Monday, September 19, 2016

Picking Grapes or Ducking Bullets?

When I was a kid, I worked a good part of two summers on a farm to avoid having to live in a squalid Army barrack with my family while my father worked on his Masters degree in Hays Kansas. The summer I turned 13, I went along with the crowd and suffered the slings and discomfort of living in close quarters with a squalling baby, my three bitchy younger siblings, and my parents and decided that death would be better than doing that again. Any kind of death. The next summer (1962), I was in a rock and roll band that toured Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, eastern Colorado, and a bit of Nebraska for most of the mid-to-late summer and if I hoped to get to go on the road with the boys I needed a good story to convince my father that I should get to stay behind. So, I found a job working on a farm for the early wheat and hay harvest with the plan of taking off the moment the band got the first gig of the summer.

I was the youngest member of the band, by about 4 years and the bass player. I’d met the band leader in Hays the previous summer and lied about being able to play bass. He was a rich kid and, because I only owned a crappy Sears/Silvertone acoustic guitar and an even crappier Western Auto/Silvertone electric guitar, he bought a Fender bass (probably a Musicmaster) and a Bassman 50 for me to use. I practiced the bass all winter and was more than ready for the 3-chord garage punk rock would be the Tracers specialty. We weren’t talented, but we were loud. The PA system was a pair of Fender Showmen amps with two 4-ten cabinets per side. We were one of the few R&R bands in Kansas at the time with vocals loud enough to be heard.

That first summer touring experience ruined me for most kinds of work, forever. That year, I was smart or lucky enough to be back in Dodge staying in my step-grandparents’ basement before my family returned home. I’d made pretty good money between the farm work and the band, but I didn’t make it back with much to show for the summer.

The next summer, 1963, I used the same story to skip out on the Hays family excursion and it worked again. This was also the summer my father laid his ultimatum on me, “live in my house, go to my church,” so I wanted to make my escape permanent if I could work it out. That summer I planned on saving my money. The farm work paid even better that year, because I was old/big enough to get a truck and combine driving gig. The band did a whole lot better, too. That year we were advertised on KOMA Oklahoma City radio and  booked through Lawrence, Kansas’ John Brown Midcontinent Productions. You could hear ads warning that “the Tremendous Tracers are coming to your town, TONIGHT!” all over the Midwest. I came home after the family returned that fall. In fact, I was about two weeks late for the start of high school. I bought my band gear home and more money than my father earned in a year teaching high school. Like an idiot, I bragged about it when he yelled at me for missing the start of school. He tossed the amp down the stairs (where my old room was) and I can’t remember what happened to the bass, but I didn’t have one to practice with that summer. He confiscated my money and stuffed it into US Savings Bonds that I couldn’t redeem until I turned 18. That was a game we’d played with any money I made up to that point. Later that summer, I got a job and moved out of my family’s home for good.

The next summer, I didn’t bother with the farm story. One night I just packed up and moved to a friend’s house in a small town about 30 miles from Dodge as soon as school ended. A few weeks late, the band picked me up and I was on tour all summer. I made more money that summer than I did for the next several years. That year, my family stayed in Dodge and I ended up moving to Hays because about every band in the Midwest was there. The Blue Things, the Playmates Blues Band, The Fabulous Flippers, Spider and the Crabs, and a bunch of terrific bands lived in a trailer court, between gigs, not far from the college.

At the end of that summer, life went to shit, the Tracers disbanded, when the band leader crashed his T-Bird into the only fuckin’ tree in Oklahoma on the way back home to Little Rock, Arkansas. When I came back, I rented a trailer with a friend and enrolled in the local community college. Big mistake. The school, Dodge City Community College, was as bad as schools get and probably isn’t much better today.

While I played in a couple dozen bands between 1966 and 1982, none of them were as fun as the Tracers and I pretty much played for money rather than love after I got married in 1967.

But to the point of the title of this article, thanks to life-long allergies I have always despised plant life. My last brief stint on the farm, in 1966, resulted in an asthma bout that turned into bronchitis and pneumonia which coincided with my draft physical and my 1-Y draft deferment. Over the years, I have learned to dislike plants to the point that I’d rather kill and eat a herbivorous animal than dig or pick food from the ground. You might get the creeps from handling birds or snakes or insects or spiders, but neither of those bother me at all I’d just as soon avoid the poisonous variety of the animal world, but I can usually tell which animal might be a problem. The only way I can identify a plant that might infect, kill, or cause an allergic reaction from lettuce is the hard way.

This weekend, I was “volunteered” for an afternoon of grape picking. I knew it would be a miserable experience, but after about an hour I realized that I’d rather be a mercenary than a farmer. I used to tell my students that when I was their age I’d have killed someone to get to work in the studios we had at MSCM. I was not kidding.

1 comment:

Thomas Day said...

Sadly, this essay started a dialog that lost me the friendship of someone I've valued for more than 30 years. The cultural wars I had with my father were from another time, one where very traditional values were being displaced with values based on reality rather than religion and authority. It wasn't my father's "fault" that he was an inbetweener, someone who discarded his own father's values but replaced them with something only slightly modified from the previous generation.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.