Narratives about motorcycling on Northern California's back roads; Reflections on the history and geography of the North State; Memoirs and early recollections of youthful visits to towns and forests and mountaintops.
Also middle-of-the-road takes on current issues in politics and education. Middle of the road? Isn't that dangerous?
I’ll make this quick as most readers prefer exhaust notes to those from brass instruments.
In 1966, as a junior high kid in beginning band, director Charles Van Bronkorst needed someone to play tuba and me, with big buck teeth, looked dumb enough to do it. I learned to play the little Pan American E-flat pretty well so, the following year, Charley put me on a Bb-flat and moved me to “Concert” band. I would only toot on the little E-flat for one school year.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward twenty-five years and Sister Sue accepts the band position at my old junior high. Readying herself to toss out decades-old instruments, she somehow discovered the little Pan American as the one I had used, sold it for salvage value (to herself), cleaned the thing up a bit and presented it to me as one of the best Christmas presents ever. That was 1990-something.
In my years as a school principal, I kept the horn in my office and sometimes tooted out the theme to the Flintstones on it at recess much to the delight of the littler kids on campus.
Upon my move to the district office and then my retirement, the little tuba sat sad, neglected and increasingly tarnished in various corners at home. Until…
…Until a grandkid or two came along and as pre-Kindergartners wanted to blow on the thing. By then – 2015 – the valves were frozen and the tuning slides dried and stuck and the little shavers could only get one note or maybe an overtone out on it. I resolved to get the little bass back to playing condition so the kids could have a more tuba-like experience. But where?
Brother Bill, a very accomplished lower brass player, said, “The best place on the west coast is Best Music in Oakland!” It does not pay to argue with Brother Bill.
I took it in for a quick assessment. “What’ll it cost to get the valves working and the slides greased up?”
The young lady glanced at the horn and said, “Probably about $300.” That was far less than what I thought. Then she added, “We’ll also see if we can shine it up a bit.”
Three weeks elapsed when I get a phone message: “Your horn is ready to be picked up.”
Dropping everything I bolted down to Best in our Bolt… (round trip to Oakland would be 190 miles and the car’s battery still had a quarter of a charge in the battery by the time I returned home.) …and parked in the echoy garage across from the Federal Courthouse.
Best Music (the storefront is labelled A&G Music) is located in the basement of an ancient building on 14th Street. There’s an antique freight elevator that may or may not work. The stairs complain greatly with each step. Into the catacombs below, a glass display counter of violin bows and clarinet reeds is backed by a wall of new and refurbished instruments. A small rack of sheet music is visible. But the main expanse proves to be a layout of work stations where soldering, plating, polishing and all manner of repair is undertaken.
I hand my claim check to a young man at the counter. He disappears into a work area and returns with couldn’t possibly be the old Pan American. It is polished to like-new. The valves work better than when I was in seventh grade. The slides slide! I so wanted to blow a note or two right down there in the repair shop, but my chops hadn’t kissed a mouthpiece in over a decade. Before I asked, “How much?” I recalled the words “probably about $300.” This was going to be more. Much, much more. It had to be.
Walking on a sunlit Oakland sidewalk with the shiny little tuba transported me to those halcyon, who-the-hell-cares days of being an oblivious 13-year-old. Before I placed the treasure in the way-back of the Bolt, I couldn’t resist knocking out an E-flat major scale in the parking garage. The sound reverberated like the anthem in a big league ball park. The grin on my face hurt my cheeks.
Slamming shut the hatch to the Chevy I turned to hear a fellow in a neighboring stall say, “If you got yourself a folding chair and a used Big Gulp cup from the 7-11, you might could find a corner and go into business for yourself.” We laughed as he tossed a leather attache into the back seat of his up-scale Tesla and gave each other the electric car nod. I followed him out thinking, "Yeah, well, I've got this tuba..."
Note: Here’s some information about Best Instrument Repair Co and their host A&G Music: http://www.agmusic.com/index.html A shout out to a company that does more than one would expect for less than one might predict. Also, know that if you’re in the market for a new or used instrument, this outfit should be on the short list of places you check out.