The flute might have been a more logical choice for a young boy in a wheelchair or on crutches, even a clarinet, but not the French horn, which weighs about 40 pounds in its case. My sister had played the instrument throughout junior high, high school, and college. She went on to major in music education. As a part of her college graduation, she was asked to play a solo for the governor. I followed her path in all those things, except for being good, and playing for a head of state.
I took private horn lessons from Larry Drake, the orchestra teacher. I was a passable horn player, but never great. That is why I was surprised when I was offered a scholarship to the University of Oregon Music Camp in Eugene. I was so excited when I told my parents. I had never been away from home for any significant amount of time. The look on my father’s face was less than enthusiastic, “I don’t think it is a good idea, David.” He went on to list the dangers of my “bone condition” and how large the campus was. How would I manage to carry my horn across such a large campus?
I told Mr. Drake my father’s decision. His response was that he would have a talk with my father. That talk did not persuade him. I was devastated. That night, I wrote a poem called China Doll. The opening line was, “I am not your fragile China Doll sitting on the cabinet.” A later line read, “We cannot stop living to avoid being broken.” After reading the poem, my father said he had reconsidered, and I would be allowed to attend music camp.
The ride to Eugene was nerve-wracking and hilarious. We had agreed to give a ride to John Jambura, a cello player. John had a brilliant mind but his social calibration was broken. Imagine a car trip with John as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, my father as Homer Simpson, my mother as Edith Bunker, and me as Opie Taylor. I was relieved when we got to the campus and discovered that John would not be staying in my dorm.
Being on a large college campus was amazing to me. The music camp was huge, a band with over 250 musicians and a symphony orchestra. There was a wide variety of students. I struck up a conversation with a boy who was engrossed in reading The Tin Drum. It sounded like a children’s book. When I asked him what it was about, he said “It is a commentary on the sexual mores of war-torn Germany.” I smiled and nodded like I understood him and quickly changed the subject.
When I found my dorm room, I met my roommate. “That’s your bed,” he pointed to the other side of the room. On the bed was a pillow and a stack of sheets. After I unpacked my few belongings, my he asked, “Aren’t you going to make your bed?” I turned crimson when I realized that I did not know how. My mother made my bed. “Uh, I forgot I am suppose to meet someone … somewhere.” I left before he could say anything.
The music camp was amazing! Every morning we had lectures in music theory. Every afternoon we had rehearsals. Unfortunately, my father was right. Carrying my french horn across campus while on crutches was nearly impossible. I worked on various methods, and finally settled on the “throw-lunge-leap method” interspersed with“drag-and-cry.” I knew I was quite a sight, but when offered assistance I replied, “No thanks, I got this.”
One of the social highlights of the camp was the university’s production of Bernstein’s On the Town. Apparently, it was assumed you would find a date to take to the event. I knew I had to “keep cover,” so I asked the Karen, an oboist. She declined. Foolishly, I went to her dorm and stood outside her window and tried to convince her. Convincing her included crutch twirling and singing a medley of show tunes. She said yes, just to get me to go away. The date was awkward and less than successful. At the end of the performance I turned to her and said, “Do you want to …” Before I could finish, she said, “No,” and left.
Defeated, I walked to an isolated part of the campus and sat down and lamented to myself. “If only when we met people it was always seated at a table, blindfolded. And the only way to form an impression of someone was by their words. Because I was alone, I was able to add, “and it is okay to fall in love with a boy.”
The camp concluded with the release of a recording of our concert. All in all, it was a great experience, and I met some wonderful people. We all promised to keep in touch, but in the pre-internet days that was not going to happen.
When I returned home, I received a letter completely out of the blue from a girl named Susan. I did not recall the name, but she wrote that she was a flute player in the band and that she was from Astoria. I expected the letter go the direction of …. “I have a huge crush on you and was wondering if we could sit down at a table blindfolded for a romantic conversation?” Instead, she wrote, “I got your name and address the last day of camp. I wanted you to know how much I admired you. I knew it was difficult for you to carry your horn across campus, but your attitude was always so upbeat. I love your sense of humor. I have found myself in my own difficult situation. Shortly after starting school in September, I began having headaches. They have diagnosed me with brain cancer. Meeting you at band camp has helped me develop a more positive attitude. I wish we could have met earlier.”
I shared the letter with my father. “Let’s take a trip to Astoria this weekend,” he said. I was not enthusiastic, but agreed. The trip from La Grande to Astoria was long and uneventful. Susan’s house was on a hill with a steep driveway. I waited in the car as my father went up to the house to knock on the door. A woman in an apron answered. After a brief conversation and my father returned to the car. “Susan died two days ago.” There was a dark silence as we drove out-of town. I do not remember crying.
I have learned a simple lesson. People are watching your life. Most often, you will not know who those people are or what impact you have had, but they are watching.
My period of dormancy seems to be coming to an end. I have returned to home care under hospice. The cancer has impacted my liver and I am losing a great deal of weight. I am not the poster child for “grace under pressure” but more of a “take each day as it comes” kind of guy. I want to thank my family, and particularly Sam for the care and support they have given me. I have watched Sam’s life over the last ten years or so. He is not a romantic but he loves me dearly. The person who cleans up your vomit and poop is the one who loves you the most.
Quiet. People are watching.
Blast from the Past
I encourage you to visit my website to explore other writings and projects. I recommend: Haircut and Homily No. 16: The Truth About God and the year I broke my arm at Oregon State.