for getting away with the most horrible crimes in American history.
Merry whispering roused him from his dark thoughts. He looked up to see his daughter Dorothy carrying a tray of cookies and his wife Sally with tray of cups and a pitcher of lemonade. At that moment, he forgot his failures and appreciated the love that surrounded him.

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter One

(Author’s note: Neely’s memoirs are in italics.)
I discovered it! I was sitting on the curb one Saturday morning on the street in the small town of Lyons, Nebraska. I was 10 years old and in the fourth grade. My dad told me before he left for his barbershop that Mr. Bietrick, a tuba player in the Kaiser’s army in World War I and now the director of the Lyons High School music program, had something for me. Mr. Bietrick put a brand-new black leather case in my hands. Inside sitting on blue velvet was a shiny new silver Conn 22 trumpet.
“Harold, this is from your mom and dad. Treat it with the same love and care they have for you.”
He showed me how to hold it, how to pucker up and blow. It was my very first trumpet lesson. Donna Sandborn, who lived next door and was a grade ahead of me, came out to sit beside me and Jack Loppnow, my classmate came from across the street, joined us to see what we were doing. I couldn’t believe it. My own brand-new trumpet! I took it out of the case and was able to play a few notes.
The Neelys were a musical family. My dad was always whistling. Mother sang in the church choir. Howard, six years older, played clarinet and my brother Sam alto horn and later French horn in the school band and orchestra. I had been trying to play Sam’s alto horn (same type of mouth piece as a trumpet but slightly larger).
Lyons High, a Class C school, always had an award-winning band. The Lyons town band was one of the best town bands in the state and in the summer played Sunday night concerts in the beautiful Lyons Park band shell. Wednesday nights the stores were open, and Mr. Munson, the town marshal, rolled out the band shell onto Main Street, and we played a concert. As I said, Lyons, Nebraska, was a good music and football town.
Lyons had a proud musical heritage which started with Boyd Sentner, clarinetist of world repute at the turn of the century. In the 1930s Lyons High School graduates Stan Fritz, trombone, and Harry Turene, clarinet, carried on the tradition playing with the Schnicklefritz comedy band. They broke off and formed their own Corn Cobblers Band which was for many years featured in the famous Jack Dempsey Saloon in the Brill Building on Manhattan’s Broadway. The Brill Building housed, then and today, more music people and firms than any other building in the world. I had my New York office there for several years in the 1970s. In 1941 through 1946 Hal Neely’s Band of the Stars carried on in the big band tradition by playing Hollywood film star parties, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Bel-Air Hotel, beach clubs, and other southern Californian special functions. But that’s getting ahead of my story.
In 1938 I formed my first 10-piece band with all Lyons kids in the summer before my junior year in high school. We started playing local area school dances, small country dance halls, grange halls. Wherever, whenever and whatever for a few dollars if or when we could. We spent it on gas, eats, and old standard big dance band music orchestrations I ordered out of Omaha. I was the leader, Hal and Art Anderson, trumpets; Jack Loppnow, trombone; Dick Shumway, Keith Payne, Helen Jean Stiles, saxophone; Mary Belle Stone, piano and violin; and Bob Sentner, bass.
Lyons had two piano teachers. Mrs. Moseman was a friend of my mother’s and tried to teach me—for free—the rudiments of piano. It was a good foundation for my later musical skills.
Mr. Kenneth Pace, Lyons High School musical director, encouraged us. We did not have a piano at our house, so we practiced when and where we could—school, the Lyons City Hall, in decent weather in Lyons Park band shell or in the American Legion’s dance hall. The whole town helped us. We had a ball and developed quite a kid following where ever we played. All of us were in the class of 1939, except from time to time other Lyons kids filled in and played with us. All of us played in the Lyons High band and orchestra.
We had fun. I was learning my future career. But, it was clear to me by this time that I wanted and intended to make my career in music. My hope and goal was to become a professional trumpet player and eventually become a leader of my own band.
