“You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.”
John Prine sang that in his song “Dear Abby.”
An odd thing occurred to me while I was on the stage with a wonderful bluegrass band. I’ve spent a lot of time in my own company, so I’d known for years that I couldn’t play a musical instrument, but it wasn’t until then that it really hit me. I can’t play any band instruments. I wasn’t supposed to be playing with the band. Nobody had asked me to. I told a story, then my job was to shut the heck up. “If you know the words, just mouth them,” was how I was instructed by a member of the band.
I’m frequently asked why I don’t play a musical instrument. I shouldn’t say frequently. I’ve never been asked why I don’t play a musical instrument.
I’d never dreamed of not playing a musical instrument. I thought Faulkner’s book, “The Sound and the Fury,” was about a high school band. I had certain musical abilities. I could play the radio and I could play on the linoleum, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a 5-gallon bucket. I tried hitting a high note like an opera singer once and neutered the parakeet. I sang everything in the key of off, but I was a virtuoso on the flutophone in grade school. I felt like the king of Peoria when I played the flutophone. A flutophone may look like a toy, but it’s a legitimate instrument belonging to the wind family — a large and windy family. I’ve been told by a local authority on wind instruments that a flutophone is similar to a recorder, but differs from a recorder in that its end is flared like that of a trumpet and it has raised finger holes, while a recorder has holes drilled into the cylinder of the instrument’s body. Wow! That’s more information on the differences between two underappreciated musical instruments than anyone ever wants or needs to know, unless the goal is to be in the flutophone follies or the recorder revue. I tried playing harmonica, mouth harp and spoons. I didn’t really try to play the spoons. I ate a big bowl of chili with a spoon in each hand. Not everyone can be trusted with spoons. I thought I’d be playing a flutophone all my life. It’s odd how we end up not doing things.
A seismic shift occurred after the sixth grade. I moved from grade school to junior high, from one city to another, and from being one of the oldest kids in school to being one of the youngest kids in school. My world would never be the same. After my splendid career as a flutophone player and grammar school student came to a screeching halt, the band instructor, I don’t remember his name — it wasn’t Lawrence Welk — asked me to join the school’s illustrious junior high band. He told me how great it was. I wondered why it’d never been on TV with Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson.
He teased me with the opportunities I’d be given. Even if I didn’t achieve instant fame and fortune, I’d still be able to march in the winter-ready, black uniforms on sunny, hot, humid, summer days. What fool could pass on that?
I had to choose an instrument. There were no flutophones available. Playing a flutophone had been a righteous adventure. What kind of a band could it be without a flutophone? If I’d have stuck with it, perhaps I’d have come up with a flutophone version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” before Iron Butterfly had created theirs. I looked at the size of the musical instruments I might master one day. I didn’t want the tuba, which was a Volkswagen Beetle without wheels. I was allergic to carrying things that size. I worried I might give someone a black eye with the slide of a trombone. I decided on the tambourine, but I was told there were no openings in the tambourine department. I picked the clarinet. The band instructor told me that if I wanted to pick something, I should take up the banjo and added that a long-winded fellow like me was meant to play a wind instrument. I considered other musical instruments. The transition from a flutophone to something else flowed like last week’s tapioca.
“Well, what are you going to play?” asked the commander of the clarinets.
I told him that I needed to think about it. I’m still thinking about it.