Part 2. Music, a Mission, Joy, Harps, Poop and Dreams...
The following post was in Bill's blog drafts when he died. He wrote it on January 29, 2020. Laura's addition/ reflections are at the end. Enjoy!
Wow. Where has the time gone? Seems like only a year or so ago since I put my pencil down on this one. I've forgotten what Part 2 was supposed to be about. And after re-reading Part 1, I'm wondering what IT was supposed to be about, too. Ahhh, but small details like that won't stop me.
I'm going to need some help toward the end of this. You'll see why. And don't forget... there's a Part 3. Man, I'm going to have to really pull something out of "my proverbial" for that one! Shew!
The picture below was taken around 1974. That's my stepfather (his name was Dad) and my sister Laura. Mom and Dad had recently decided to quit dragging us kids around the country with their (working their asses off) seat-of-their-pants life, quit working for somebody else, and buy a small business. They took out a map, drew a line between Syracuse and Rochester, NY. The halfway point was Geneva, NY. That's where we landed.
Thank you Lord that pickup trucks do not tell stories. Between my brother Chuck and me, that Sherman Tank of a 72 GMC pickup lived a full and exciting life. And it clammed up good-like!
Notice the sign on the truck - "Town Line Nurseries." That's significant later on.
"Lake Country Gardens and Florists," they soon called it instead. They hired a few "guys" to help with this HUGE endeavor they'd gotten themselves into. There was Tony the Greenhouse man. And, a guy who's name I can NEVER remember. And then there was the greenhouse and plant whisperer Kevin McElroy.
Kevin was maybe 20 at the time. I was 12. In my book, Kevin was the definition of cool. He had cool long hair. He had a cool beard. He played guitar, bodhran (Irish drum), the violin (his was a fiddle though!) and probably anything else he put his cool hands on.
One day I proclaimed to Kevin that I was going to learn how to play the harmonica. That was early on in what would become a lifetime of pointless proclamations. Again, I digress. I most likely heard him play and thought it was cool.
Whaddaya know. A day or two later Kevin got my attention and pulled a shiny new Honer Marine Band (in G) harmonica out if his pocket. And he gave it to me. Wow! I was thrilled.
The next thing he did was to tell me this... "Billy I'm going to play a song for you. And if you can learn it, you'll be able to play anything you ever want to on the harmonica." I can still hear it clear as day...
I have had that harmonica ever since. It's 2 feet away from me right now. Everywhere I've ever been, it's tagged along. And it's got the wear and tear to prove it.
That's me. Around that same time. I'm pretty sure that at the time, the haircut I was sportin' was all the rage. Or, Mom cooked up a 2-fer 1 haircut deal for Liz and me.
Anyhow, I learned that song. And Kevin was right. There isn't much I can't play on the harmonica. I'm no Stevie Wonder or Alan Wilson by any stretch. And these days, I'm working on 1/2 a lung - total. But I can play just about anything I try.
I developed a lot of confidence from learning how to play that harmonica. And even still, that harmonica Kevin gave me is one of my most prized possessions. It's rarely out of my sight. Kevin gave me a huge gift when he gave me that little harp. Much more than a bolted together brass and steel sandwich.
Its playing days are long gone. It was worn out long before YouTube and other such sources were out there. Like anything I've played, I've figured it out by myself. Listen to something and try and try until I was happy enough with what I was hearing.
I was fortunate to have been born with near perfect pitch. If a note is slightly off - it's like nails on a chalkboard through a bullhorn to me. Funny factoid... there was a tuning fork around the house used to tune the guitar. Most likely an E. I used to use that tuning fork to get all the Es on our piano set just right. Then I'd do the rest by ear. My Grandmother, Zelia Dunbar, was a preacher's wife, very well trained musician, choir director, singer and a really good grandma. I don't recall her ever commenting on a bad note when she played. *I may add a bit toward the end of this about her. She was somethin' else. And I know she watches over quite a few of us... on her terms! Hmmm... not sure if I should tell that story or not. Time will tell. Anyhow, I'd tune our piano by ear.
It was years until I realized that harmonicas were diatonic. How was I supposed to know there were actually harmonicas in other keys? I think that helped me though. I learned to bend notes like nobody's business. I pulled notes out of that G harmonica that it was never designed to produce. And in the meantime, I bent the shit out of it too!
It may have one more tune left in it. I've thought about putting a little wax on it and a little more to fill in the spaces between the brass and steel. Without the wax, I stand a good chance of getting a few stitches in my lip. Here, you can see what I mean...
Those little gaps are lip cutters. Gen-u-ine.
I made the leather case for it shortly after Kevin gave it to me. Part of my parents' new business was a flower shop. All the work and supplies were down in the basement. The pretty stuff was upstairs in the coolers. There were all kinds of things in the basement, including a few leather scraps. The cord that I used seemed to grow on its own. Out of nowhere. Add to that, my Dad's old leather punch and a bored kid... Voila!