In my 1938-39 senior year in high school I drove my dad’s Ford to Omaha to audition for trumpet lessons from the famed trumpet teacher Fred Elias, who discovered and developed a revolutionary low-pressure system for brass horn players. Mr. Elias had very few students, and he took me on for a lesson every two weeks. I would drive or hitchhike. My not playing on the basketball team my senior year didn’t set well with some people, but my family was all for it “if that is what I wanted.” Mr. Elias taught three national “superior” high school trumpet players, his daughter Evelyn Elias in 1937, Neal Hefi, who gained fame with the Stan Keaton band, in 1938, and Hal Neely in 1939.
To gain personal experience as a band leader, it was evident that I needed better and more experienced players. The other kids understood since after graduation some or even most were going to college or had other plans the next summer. Now 17, I’d reorganized the band with young players from nearby towns. Joe Casey, tenor sax; Dayton St. Claire, drum; Dale Keister, trombone from West Point. From nearby Pilcher, a bass player Ronnie Garrett. Dale Muzack, sax/clarinet, from Decatur, played with us until he joined a band in Omaha. It was a better-than-good 10-piece young big band.
We soon earned fame, popularity, a reputation and a loyal fan following. School kids in the entire state started calling us their own. We now made enough money per job to pay our gas expenses and split a few bucks each playing local area ballrooms, dance halls, and high school dances. We traveled in three cars. Joe Casey had a car, and my brother Sam drove my dad’s Ford V-8 sedan. I purchased a 1932 Ford V-8 coupe with a rumble seat for $210. It was my first bank loan. We would rendezvous for travel to our bookings in West Point or Lyons. Sam drove dad’s car and acted as our agent/bookkeeper counting the house and collecting our money, paying the guys their share each night.
It was a professional band system. Each guy in the band had a setup and breakdown job, except the drummer who had enough to do just setting up his own equipment (same in all bands). Each guy would do a job: setting up/taking down the stands, hooking up the lights, setting up the amps and speakers, putting the libraries/arrangement books (each arrangement carried a number not a song title) on each stand.
Standard procedure for big dance bands was to play a set of three songs. The leader would call the arrangement numbers and order of play sequence. We followed procedure.
In those late 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, Nebraska was in a depression and “no crop” drought. For adults, dances provided their favorite, and affordable, entertainment. Most everyone had an old car. Gas was 18 cents a gallon. Movies were a quarter, Coke a nickel, hamburgers 10 cents. Dance halls, at one buck per couple, were the favorite night out. They danced at least four nights per week in some good dance hall or ballroom within 40 miles of their hometowns in Nebraska, Iowa, South and North Dakota, Northern Kansas, Southwest Missouri and Western Illinois. This area was known to all bands and booking agents as the “Territory.”
We got our big break July 4, 1939. We were booked into the West Point Ballroom, the best, largest, most popular ballroom in North East Nebraska. It was the ballroom where all the best “Territory” and touring name bands played. We hit it big! From then on the bookings came. Our price went up. But summer ended, and we split up.
In the fall of 1939, five of us took jobs with the Bob Calame Band out of Omaha. Bob wrote “Bubbles in the Wine” which was Lawrence Welk’s theme song. He quit Welk and formed his own nine-piece band with his wife Jan as vocalist. Bob wrote all the arrangements in his own style. He, Jan and the seven guys in the band came to Lyons and stayed in the small Lyons Hotel. My mom cooked breakfast and supper each day with the help of several neighbors and packed a “go” lunch for us. The American Legion allowed us to use its dance hall for day and night practices. The townspeople came by to listen to the rehearsals. In two weeks we were ready. We were a good “Territory” band. Bob and his wife drove in his new four-door Ford sedan. His dad was a “wheel” with Union Pacific Railroad in Council Bluffs and found a good used panel truck which he converted into a van with front and back seats to accommodate four musicians. It also had racks in the back for our gear, uniforms and one small suitcase per musician. Four of us(Dayton St. Claire, Ronnie Garrett, Dale Keister and me) drove in the small converted van with the instruments. The Vic Schroeder Agency out of Omaha booked the band.
