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I really had no idea of what I was getting into when I signed up for college. I was totally dumbstruck at the notion of the fact that I was no longer in high school. I was now in the big waters of serious business. I was in with the big boys and girls now. If I was going to become a teacher, I needed to get started with and deal with reality and not dreams. I told myself that if I worked really hard and got my Bachelors degree, I could still show up Eddie. I wanted this mainly for myself. The race had begun. All the time, I knew that he was having the time of his life with me not being around. I had that feeling myself. I was happy for most of my last year. Now, it was his turn. I could practically hear him throwing a party all the way from Middle Village. He must have been in seventh Heaven knowing that I wasn’t going to be around for a while. I could only imagine how happy he must have been. He took away my dream before graduation. Now, there was nobody there to rob him of his dream. I was hoping that someone would have done that to him. I was able to live with that concept up until a point.
In order to keep my concentration, I told myself that I wasn’t going to go back to CK for the first year. That way, I would not get into any trouble by trying to beat the snot out of him. I would also keep my focus on my two goals. It was risky. I thought that she might be putting me to a test. I felt, at times, that she might be sitting around to see if I would actually come back. No, she must have been trying to get on with her life. She certainly had more than enough to keep her busy. I needed to start gambling and play my best hunches. I prepared myself for my classes.
The very first class I had was a history course. I walked into the room expecting to have a very short session. I was expecting to hear what books we needed and what we were going to cover. Boy, was I in for a big surprise. The professor walked in and began to discuss the first chapter of the book. After ten minutes, I ran out of space on my assignment pad. This guy was inhuman. I was only a freshman. I needed a break. I soon discovered, after borrowing my fifteenth sheet of looseleaf, that I wasn’t going to get that break. This was going to be a very trying achievement in and of itself. I had to get myself up for the challenge. I couldn’t prove Eddie right and be a loser. It was only one day. I would have looked like a big dork if I had walked back to my parents and said that I couldn’t cut the mustard. I had to be a winner once again. Being successful in school was going to be my best specialty.
I, at first, found it hard to get used to my new home. What made it hard was that I always thought of Rose. I remember when I was running around on a wide open soccer field in the middle of a scrimmage. It was a late September. I had just put in a full day of classes. Soccer practice was my only form of stress management. I was playing the fullback spot. The ball came my way. Suddenly, after I had dribbled the darn thing for over ten seconds, I looked up to watch the sunset. I watched the pink hue of the sky and the rays of the last sunshine of the day as they reached out to the coming darkness. I thought of another day without her-Eddie cuddling with her-and me being totally powerless to change the situation. I felt like breaking down on the spot. Yep, a growing young man having a nervous breakdown in the middle of a soccer scrimmage. I couldn’t. I was trying to get a spot on the team in order to play my first college game that Saturday morning. I took too long to reminisce about the previous June. When I looked down for the ball, it was gone! The next time I saw it, it was in the wrong net. I couldn’t blame Eddie on this one. No, I just neglected to do my job. I was to block the ball. My job was to prevent it from going in the net behind me. I could have done that. I didn’t. Why didn’t I imagine that the ball was Eddie’s head as I did the practice before? That day, I must have kicked the darn thing some 200 yards beyond the field. Today, the ball was just a ball and I was close to being a shelved for someone else. After that, I had to deal with the coach’s icy stare and the team’s anger. I begged the coach for another chance. I would have done a thousand pushups to keep my spot for the big game. He, probably against his better wishes, allowed me to keep my spot. Still, it just didn’t help my problem to get solved.
After a while, I eventually went down to the band room. I remember the place well. It was the place where I did my best musical work away from CK. It wasn’t really a band room. It was an auditorium that served as a band room. It just wasn’t like the band room at CK. In fact, nothing else would ever be like CK. I knew that I was going to have some new adventures here. I met many different people prior to my official registration. It is where I learned that the competition in music was going to be tough. I had no real idea of how tough it would be. I went into the band room with my second trumpet. It was named Rosie. I even taped her name to one of the slides. I didn’t want to lose her picture, so the name had to suffice. I was hoping that would be the influence I needed to beat the competition. It just wasn’t the same. The auditorium acoustics were fine, but I didn’t feel like I was getting the full benefit. Rosie sounded okay, but the Strads were many steps above me. Still, I went onward. I did my best at sight reading my music, but I was still behind. I just couldn’t pull it together for the best effect. Besides, I was still thinking of the fact that Gene was sitting in a band room nearby at Queens College playing his brains out. He was still my hero. When I was at CK, I would visit the SJU band in order to study the advanced music. Now that I returned to SJU officially, it was time for me to put forth my best effort. There was no turning back now. It was all or nothing.
