Lowrey Elementary School Band Director, Mrs. Johnson, came into our 6th grade homeroom the first week of the new school year, wanting us to learn to play an instrument and join her band. Two friends and I envied a 7th grader beating drum-sticks on school steps, so we wanted to be drummers in the worst way. Mrs. Johnson saw me in her dimly-lit office next to the band room, offering a new world of opportunity. “Well, my dear”, she asked in a kindly voice over her horn-rimmed glasses, “What sort of instrument were you thinking of playing?”
“Well, Ma’am, I want to be a drummer ‘cause I saw a friend beating drumsticks and it sounded good.” The simple truth was best and she seemed unperturbed by a straightforward answer.
“Tell you what. I’ll loan you drumsticks and a pad for practice, but you have the lips to play trombone. I happen to need a trombonist and can lend you a trombone.” She assembled one before my eyes. “Here’s a mouthpiece for you to practice. Put your lips together and buzz into it like this. You’ll get the hang of it and I’ll see you next week.”
Even at my young age, I knew it was a trap. The trombone was longer than I was tall and a lot more expensive than drumsticks, but I couldn’t get out of seeing her the following week because I had to return the sticks, pad, and mouthpiece.
I asked my friends what happened with their visits to Mrs. Johnson. The first was still in a state of shock. “I have to take this cornet home along with the drumsticks and try them both out. She needs cornets, so she lent me this.” I was mystified my friend had given up so easily on drumming. The other was even less satisfied.
“She ran out of drumsticks because you guys took them all. I have a saxophone mouthpiece to try but I get the drumsticks next week. Dad says Charlie Parker is the world’s greatest jazz saxophonist. Who’s he, anyway?” By the time I got home, I figured Mrs. Johnson had all the drummer-trainees she would ever need. The drumsticks would be taken from my grasp, to be delivered to someone else, and I would be snookered into a lifetime of playing trombone if I wasn’t smart enough to find a way out.
Sitting around the kitchen table a few nights later, my mother said, “I had a call from Mrs. Johnson and she says you have a nice embouchure. Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were the greatest American band leaders and trombonists ever, except Glenn Miller blew up in an airplane in World War II.”
I was appalled to discover the trap had been sprung. “Mom, all the mouthpiece does is make “Thrrrp” noises and spit comes out. I don’t have trombone lips; I have braces. Why can’t I play guitar? And what’s embouchure anyway?” Diversionary guitar tactics weren’t going anywhere, despite scary visions of trombonists blowing up in airplanes.
“Mrs. Johnson wants to see you tomorrow. She’s going to lend you one to try out.”
Mrs. Johnson had invaded my life to an awesome extent. Who was this Tommy Dorsey so enthralling my mother? I had serious doubts about satisfying her Tommy Dorsey needs but, within weeks, I was a struggling elementary school trombonist. In a few more years, I was an acceptable junior and then high school trombonist. In my senior year, our orchestra was in the play “Brigadoon” with a cast party after the last performance.
My father let me drive his new 1957 V8-powered Chevrolet to the party, a special privilege. However, a rat-faced band member challenged me to race his dad’s new 6-cylinder Dodge Coronet. We decided to race one block. At a signal, we took off and God was kind that night because we didn’t crash. At the end of the block, I had beaten him handily. In frustration, he gunned his car and turned left, his left front hitting the right front of our brand-new Chevrolet. We both got out, shaking. His father’s car had damage but, try as we might, we couldn’t find anything wrong with the Chevy. Then I realized the trombone had been lying on the back seat and was now on the floor.
Driving home, trembling all the way, I knew there must be some damage to the Chevrolet. If I hadn’t been talked into playing trombone by Mrs. Johnson years before, this never would have happened. Next morning, before I could look at the car, my father said, “It’s the strangest thing. I didn’t tell your mother but a few days ago I hit the right front bumper of our new car on a telephone pole. It pulled it out two inches, a lot of money to fix. But now it’s like it never happened. It’s back in place without a mark on it.”
I croaked, “Wow, dad, that’s amazing. They must have a new kind of steel that reforms into place if it’s hit. I’ve never heard of anything like that.” I went outside and checked the bumper in bright sunlight. There wasn’t a scratch or ding. Back in my bedroom, I found a slight dent in the trombone bell, but no one would ever know except me.