We worked a full schedule playing one-nighters and several week engagements in clubs, mostly in northeastern Nebraska, the Dakotas and western Iowa. We got a break and were booked into a club in Fargo, North Dakota. They loved us. We got some good reviews in the trade papers. Our price and booking went up. We worked steadily.
For the Christmas season, we were booked for four dates in western Nebraska–Minden, North Platte, Grand Island, Scottsbluff—and one in Laramie, Wyoming, when a job opened up through Bob’s dad with the Union Pacific Railroad in Council Bluffs, Iowa. After years on the road he and his wife were ready to settle down and play only local dates, buy a home and start a family. The Schroeder Agency said I should take over as leader of the band for the remaining dates. I hired an old friend, Jeep Harnett, to replace Bob on lead alto sax. We did okay, but it was soon evident that I was still not experienced enough to be a “leader on the circuit.” The rest of the Caleme dates were cancelled, and we all returned home to look for new jobs. Bob and I stayed in touch for many years. Nice man.
I was home in Lyons when I got a call from a Mr. Hall who was the booker/manager of Sammy Haven’s 10-piece band based in Columbus, Nebraska. They were desperate for a new lead trumpet player. He made me a deal. The next day my mom drove me to Columbus and then went on to Ogalla where she had family. Haven was a string bass player and a young guy singer fronted the band. He had a new sleeper bus. Mr. Hall’s son was our driver.
My dad knew Lawrence Welk, who was a baseball fan, for many years. He told Mr. Welk about me and my ambitions. Mr. Welk had gained national acclaim and popularity and was now a “name band.” He was playing a series of one-nighters in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. I graduated from high school on Thursday night and joined Lawrence Welk’s band Friday morning on tour. Mr. Welk would introduce me each night.
“This young man from Lyons, Nebraska, is the current high school national champion trumpet soloist.”
I would do my thing! I asked Mr. Welk if I could sit in with the band and played third trumpet.
The band finished its Midwest tour and was on the way to Los Angeles for a long engagement. Because of this stint with a professional band I received a membership card in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Mr. Welk asked me if I wanted to join the band as a regular member. I had to decline. My reason was because my brother Sam had a crippled left arm and had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Roosevelt to give employment to thousands of unemployed young men. Sam was sent to Montana. He was not a happy camper. Sam’s only ambition was to go to Wayne State College where he had a lot of friends. He wanted to study accounting. But, problems intervened. There was no Neely money for him. My dad was a barber and mom was sick in bed quite a bit during this time. Mr. Welk understood my problem.
“What’s your life’s ambition?” Mr. Welk asked me.
“I want to be a big-band leader like you,” I replied.
“Good for you. I suggest you work in as many bands as you can, learn your horn and gain experience. When you think you are ready, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help you. How old are you?”
“I suggest, if anyone asks, change the subject.”
A lie was never in Lawrence Welk’s vocabulary. And all my career no one ever asked my age, as I always passed as much older. Mr. Welk told me to play in as many bands as I could, learn my horn and the band business and to stay in touch. When the “opportune time” came he would “help me”. He became my inspiration and mentor.

The Christmas Trunk

One morning a steamer trunk appeared on the loading dock of the Brooksville depot. This was particularly odd because a train has not pulled into that station for almost fifty years. In fact, the loading dock was now an enclosed room of the Train Depot Museum.
Upon closer examination, the train museum staff found a tag on the truck that simply read:
For Jessie May.
Do not open until Christmas Eve.

This added mystery upon mystery because Jessie May had been dead for more than a century. Rumors around town had it that she still roamed the halls of her plantation home, which also had been turned into a museum.
Not knowing what else could be done, the depot staff loaded the trunk onto a pickup and took it a couple of miles down the road to the May-Stringer House Museum. The curator did not know what to with it, so he put it in the corner of a spare room. One of the docents wanted to open it right then.
“No,” the curator replied firmly. “The tag said wait until Christmas Eve.”
