Saturday, February 04, 2006

They were the Music Men at Southwestern

The Music Men
Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
JAMESTOWN, New York - For some reason, we called Mr. Turner 'Cho-Cho,' something to do with the ice cream bars he ate most days in the lunchroom, watching all of us to ensure that we didn't turn the SWCS cafeteria into some kind of Animal House food fight.

Dalton Berringer, on the other hand didn't have a nickname I knew of. But he was the only music teacher I got to know at all in high school.

Dalton was a whiz on the piano and once I asked him to try to play 'Nutrocker' by Bee Bumble and stingers, a song he said was beyond his abilities. But he said he was flattered that I thought he could play it.

The following summer, while breaking various speed laws on the lake, I was pulled over by the Sheriff's boat and it was Dalton B. himself running the controls, earning a little money in the summer. No ticket, just a friendly warning and mostly a lot of bullshitting about my boat. I realize now he probably wanted me to take him waterskiing.

Dalton B. also played gigs at the Hotel Jamestown, I remember, dinner music on the piano. He probably sang, too, though I don't remember for sure.

Cho-Cho and Mr. Bennett (in the center) did the various bands and I never got involved with band. My mother wasn't able to convince me to take up an instrument and besides, I was probably quite lacking in dee-zire to practice, I'm sure.

But the music teacher I remember the most clearly was a Mrs. Nelson, who might have been our 7th grade teacher. She always led us in song and at the beginning of whatever year it was, had us walk up and sing with her, accompanying us on the piano. It was some kind of test to figure out where we should sit in the room to get the best sound out of each of us.

Do I need to spell out why I remember her so well?

At 13 or 14, my voice, like those of most of male classmates, alternated between the vocals of the highest notes of Vienna Boys Choir and the scratching of Kermit the Frog (who was still just a dream in Jim Henson's fertile imagination).

Mrs. Nelson kept me at the piano for what seemed like an eternity one morning, asking me to try to hit the high notes over and over. She was a musical surgeon with a medical marvel in front of her - the musical equivalent of the Elephant Man.

I couldn't hit the high notes at all (my voice cracked and creaked like a wooden bridge) and the low notes seemed to come just as my voice would click over to Kermit, spilling out of my nose like a bad cold.

"You better take up an instrument," she finally said, dispatching me back to my seat, "You're never going to be much of a singer."

If you were there and laughed, I don't blame you. But it's one of the reasons I can't watch American Idol.

In retrospect, I should've snapped off some witty retort (today I would include menopause and a swat at her hairdo in some repartee), but at that age, the humiliation was quite sufficient to send me back to my seat cowering - and to avoid vocals for years.

What brings this all up now is that a couple of months into trying to make music on a guitar, I've come to realize that the guitar (for me anyway) requires (gulp) singing.

So every time I practice 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore,' or some other zippy song that only requires three or four chords and have to belt out with my voice, I try to block out old Mrs. Nelson from my mind and think about Dalton B.

No matter how bad our singing might have been in class, I remember that he would just smile and play the piano a little louder and louder and louder until his keys and strings of that cheapshit piano would strain like a badly constructed rope bridge.

But in those circumstances, I would sing loud, too. Hell, nobody could hear me!

Maybe today I'll substitute Dalton for Michael when I practice the guitar, a little low-key tribute to the only music teacher I've ever really had.

'Dalton row the boat ashore...'

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wrestling - the refuge of the nearsighted

SWCS wrestling squad
Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
JAMESTOWN, NY - My mother was always puzzled why I went out for the Southwestern Central wrestling team.

After all, in 9th grade, I weighed 120 pounds and was already 5 feet, 10 inches tall. (I grew another half inch by graduation, not that it matters.)

And strong was not an adjective anyone used in regards to me at that point in my life.

'Why not basketball?' my mom always asked. 'You're tall and you can run fast.'

True, but the truth was, I couldn't see the basket well enough to put the ball through the hoop - even with my glasses.

But on the wrestling mat, all the action was done virtually by braille so the disadvantages of myopia were not as pronounced - but they were still there.

At the beginning of a wrestling match, when the opponents face each other, there's a period when sometimes you are simply standing, waiting to make a lunge at your opponent. When I lunged, the opponent usually wasn't there by the time I got across the mat, though they always seemed to be able to yank my ankles and drop me on my butt fairly easily.

That might have been a coordination issue and not near-sightedness, now that I think about it.

But the wrestling team was good for me because in the middle of the Jamestown winter, I spent afternoons grappling, stretching and sometimes lifting weights, the alternative to which was sitting home eating Chunky candy bars, drinking ginger ale or Coca-Cola and watching black & white television.

We had our wrestling practices at the now-demolished Lakewood Elementary School which was a pretty grim place downstairs in the locker room. We would take over the gym for a couple of hours, skipping rope and practicing. And just before each match, we would go through a ritual called the 'wrestle-off' to see who would get to represent SWCS against another school.

These wrestle off matches were as vicious as any inter-school contest. And to lose to someone you had to then see at school the next day, well, embarassing doesn't quite cover it.

I never made it to the big show, but at most matches I wrestled in the pre-match 'exhibitions,' frequently against people that weighed more than I did. Coach 'Flash' was trying to give me experience, he said.

It did.

I was thrown across the mat from Gowanda to Salamanca to Falconer, though I won a few matches when the guys were within 10-pounds of my weight class.

I used to think that I never made it to the big show because each of the four years I wrestled, we had guys in my weight class who were almost undefeated.

The truth is, as Flash once told me in front of most of the team, wrestling requires lots of muscles (which I was a little short of), great coordination (already covered, see paragraph 9) and an intangible, immeasurable quality called heart.

Only Flash didn't call it heart, he called it dee-zire. You have it, or you don't, he would say.

While I never made much success of the wrestling, his dee-zire lesson did stick and when I went into the newspaper business, I finally understood it as I pursued stories and tried to change the world with that same tenacity exhibited by many of the guys in the photo with this blog who pursued their opponents across the mat.

Dee-zire, you have it, or you don't.