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All the Wrong Notes
by Grover Sales

January, 2001

          My first heady exposure to black music was in a black sanctified church in 1932 in Millersburg (pop. 810) Bourbon County, Kentucky, an unlikely locale for a rebellious 12 year old Jew from Louisville, but my father had succumbed to the enticements of Millersburg Military Institute, which promised to "instill Discipline and build Character." Dad could ill afford it, having taken a terrible bath in the Crash of '29, but that's how much trouble I was at home. I was not only the only Jew in the school's history, but the only Jew this remote hamlet had ever seen.

          The second day of school, the older cadets threw me on the floor to feel for my horns. Primitive Southerners knew that Jews had horns. Things didn't get much better for the next two years.
 

          I was startled to find girls in a military school. They didn't do close order drill or wear uniforms, but attended classes, Colonel Nelson's three snotty daughters and their girl friends who persuaded their folks that Bourbon County High was just too declasse. The Colonel needed every tuition he could get in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression when one family out of three was bringing no money into the house. Only this could explain the presence of Cadets Lockhart and Fitzhandler, although nothing could explain their parents' decision to enroll these pitiful creatures in a military school.

  "The Captain knocked Fitzhandler across his bunk, and his howls were terrible to hear."
          Gale Lockhart never recovered from a bike accident at nine that left him incapable of the coordination required of close order drill, let alone the manual of arms. He answered roll call with "Hello, pal," instead of "here" and was a chronic bed-wetter.
 
          Equally maimed was Gerald Fitzhandler, an enormous hulk for his twelve years, with a harelip and cleft palate that rendered his speech barely intelligible. All the cadets knew he wasn't dealing with a full deck. Captain Bullock, a by-the-book officer conducting morning inspection, reached into Fitzhandler's shoe box to withdraw a freshly-laid turd. The cretin had saved himself a midnight trip to the latrine. The Captain knocked Fitzhandler across his bunk, and his howls were terrible to hear. On Parents Day, I made a point of talking to Lockhart's and Fitzhandler's folks, surprised to find them average, normal people, ever a bit nicer than most.

          Colonel Nelson had other dubious sources of income, like the considerable grift on the elegant uniforms modeled after his West Point alma mater. He owned the town's only movie house, to which we were marched in formation every Saturday Night and paid twenty-five cents for a movie he deemed suitable, plus a Popeye or Betty Boop cartoon. A bible-whacking martinet of the Douglas MacArthur stripe, he held classes on Saturday instead of Monday, deeming it sinful to study for Monday lessons on the Lord's Day.

          He did not permit dancing at the monthly gymnasium "receptions" because it was improper to dance with a girl you weren't married to. Even so, a small jazz combo was on hand that I stayed glued to. (The superb trumpeter Billy Butterfield was destined for fame as a sideman with the Bob Crosby Orchestra, and leader of his own band.) The other respite from the doldrums was the Sunday night piano musicales in the Colonel's parlor where his severe pinched-faced missus played popular tunes of the day. When I brought her the sheet music of a song that enraptured me on the radio, the worldly seniors jeered at me for coming up with "an old song from last year." It was "Sophisticated Lady." (When I regaled Ellington with this story thirty years later, he twinkled with delight.)

  "An emotional grip seized me that I could neither explain nor understand."
          My only friend in this Dickensonian orphanage was Jesse the black cook. He commiserated with my endless woes, made poultices of jimson weed (marijuana) for my ravenous boils, and warned me off the tomato juice the Colonel laced with saltpeter "to keep you cadets from gettin' too randy. Don't think it does no harm myself, but you never know."

          "Jesse, I can stand anything about this hole except Sunday church -- especially that awful music."

          Every Sunday morning the school marched to one of the town's four indistinguishable Protestant churches for a hard-bench service that lasted longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle. When those hometown sopranos cut loose on "Rock of Ages" their high notes, oscillating somewhere between A and A-flat, could etch glass. I yearned for Mother's Chopin on the parlor upright and the resplendent organ of Papa Schmidt in Temple Adath Israel.

          "You prob'ly like colored folks church better," ventured Jesse. "You the only cadet not goin' home for Easter, why don't you come to church with me? Colonel away, he never need to know."

 
          Easter Sunday Jesse walked me to his ramshackle store-front church by the railroad tracks and sat me in the last row. Everyone was dressed up, laughing and smiling; they actually seemed to enjoy being in church! The beaming preacher greeted the gathering: "Well, I see all colors of God's Little Flowers in His house today!" He began to read from the Bible, but this was nothing like Millersburg Methodist -- he was singing! "And Gaaaaawd so loved the wuuuurrrrld, that He gave his onnnnnnly begotten Son!!! And now I ask you to join me in singing "Jerusalem the Holy City."

          Backed by a hunchback at a battered upright and a sister whacking a tambourine, the congregation exploded with a sound I never heard before. All the wrong notes sounded strangely right to me. An emotional grip seized me that I could neither explain nor understand. (The feeling returned six years later when I heard "Jerusalem" for the second time in the brooding minor opening of Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy." ) It was a feeling I never got over. Thank you, Jesse.

          On the few Mondays of "town privileges' when I wasn't walking off demerits, I joined cadets in Duck's Place where the seniors sneaked cigarettes in his curtained backroom. Despite the Colonel's need for Depression enrollments, smoking resulted in immediate expulsion. When Roosevelt brought the thirteen years of Prohibition to an end in 1933, Duck began to sell 3.2 beer. The Colonel called a special assembly proclaiming Duck's Place "off limits." That Duck's son was a "day student" at the Institute cut no Ice with the Colonel.

           Later that year he called another emergency assembly, but this time the girls were ominously excluded; three of the younger cadets had been caught in a circle jerk. When the flushed-face Colonel finished his jeremiad on the evils of masturbation -- certain insanity, possible blindness and eternal damnation, with the threat of castration for repeated offenders, he thrashed the threesome with his belt before the entire student body. This miserable trio had to endure the merciless taunts of the students until Cadet Captain Evan Johnston called a halt. We held Johnson, our star halfback, in awe; he spoke rarely, but when he did everyone listened. When he overheard some cadets jeering at the circle-jerkers as "peter--pushers," he erupted with an unheard of outburst: "Shut up! They haven't done anything that everyone in this school hasn't done -- including the faculty!" If this had gotten back to the Colonel, Johnston would surely have been expelled.

           To my boundless relief, Dad decided two years of military school sufficient to "instill Discipline and build Character." I returned to Louisville with painless memories of M.M.I.-- except for Jesse and "Jerusalem, the Holy City."
 





 
 
 
 
 

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