In the meantime, the museum’s docents found themselves under attack from some new spirit inhabiting the old plantation house. A push, shove or smack usually came after a docent make some unflattering comment about how the little girl ghost Jessie May always moved things. She took her play tea set out of a locked closet and set it up on a small table in the parlor. Jessie rearranged the order of her dolls displayed on the fireplace. Any mention of how mischievous she was brought on mild but decisive retribution.
The curator and his staff tried to figure the problem out logically.
“What had changed right before the spectral harassment began?” he asked.
“The arrival of the Christmas trunk,” a docent replied.
“I say ignore the note on the trunk,” another docent blurted out. “Why obey directions from someone who obviously died years ago?”
“When you’ve been working in museums as long as I have,” the curator informed them, “you learn to respect the dead.”
That fateful day finally arrived, Christmas Eve. The staff gathered around the trunk as the curator carefully broke the lock and opened the lid. They saw all kinds of makeup, powder puffs, brushes, charcoal pencils and even a fake mustache and beard.
“You mean all this trouble is being made by an actor?” a docent asked with insolence. “Figures.”
Just then she was slapped across the back of her head.
The curator shook his head. “I told you. Never speak ill of the dead.”
Recovering quickly, the docent said, “Lift the top tray. Let’s see what’s under it.”
Lifting the tray, they saw an antique Santa Claus costume. Other than the red velvet having faded, the old white fur trim turning yellow and the black leather boots crackling, it appeared to be in good shape. Its fashion even matched the Thomas Nast drawings of a long coat in the European tradition of Sinter Klaus.
“That’s great!” another staff member exclaimed. “We’ve got an old mannequin in the attic. We can hang the suit on it.”
Frowning, the curator replied, “No, I think we ought to leave it in the trunk for a while, until we figure out what all this means.”
The museum closed its doors, and the staff members went home to begin their family festivities. Hardly anyone drove by the museum right on the stroke of midnight. But if they had, and if they looked up on the balcony, they would not have believed what they saw. Little Jessie May danced a proper waltz with a spectral Santa Claus in the antique suit from the Christmas trunk.
This is so much fun! How did you know I wanted to dance with Santa on Christmas Eve?
You do realize you realize you’re dead, don’t you?
Of course, silly.
Well, ho ho ho, after you die, anything is possible.

Toby Chapter One

This is the story of a man who lived to make people laugh.
His name was Harley Sadler. He entertained Texas sod farmers and ranchers before movies learned to talk and the Grand Ole Opry ruled the radio airwaves. When the tent show came to town, mama pulled out her egg and butter jar to count pennies and dimes. Papa hitched the plough horse to the wagon, threw the children in the back and began the trek across the prairie.
Soon wagons from every direction met as the last rays of the day disappeared behind a distant ridge. Families dismounted—the children giggling and jumping about–and headed for the entrance to the giant canvas tent.
Overhead was the sign:
“Roy E. Fox’s Popular Players Present ‘King of Pecos County’”
The audience hurried inside, dimly lit by bare light bulbs mounted on iron buggy wheels. Sides of the tent were rolled up to allow the plains breeze to waft through. It was insufficient. Everyone cooled themselves with a cardboard fan which sported the face of their favorite actor, the man they came to see.
It was the photograph of a young man with lean, gaunt cheeks dotted with painted freckles, sparkling eyes and toothy grin.
Framing the wooden stage were posters advertising local businesses who willingly paid good money to put their names in front of what they knew would be a full house. Footlights flickered. Papas pointed out the spotlights to their sons and daughters. Hawkers walked up and down the aisles selling bags of pop corn and peanuts. Slowly members of the band appeared from behind the curtain, sat in front of the stage and tuned their instruments. Parents shushed their children. The show was about to begin.
After the curtain parted, all was silence. Familiar characters entered, spoke, emoted and exited, then returned as the usual melodrama story enfolded. The villain was tall, older and would have been considered handsome if not for the menacing black moustache and sneering lips. Children pelted the mean man dressed in black with popcorn recently bought with mama’s hard-earned egg and butter money. She did not mind.
