I was living in a time of fear and change. It was a time when the black, grey and white images of a far-off jungle washed our living room in the early evenings with scores of hushed or screaming cameramen and reporters who shot back graphical visions of young boys in military uniforms who lay unmoving on a fern and long grass covered hilltop plateau whilst helicopters bussed and unsettled the dust around black, long bags. I was 12, I was a 7th grader with small dreams and bigger nightmares. Dear Mr. Summers (one of the best musicians that I ever had the privilege to work with) had taught me how to play a trombone the year before and I found solace in its magnificence, probably because it drowned out the sound of Lyndon sending more boys for the bags to that jungle in the television set. It became my friend and companion but challenged my 7-year old too-short arms. Somehow tones came and went giving me a reason to act somewhat musically. My parents had already started making plans to send me to my Grandmother in Germany that coming summer because she promised me a new horn, probably with the hopes of improving the growling which had become my playing. I could even read notes, they just didn’t sound like the next guys. Those were still the days where a 12 -year-old was trusted alone on a trans-Atlantic trip. We had grown up working, dependent on chores for fun, turning responsibility into independence. We weren’t free from that which we couldn’t understand or feel the gravity of changes to be but we had power. Kid’s power based on putting your head down to avoid a bloody nose.
It was a time of television and its terrifying and ridiculous grasp on after-homework leftover brain cells. The inconceivable plague of war and politics were no match for the newly uncorked shenanigans of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” a mixed salad of stupidity, psychedelic tone and borderline comedy that we all seemed to inhale in order to take away the stench of a world gone hate-berserk. I laughed at what I could understand and stared fleetingly at Goldie’s beautiful long legs. These were characters that you really did want to meet just to see if they really spoke that way.
Then came TET, that celebration in the jungle where all hell broke loose and the little guys from up north charged through the razor grass and shot up our soldiers with their AK-47s, jamming the waves with more destruction, smoke, napalm and revolutions were on every campus it seemed. I was so confused and hoping that movie would come to an end. It was rural Idaho where the war seemed more than far away and we felt unscathed except for the reminder on the Zenith television on the gold brass stand with plastic rollers. I just imagined everything was green so I couldn’t be reminded of the color of blood. The stark graphics of a far-away war complete with Pulitzer prize photos of executions and shameful massacres like My Lai bringing citizen against politician against student against democracy was eating away at a core of wholesomeness I so very much wanted to cherish but was forced to discard. My young childhood was being shaped into a ghoul in the form of antennas and screens and large numbers of fallen brothers on the front of our farm-based newspaper, making me afraid, making me restless, making me want to scream without knowing why. I wanted summer to come. I wanted to be in the airplane, alone having peanuts and a beverage of my choice as well as finally having a Coke without grown people around me making me feel guilty about it ruining my teeth and life, breathing in that European air, seeing and hearing a strange and wonderful music of foreign languages and vivid cultures. In a sense, I was escaping that black and white which had become so very stifling.
I vividly remember Lyndon’s face saying he didn’t want this shitty job any more. Somehow it didn’t bother me, maybe the war would stop and the pains of realizing our world was failing would go away. I wasn’t prepared and could not comprehend that next wave of hysteria when the little preacher was shot in Memphis. Martin, the black man my parents used to praise. No African-Americans lived in our neighborhood at that time so we weren’t used to what was called racism, hate, and the connotations that made up that horrible cesspool others would experience growing up in diverse regions. There was the occasional bad word or reference to Native Americans or Mexican immigrants living in our region, but not from people I knew. We weren’t well-to-do and that was what brought on an uneasiness or notice of silly things being said by kids as they are. I do know that the pictures of that cheap balcony on a motel in Elvis’ town, with men in hats pointing to the area from where a bullet came from made me very sad and took me to that lonely place, that frightened place in second grade where my teacher tried to explain that the President had been shot.
It escalated so very soon after the balcony scene to that shocking bloody floor where Bobby lay. He looked so alive, trying to speak, groups of screaming convention goers in stupid hats, making a hysterical situation all the more intolerable showering me with apprehensions I could not compass. I realized then that the color of blood was grey and became black, and the pools of 1968 would haunt me forever.
I was exhausted of emotion arriving in Germany, hugged by Oma, and finally escaping that torrential wash of angst and dilemma which had become my dreams. Even hay and horse, football or brass instruments, pubescent girls or secret wishes could not erase the stars and stripes draped over a case on a tarmac, or the dripping of grey blood into a busboy’s hand on a cold hallway floor in the Ambassador Hotel.
One of the perks of visiting my grandmother in Germany was the planning and executing of two-week adventures to her hometown of Klingenthal, nestled in the woody hills of east Saxony directly on the border of Czechoslovakia. It was a stark contrast to our Franconian home in Nürnberg, Bavaria, a hustle-bustle, large and modern city famed for its medieval history and scourge of National Socialism during World War II. Klingenthal was pristine, surrounded by pine- tree hills and manufacturers of some of the finest musical instruments in Europe. Here it was that I was to receive and baptize my new trombone, with the hopes that I may be lifted out of musical mediocrity and get the girls because they loved trombone players. That is possibly the reason I became a tenor later in life now hearing echoes of that 12 year old „bone-player“. If was different, not a fancy horn, not polished brass, just a mellow sound (if played correctly) A couple of years later that horn was lovingly referred to by my new band teacher Mr. Bennett and to my horror, as a „Maytag“! I am sure that it often sounded that way and was certainly without a rinse cycle. I still love Mr. Bennett and have long since sold the Maytag.
