“Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” ~James Matthew Barrie
Sometimes I wonder if kindness is outdated or if somehow we’ve lost the ability, the will or the wanting to do for others just because we can and it’s nice. When I ponder that, I always return to a time and place many years ago and relive one of the incidents in my childhood that taught me kindness and how it can so naturally come about and become reciprocal when you live a generous life.
I knew in fourth grade, when I played "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on my $2.25 shiny black, plastic Tonette, I wanted to be in the band. That would require playing a "real" musical instrument in fifth or sixth grade. My parents, Mom, a homemaker who took in ironings for single male teachers and Dad, a seasonal Hod Carrier, couldn't afford to buy or rent an instrument, so I knew better than to pursue the money issue. Fifth grade came and went while I longingly watched my friends and fellow classmates carry their music makers to and from school, my eyes always affixed on their instrument cases and the possibilities held inside. Sixth grade was my last chance. I couldn’t be shy any more. If no one knew I wanted to be in the band, it would never happen. Door after door in my neighborhood, I knocked to see if anyone had an old instrument lying around they weren't using. I didn’t feel embarrassed about asking. That’s the way our parents and the older kids did things. It didn't matter what they could come up with; flute, trombone, tuba, I’d play anything to be in the band. Unfortunately, the answers were similar. Whatever they had was in use, or they didn't have it any more, but all seemed genuinely sorry they couldn't help me.
During the first week of sixth grade, I sat through yet another assembly introducing us to the wonderful world of music and was shown the wide variety of instruments from which to choose. After school, my Mom told me to go to Mrs. Denson’s, an elderly neighbor lady's house down the street, because she had asked to see me. My mother didn't question, "what for," when she called nor did I when told to head over there before doing my homework. I figured she needed me to help her with something, maybe pick a bucket of apples or run to the store. In my small midwestern town in Macon County, we just did those kinds of things for each other. Mrs. Denson was somewhere in her 70's, slim with pure white hair, blue eyes and alone since her husband passed on a few years earlier. When I arrived, she told me there was something in the attic I needed to see. I managed to pull the heavy attic steps down, and we both headed up the stairs. I stayed behind Mrs. Denson for fear she might slip, but slowly and steadily, we made it. She told me the town vine had hit her ear and she learned I wanted to play in the band, so she wanted to show me the saxophone her son played many years ago.
When launching my band campaign throughout the neighborhood just a week before, I recalled Mrs. Denson did not answer her door, and at the time I assumed she was out, getting her hair done.
Once we reached the top, she stepped over the rafters to a boarded area of the attic and reached between some cardboard boxes. Her thin but strong arms drug a dusty, black suitcase with silver hinges to the open. My heart began to pound. As she opened the case, I could see it was very old, silver and tarnished. The musty odor made my nose scrunch. It didn't look much like the shiny instruments at school, but I didn't care. Second-hand didn't bother me. My Mom was a master at making old things look new. I gave her a big hug and couldn't stop thanking her. She seemed as happy to give me the saxophone as I did receiving it. We both made it back down the stairs safely.
Mom and I rubbed and swirled that thing with silver polish, boiled the mouthpiece and sprayed room deodorizer all over the insides of the case. I used my Dad’s masking tape to remove every bit of fuzz and lint from the worn, red velveteen lining the case. With my new reeds, purchased from the music store in the city, I was ready to be in the band.
There were four alto saxophones the first day of band, and I had the only silver one. I considered that special. The band director went down the line requiring all students to blow into their instrument. When he got to me, I remember he said, "What have we here? I haven't seen a horn like this for a long time.” With Mr. Moore's guidance, I proceeded to play my first note, but nothing came out. I drew in more air, puffed my cheeks, and still nothing came out. I figured I just didn’t know how to do it yet. Embarrassed and confused, I handed over my saxophone to Mr. Moore, who said he would give it a try. Still nothing. The snickering from the class didn't bother me much; I was more concerned about the saxophone. After class Mr. Moore told me he’d stop by an instrument repair shop on his way home through the city to have it checked out.
Before I reached my seat in the band room the next day, a fellow bandsman told me Mr. Moore wanted to see me in his office. My stomach soured. Somehow I new something was seriously wrong with Mrs. Denson's son’s saxophone. Mr. Moore explained the instrument had been repeatedly frozen over the years, probably due to its stay in the attic during our harsh Illinois winters and would never play. I couldn't believe it! I didn't want to believe it. My hopes and dreams of being in the band were dashed!
At recess, while my classmates headed to the open field to play dodge ball, I walked like a zombie to the empty ball diamond. I wilted cross-legged on third base and stared away from the school, into the cornfield and up to the sky. I don't remember thinking anything, only feeling everything! I’d never be in the band. I’d never play music. I’d never march at half-time during a football game in high school.
Mr. Doss, my sixth grade teacher, had noticed my unusual behavior and questioned my friends to find out what the problem was. They all knew I wanted to be in the band. He sent a classmate to tell me to come inside. In the time it took Mike to walk to third base, call me four eyes and tell me to get inside because I was in big trouble, Mr. Doss had walked across the street to his house and returned with a black case similar to Mrs. Denson's, only much newer. It was another silver alto saxophone, but it wasn't tarnished and it didn't even smell bad. He put it together and began to wail. I was in awe. They sounded great together, Mr. Doss and his silver saxophone. He told me I could use his horn until I entered junior high school. I promised Mr. Doss that his saxophone would receive the very best of care. He said he knew it would.
By the end of sixth grade, I was first chair player and the only silver saxophone in the band. Mr. Doss petitioned the school board to buy a saxophone for my use in junior high, and they actually did. Only in junior high and all through high school, I played tenor saxophone instead of alto because that's what the band director said he needed.
The kindness living near me fulfilled my dream and enabled my participation in concert band, marching band, stage band and pep band for nearly eight years, cherishing and loving every moment and note I felt blessed to play.
Macon, Illinois, a rural and very small town, was filled with huge, kind hearts who lived the most generous lives and it had very little to do with money. If it wasn’t band instruments, the town folk eagerly shared or traded tomatoes, corn, persimmons, grapes, eggs and even china baby dolls, but those are other stories I hope to tell you some day.