In this particular play on this particular night Ed Thardo played the villain Unctuous Dirgewood with uninspired efficiency. He had spent most of his adult life saying the same lines every night without any expectation of appreciation. Everyone hated the bad guy. This night his evil designs were aimed at Martha Tyler, a pretty young actress in a starched gingham dress. As the audience hissed the villain’s advances on the heroine, the hero Billy Armstrong played by Sam Bright dressed in a dazzling white cowboy outfit bolted onto the stage to thunderous applause.
But no one received the adulation reserved for Harley Sadler. He was nowhere as handsome as hero Sam Bright nor as awe-inducing as villain Ed Thardo. Harley was short, skinny and humorously awkward. He wore a red wig, floppy cowboy hat, wooly chaps, boots askew on his feet as though they had not been properly fitted and a holster slung low between his legs.
Howls greeted every line Harley squawked out. His big earnest eyes focused on the person he addressed and the audience when he wanted to share his personal thoughts with them. Little did his fans realized that this particular night he scanned the crowd carefully to see if a special young woman were in attendance.
At one point Harley and Sam found themselves offstage at the same time. Harley grabbed Sam’s arm, dragging him to peek out of the curtain.
“She’s here, Sam! I told you she’d be here, and she’s here! It took me all of act once and act two to find her out there, but she’s here!”
“Which one is she?” Sam asked.
“The pretty one, of course.”
On stage, Ed was trying his best to intimidate Martha, but he kept glancing offstage at Harley, who continued to jabber away about the beautiful local girl.
“And that Toby, if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut, will live to rue the day he made me angry!”
Sam tried to pull away. “Uh oh. Ed’s getting mad.”
“Third row, aisle seat.” Harley chose to ignore him. “Blue dress and the face of an angel.”
The object of his attention was a very attractive girl in her late teens or early twenties. She smiled sweetly, revealing two adorable dimples. Her eyes glistened as she leaned into a friend, whispered and nodded to the curtain at the edge of the stage.
“Oh no!” Sam hissed. “She saw us! Let’s get back!” He tugged on Harley to the spot where he would make his next entrance.
“But she’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, she’s beautiful.”
“And she likes me,” he rambled on. “I could tell right off she liked me when I went into the city hall to get the tent permit. She liked me a whole lot.”
“Of course she liked you,” Sam agreed with a rebuke thrown in. “All the girls like Toby.”
The painted-on freckles and the blacked out tooth could not disguise Harley’s desperate need to be loved.
“No, she’s different. The others, they like Toby. She likes Harley.”
Sam shook his head and smiled. “So what’s this beautiful girl’s name?”
“Um.” A brief cloud crossed his face. “I think the woman at city hall called her Billie.”
A bump on his shoulder roused him from his revelry. Harley noticed Joan who played the villain’s French maid sashayed by in her short black uniform. He ducked his head when Ed exited with a flourish and immediately glowered at Harley. Sam nudged his friend.
“Joan’s just gone on.”
“I’m going to marry her,” Harley announced with determination.
“Who? Joan?”
“No, dummy,” he retorted. “Her. The girl at the city hall. Um, Billie.”
“Sure. You’re madly in love with a girl whose name you hardly remember,” Sam sneered.
Joan assumed her coquettish pose but lost her patience because Harley lingered by the curtain and missed his cue.
“Ooh la la. Zee meen Mishoor Dirgewood haz geeven me an evening to myself,” she repeated the cue loudly and with a fair amount of exasperation.
“Go.” Sam pushed him. “That’s your cue—again.”
“No, really,” Harley insisted. “I’m going to marry her. Billie. I’m going to ask her tonight.”
“Marry her? You don’t even know her!”
Joan tapped her foot and fluttered her full eyelashes. “Ooh la la. Zee evening aire ees wonderful.”
“Hurry!” The leading man placed his big hands on Harley’s boney shoulders and forcefully directed him onto the stage. “Joan’s terrible at making up lines.”
“You don’t believe me? How much do you bet I’m married in three days?”