The exotic part of Klingenthal was its location in former East Germany. The real adventure however was the train ride from Nürnberg, crossing the border and being controlled and questioned on entering a socialist country. „Yes, I am an American“ I boasted proudly (but timid enough that they wouldn’t think this 12- year -old was up to no good) as I looked into the stern faces of the border police in their military uniforms and shoulder slung weapons. There was always a little element of terror on being „controlled“ and a parallel and elation- jacked rush fed by 007 movies and spy stories. Again, only in grey, black and white spawned from our old TV. The GDR (DDR) was also a place of greys as the Russian influenced German state didn’t necessarily find it an option to splurge on house paint that was virtually impossible to find anyway. So instead of the pastels and experiment colors savored by the west sectors, the towns and cities were awash in light browns and dirt greys giving the illusion of class indistinguishability and cooperation. The color was locked in the homes themselves, with hidden antennas to watch and listen to propaganda from the west. Some of the collaboration was the secret kind, the informants that reported the what’s and where’s of their neighbors comings and goings to become a pet dog of the state and given an extra morsel or allowance to go into Intershop where most things were not available at the local 5 and dime. My grandmother’s family were for the most part, simple and not interested in anything that didn’t have to do with their garden and family life saturated with art, music, Christian beliefs and laughter. Fun centered around Uncle Georg, his honey bees, and spraying them down with water from an old bicycle pump to keep them from swarming. It was a true drop of color in that grey zone.
It was the 21st of August in 68’ in that summer vacation in Klingenthal with Uncle Georg‘s bees and standing in line at the bakery in the early mornings for fresh rolls where the grey line of soldiers and tanks went down the street and broke the silence. 100 miles away in the city of Prague, Czechoslovakia the end of liberalization yawed its severed head and the world watched as Russia and Warsaw Pact troops invaded in the largest military act since the end of the 2nd World War. I was definitely in the middle or at least near the middle of a very cold war. They later called it the „Prague Spring“. It was an unsuccessful trial to reform the totalitarian regime hoping that they would listen to the voice of reform, meaning freedom of speech followed by a swift ass-whipping. It was a not only a show of brute force and political rape, but a seemingly successful venture to „shut up“ anyone with a different idea or opinion. The press was damned and abolished if printing a prose against the regime and political prisoners were made of voices with hope, idealism and logic. The result was over 20 years of occupation, much tougher and detrimental than just the browns and greys of that brand of socialism.
It scared the hell out of me because I somehow felt responsible that I had voiced an opinion at the border and brought on the large scale enema of realism. I was 12 and a villain of sorts! A trombone-playing villain! Regardless, Oma and I were on a train 3 days earlier as planned and again I was escaping that grey zone, Maytag in hand and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of it all.
The year and television was awash with new troubles in North Ireland, Jackie O taking the hand of a Greek tycoon erasing Camelot to its chamber pot, and of course the realization of incoming Chief Richard Nixon who started a festival of absurdity all of his own.
The children of those wars on the box, of those protests from afar, are the children of grey, the color of blood and lost liberties. It is a term of not knowing for sure, not yet aware of truth or evidence. Grey is also the color of astute awareness in knowing that blood flowing, regardless of how you look at it is red. Truth IS truth and the beholder often searches for grey in order to turn away from a distinct and vivid color. The era of 68‘ that oh, so very long year, was the end of my innocence as a child and the beginning of salvaging a lost understanding of solace and peace. It meant seeing grey as a color not a shade, as a viable and worthwhile platform to search. I have read scores of manuscripts, heard volumes of prose and felt pangs of „searching“ for truth. It is always there, hidden by humans. Nature shows us her true self with a constant circumnavigation of wonder and devastation. Now it seems that her wrath is a shout out truth of her own, commanding us to shed our arrogance of superiority in a veiled attempt to hide fact. I suppose a Twitter vent could actually be just more shrouding of truth that some are too embarrassed to face up with. For those of you who feel singled out by that remark, sorry, no harm meant.
I have become tired and sick, tired of that uncertainty and blatant disregard of anything divine and sick of the abuse of power and trashing of hope forcing our people, my people, your people, their people, to slash divides with a vengeance based on ludicrous shows of might and ego fired on by stupidity and lack of dignity.
Ask a question of „what world do I want for my children“ and have the incentive to voice your opinions, not as gospel, but as a father and mother of a country of young minds, of hopeful souls, of laughing and creative superstars. The wars are no longer on foreign soils and are no longer grey or green. They are in our front rooms, on our I-pads and Smartphones. It is in our „texting“ because we find it too painful to communicate with a single telephone call or talking on a park bench. It is what we are teaching those young ones…avoid the obvious, sweep away the truth, and shun a heart to heart because it could be painful rather than enlightening. By all means, don’t accept responsibility and or consequence.
We still talked in 68’, sometimes loud and sometimes rough but with passion and conviction. Having it eliminated or covered up in front of our faces was and sadly still is a testament to our own insecurities and imperfections. Just “texting” a feeling to those with whom you should be speaking is a cop-out, a run-n-hide, and a much missed opportunity to be colorful, to shed the grey. I won’t accept this as normal, as it is asking me to cease to breathe.
I woke up this morning on the day of a Prague Spring 50 years ago and realized that I can still play a trombone, but don’t have to worry what someone will say about it except me. It could be loud and ugly but I’m doing the best I can.