I've rarely played music publicly. There are a couple reasons for that, and I won't go into all of them. It's fair to say I'm a bit shy playing publicly. I also tend to get emotional when I hear or play a lot of music. I'm not afraid to say that I can't listen to Elizabeth Cotton without tears welling up. Same with Stevie Ray, Alan Wilson, John Hurt and so many others. And I can listen to them over and over and still - onions! Their life stories, their music...ack... I love it. I wouldn't change it if I could. I'd rather feel what I feel.
To be fair to my reputation (haha)...there are just as many artists and stories that squeeze grins out of me.
The one thing I've been able to pretty easily play in front of others is the harmonica. And I give Kevin McElroy the credit for giving me the confidence to do it. Funny thing about that though. With a harmonica, it's kind of like singing. You're using your mouth, face, actually your hands and head to make certain sounds. The embouchure only covers the mouth and facial movement. The hands add a whole different level. Remember what I wrote in part 1 about singing, eh? Playing a harmonica correctly - requires emotion. And conveying that emotion. Anyhow, this is way beyond what I wanted to convey here.
Confidence in one area can give you boosts in other areas. Hell, I can talk up a public-speaking storm. I've spoken in front of a thousand people before. And in smaller groups. That's been a part of how I've made a living forever. A guy with one semester of college teaching PhDs and tons of others. That takes a bit of confidence. Unless you've done that before, I gotta say, it's not as easy as you might think.
Fast forward about 40+ years from when this story began...
Since I turned about 40ish, I've had this desire to want to thank people that have helped me along the way. I've had a ton of help. Most people have. I'm certain it's a selfish thing. This "mission" was accelerated when I was given 24 to 36 months to live. That was 2 years ago. If you suck at math - that's 24 months.
When I lived in Chicago I added Kevin to my list of people to thank. It had been YEARS though
I hadn't spoken with him since however old I was when he wised up and quit working for my parents. And I cant count the number of times I've moved since then. It's 30+.
From Laura: This is where Bill's draft post stopped. The only things I've edited are a few minor grammatical bits and pieces and I added the links.
Bill had so much more to say here. Music was not only a sustaining, ever-present undercurrent in his whole life, it was also an incredible buoying force in the last three years of his life.
If he needed to get some emotion out, he went to music, diving into little known strummers and singers and players, their lives, their stories, certainly their music, until he was moved to tears and more tears.
If he needed an energetic boost, he went to music, letting the vigor and fast strumming of bluegrass or another genre slide into his muscles until he was tapping his feet, tapping the chair arm with his fingers, and then suddenly up at the counter, washing dishes.
If he needed connection, he'd wait til Robert or I stopped out at his trailer for some reason or Liz or Chuck or one of his dear friends called on the phone, and at first chance, he'd pull us into his latest discovery, passionately gesturing as he wove the tale and teed up the sounds that had him so engaged.
Thanks to the magic of the internets, Bill did eventually find Kevin McElroy. I can't exactly remember, but I think he reached him by email first, then they spoke by phone. He didn't imagine Kevin really remembered him, but he did get a chance to let Kevin know how much he meant to a bored 12-year-old kid who'd been moved around a bunch and couldn't know how much he needed the grounding impact of music. (That sounds funny to write, since we were surrounded by music all our lives in the midst of a pretty darn musical family, but Bill hadn't really *discovered* music for himself until that gift of a harmonica came his way from a cool guy who probably had other cool things he could have been doing instead.)
And here's something from Bill's last few days that demonstrates just how deeply his love of music went, and how far in his bones that love lived. When he was bed-bound and just starting to slip into a non-responsive state, we were well informed about how to keep him comfortable, both physically and spiritually/ emotionally. Something everyone suggested, and also that our mom was appreciating at the very same time from her bed on the coast of North Carolina, was music.
"Would you like to listen to music," I asked numerous times. Each time, to my surprise, he'd slowly shake his head no.
Around the same time, we noticed he was moving a bit in bed, especially his arms. Seemingly random motions, swaying around oddly. Then, as I watched, it struck me: he was playing guitar! He didn't want music in his room because he was totally absorbed with the music playing on the inside, and he was playing along with it, too! Good, good, good for him. He was creating his own comfort, as evidenced by one last expression of air guitar.
Something I take from Bill's story is the power of noticing and of generosity. Kevin didn't need to do what he did. But that one moment of noticing Bill's inclination and curiosity about music combined with Kevin following the urge to give the gift of one little harmonica...that changed Bill's life forever and so many other lives as a result.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and he got his first stimulus check, Bill was still on Medicaid. Thanks to North Carolina's anemic Medicaid laws, if the cash in his checking account (his only account) ever went above $2000, he could get booted from Medicaid, so he had to keep his eye on it constantly. Instead of trying to figure out a way to keep his stimulus money, he cashed that check and started giving out hefty tips to service people, delivery people, you name it. And WOW did that give him joy. Here's a guy who had a year or less to live, and he got so much joy from giving. I know it was because he was so aware of how much he benefitted from moments like that one with Kevin in 1974.
May we all follow Kevin's and Bill's examples!