“Ooh la la!” Joan was irritated to the point of losing her fake French accent.
“Married? You’ve never even kissed a girl before!”
“Ooh la la!!!” She was out of control.
“S-sure I have,” Harley stammered. “I kiss Joan every night.” He assumed his Toby posture and bravely made his entrance.
“But not on the lips!”
Harley gave a quick look off stage at Sam, then down in the audience and smiled nervously at Billie who stared back in adoration. He cleared his throat and approached Joan.
“Why, howdy, Miss Foo Foo. I was lookin’ for you.”
“Zat ees Fifi.” Her delivery was less than friendly.
“I’ve been ameanin’ to talk to you about that there boss of yours.”
Joan made a face. “Ugh. Mishoor Dirgewood. I do not trust heem.”
“Good for you. I don’t trust heem—I mean—him neither. Um. Do you know where he keeps his personal papers?”
“You mean zee deed to zee Hamilton fairm wheech he haz stolen?”
“Honest Billy Armstrong’s goin’ to go to jail if we can’t git it back.”
Joan prissed around Harley and ended uncomfortably close, running her fingers through his red wig. “And I will reecovair it for you, Mishour Toby, eef you will keess Fifi.”
“Kiss you?” Harley took a step back in shock. “Why, I don’t even know you! Why, it wouldn’t be moral! It wouldn’t be decent.” He stepped down to the footlights. “What should I do?”
The audience screamed as one. “Kiss her!”
Harley looked directly at Billie, who shyly dipped her eyes, smiled with a hint of flirtation and nodded. Harley grinned, exposing his blackened front tooth and strode to Joan.
“For the good of Pecos County, I’ll do it.”
Joan turned her cheek to be kissed as usual, but Harley grabbed her face in his hands and planted a kiss full on her lips. Some audience members gasped because, after all, this was Texas which considered itself the buckle on the Bible Belt. Others, toughened by the hard existence of farming where matters of life and death made men earthier, hooted in delight. Billie looked surprised, awed a bit jealous and excited all at the same time. Harley pulled away and smiled smugly. Joan was flabbergasted.
“Ooh la la,” she muttered in her regular voice. Catching herself, she resumed her French accent, “Ooh la la.”

Cancer Chronicles Sixty-Three

Going through the stack of unused Christmas cards to pick out the ones I want to send this year, I came across two cards and matching envelopes that gave me pause.
Janet had addressed the envelopes and signed them. I had a strange sensation that she were still here, signed the cards, put them aside and would come back into the room any moment to put the stamps on them.
It made sense. We had a very peculiarity way of allotting the work on Christmas cards. I wrote the addresses on all the envelopes. I had better penmanship than she did. Even she called her writing hen-scratch. I wrote notes inside the cards going to people who were more my friends and relatives than for both of us. If she did not have anything particular to share with mutual friends, I just signed our names. And if they were more her friends and relatives and she wanted to write something special, she wrote in the cards.
Why she actually addressed the cards I don’t remember. I’ve wracked my brain for a while and have decided it didn’t make any difference. I do understand why she didn’t finish them. All the cancer treatments had worn her out and she had done all she could for that day.
For a fleeting moment, I considered sending those two cards exactly as she had written them. All I’d have to do is put the stamps on them. Then again, I realized receiving a Christmas card from a woman who had been dead eleven months might be quite a shock. I am saving them for now. I’ll decide what to do with them at a later date.
Maybe it’s just a reminder that Janet will never be completely gone. There will always be something around the house that she had started then had to put away because the pain or fatigue were too much.
I recently had lunch with a couple who shared our last Thanksgiving dinner with us. They were waiting for us outside the restaurant. They said they looked up and saw Janet bouncing up with a big grin on her face. Cancer could take many things away, but it could not take away her bubbly nature and the bounce in her step.
Like I said, she will never be completely gone. Thank goodness. I need that bubble and bounce in my life right now.

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Forty

Gabby and Whitman rode the train out of Washington City and across the rolling Maryland countryside back to Brooklyn, feeling the warm breeze rushing through the open window. He mainly watched the scenery slide by them. Every once in a while Gabby glanced over to see Whitman carefully jotting words on a worn notepad.
“Are you writing a new poem?”
Whitman looked up and smiled. “Perhaps. But I don’t think anyone would believe it. Maybe. Someday.”
“People don’t understand the poems you’ve already written. I don’t know what you’re talking about most of the time. But I’m a little daft, so that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gabby.” Whitman chuckled. “I published one of my books of poetry right after the end of the war. My boss at the time, Mr. James Harlan with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took offense when he read it so he fired me. He said I was setting a bad example for the other clerks, all young, able young men, morally, physically and politically.” He put his hand to his whiskered cheek. “I was totally devastated. I was unemployed until the next morning when I went to work in the Attorney General’s office. Remember this, Mr. Gabby, for every person who hates you, there are at least two or three who love you. It makes life more bearable.” He looked into his companion’s eyes. “Are you going to be all right staying with my mother and family? I have to go back to work in the Attorney General’s office next Monday.”
“Oh, I like Mrs. Walt very much. And if the screaming gets too bad I can go for a walk, maybe buy some peanuts. The store will let me come back and sweep floors, won’t they?”
“I’m sure they will.”
Gabby looked back out the window and smiled. Tranquility settled over his brain which he had not experienced in years. Thank God, he told himself, he no longer had to fear the short, red-haired mean man or Edwin Stanton. They had no reason to kill him anymore. He could live his life without shame, fear or in anticipation of certain doom. He tried to remember when life was so unencumbered and filled with hope. Finally it came to him, that day on Long Island beach when he and his best friend Joe VanderPyl played in the surf just before they left for West Point. Oddly, Mr. Walt was there too, only Gabby did not know who he was then.
“The ocean waves taught me always to look beyond the things on hand as the ocean always points beyond the waves of the moment,” he mumbled, repeating what the friendly stranger had said to the two boys that day.
“You’re still quoting me, I see,” Whitman said as he put his pad and pencil away and turned in his seat to give Gabby his full attention. “You mentioned that day on the beach to me before, and I don’t think I gave you a satisfactory answer.” He paused, as to compose his thoughts. “Mr. Gabby, you are the perfect example of what that poem means. You’ve lived your life just surviving the waves crashing against you, leaving you beleaguered, baffled and overwhelmed. All you had to do is look up at the horizon. We never know what’s coming over the horizon. It may be good or it may be bad, but it is coming nonetheless. Take joy in the anticipation.”
Gabby cocked his head, remembering what happened next on the beach that day. Mr. Walt, ever so much younger that day, had the audacity to run his hand over the dripping wet shirt which clung to Joe’s flat belly. “Why did you touch Joe?”
“What is wrong with touching something beautiful?” Whitman responded, smiling.
The Whitman family welcomed them back to Brooklyn and made a celebration of their return with holiday-sized meals on both Saturday and Sunday. Gabby was genuinely quite pleased to be around his adopted family who all tried to be on their best behavior. Jesse, the brother with syphilis, only threw one plate of food at the dining room wall.
When Monday arrived, Whitman caught the train back to the Capital, and Gabby resumed his duties sweeping floors at the general store down the street. At night, he performed the same duties in the Whitmans’ basement apartment. Each day his mind became clearer, and happiness made a hesitant return to his life. At one point, Gabby noticed that Whitman received several letters during the week, which he read on a Saturday and carefully put them away in a box in the corner of the bedroom that he shared with Gabby.
As they settled into their bed for the night one Saturday, Gabby asked, “Mr. Walt, what are all those letters you get? I mean, who are they from?”
“They are from the soldiers I cared for at the hospital during the war. And from the families of the boys whose hands I patted as they departed from this earth.” Whitman’s voice sounded weary, as though his mind demanded that he fall off to sleep.
“May I read them someday?” he asked timidly.
“Of course you may.” Whitman had almost succumbed to slumber.
On that coming Monday Gabby eagerly, though respectfully, began digging the letters out and reading them carefully. Gratitude and love filled the pages. They told Whitman how much they appreciated his letters informing them of their boy’s death. In words only a poet would select he described the joyful reunion of soldier and his Maker. Those who did survive to live again announced with pride when they had become fathers and had named their sons Walter Whitman in honor of the man who nursed them back to health. Each letter calmed and elated Gabby in a way nothing else could have.
One evening, after Gabby had eaten supper and properly swept each room, he said good night and went to his bed. Louisa followed him, stood in the door and asked, “Mr. Gabby, you said your last name was Zook, correct?”
“Yes, Miss Louisa.” His mind had cleared so much, it did not seem much sense to call her Mrs. Walt anymore.
“Was your father a lawyer?” Friendly expectation filled her voice.
“Why, yes, he was. My father was a very good lawyer. He didn’t make much money but he helped members of our neighborhood when they got in trouble with the law.” His dull eyes lit for the first time in years. “I had forgotten how proud I was of him. I never had to pay for apples or peanuts on the street where we lived. It was the vendors’ way of saying thank you to him, I guess.” Then he smiled. “Thank you, Miss Louisa, for reminding me of that.”
“I have a dear friend who always talks about the nice man who saved her son from hanging for a murder he didn’t commit. She just lives about three blocks from here. Would you like it if I took you to visit her tomorrow? I’m sure the store won’t mind. They tell me all the time what a good worker you are.”
The next morning Gabby awoke early, and after breakfast he and Louisa went first to the store to tell them he would not be working today. Louisa informed them Mr. Gabby was going to visit friends from the neighborhood where he grew up. His bosses thought that was a fine idea and waved at them as they walked up the street. After a substantial time, they arrived at an old brownstone, which had English Ivy creeping up around the windows. They knocked, and an old woman opened the door. At first she did not understand why this strange little man stared at her with intensity. But then Louisa introduced him. A grin broke out on her wrinkled face, and she gave Gabby a huge hug and led them into her parlor. She called for her daughter to come into the room. When she realized this was the son of the lawyer who saved the lives of many men in the neighborhood, the daughter ran out the door.
Gabby watched her as she went from house to house, knocking on doors, and waving excitedly back at her home. Within moments, a crowd lined up on the steps. Each one waited their turn to tell Gabby what his father had done to help a father or grandfather in trouble with the law. They cried when Gabby told them Cordie died while nursing soldiers in Washington City. Gabby straightened his shoulders and announced proudly he was not as strange as he was before the war broke out, they cried again for the return of his health.
Mr. Walt was right, Gabby thought as he basked in the love from his former neighbors. One never knew what was coming over the horizon.
By the first of August, Gabby felt so self-assured that he asked Whitman to accompany him on a trip up the Hudson River to the Army Academy at West Point. As they sat on the deck of the steamboat Daniel Drew, Gabby took in the view of high bluffs, trees and bushes, which the sun dabbled with all shades of green.
“I read all those letters,” he said softly.
“So you now know the true meaning of wealth,” Whitman replied with serenity.
When the steamboat docked at West Point, Gabby and Walt disembarked and watched the Daniel Drew continue its journey to Albany. Then they took a leisurely walk up the knoll to the academy. After an hour or so, Gabby recognized a dusty path leading north. He touched Whitman’s arm. “Let’s go that way.”
They had not gone far on the lonely road when Gabby recognized the boulders and tall trees. He stopped. “This is it. This is where the accident happened. The officer had ordered me to drive his carriage to somewhere up this road. I tried to tell him I was a city boy and didn’t know how to handle a team of horses, but he insisted I do it anyway. I asked Joe to go with me. There was something about Joe that always calmed me down.” Gabby kneeled to touch the ground. “This is the exact spot where the carriage landed on Joe and killed him. I decided if growing up meant watching your friend die, I didn’t want to grow up. So I went home.” He stood, looked into Whitman’s gentle gray eyes and smiled. “I think I want to grow up now.”