The only ones who would know me were Mr. Price, the conductor Marie, the bass player and Stan, the guitarist. I also remember Judy, the trombonist. I felt pretty good going into the first rehearsal. I won a music award. I felt like the special player in the band. Perhaps, I expected special treatment. Instead, I got Rude Awakening Course #101. I was no better than I was at CK. The music was much harder and far more complex than anything I had ever played. The charts, as we musicians call our sheet music, were from top professional music companies, not the elementary music I had back at CK. On top of that, all I could think of was this mysterious guy named Spiro that Fred told me about. Spiro lived near Christ the King. I wondered why I never met him. I heard all sorts of things about him. Fred told me of what he heard and seen. It seems that Spiro had taken over a trumpet part of a jazz workshop that I had left the week before. I decided to leave the band in my first semester to concentrate on my work and pursue other things.
I later had some misgivings. I heard that the SJU band was giving a Christmas concert. I debated whether or not I should show up. I decided to go and listen to them. I sat quietly in the back of the auditorium. I was quite surprised to see four people in the trumpet section. When I was last here, there were only two of us—Matthew and me. When I came today, however, I saw four people. There was Fred, Matthew, another Matthew, and the one I heard so much about. It was him. It was the mysterious Spiro. Fred kept talking about him over the summer. I found it hard to believe that there was someone that good in the area. I thought that all of the good players would know each other and look forward to playing together. I never met him over the years, but I know that we nearly crossed paths over the years. I wanted to meet him and match talents with him. It was a challenge that I was willing to face. I wanted to meet him and do battle.
I finally had the exclusive privilege to meet this legendary trumpeter named Spiro. It was well over a month after the Christmas concert. We were getting ready for our spring concert to be held in April. He was a rather reclusive individual, yet phenomenal. I saw his warm-up routine back in December. He took out his horn and did it again. He sat in the back of the auditorium and proceeded to warm up his instrument. It was as if he was telling us that there was a new king in town. He basically sat down and asserted himself through the horn. At that point, I was beginning to see why he had deserved the respect of his peers as well as everyone in the place. He started out by playing as many lower notes that he could possibly play. I thought that they would only be possible to play the trombone or a baritone horn. I was totally astonished and awestruck at his flexibility. He then, after going over all of his lowest register, ascended. Whoever didn't pay attention to him before certainly gave him the attention at this point. He managed to clearly reach and play a whole octave above my notes. His high C above my high C was stronger than any note that I could possibly manage. He was a living machine. I thought that Maynard Ferguson was the only person alive who could do what he did. No human could do what he did. He was a mysterious sort of person. How could such force be? Could I possibly do the same thing? I remember how Gene, even though he wanted to mimic Severinsen, also tried to play the Chicago lead trumpeter parts. Now, here was this Spiro guy who was able to do it just as well or even better. Spiro was just no match for the ordinary player. He deserved the right to step up to the world of the professional musicians.
I was able to stop and talk to him about his playing. I honestly felt that I might be in over my head. Spiro cleaned my musical clock. Catching up to Gene was one thing. Playing catch up with this Superman was something else. Spiro, who was about four years older than me, told me that he used to be in a drum corps. Tommy mentioned the same thing some two years earlier. I figured that the road to new strength would be in a drum corps. I joined him and the rest of the band for the spring concert and the warm-up concert the week before. Spiro was in his finest form. He clearly turned into his icon, a miniature Doc Severinsen. I thought of what the section would have been like if Gene were there with us as well. During the intermission of the evening spring concert, Spiro repeated his warm-ups. Clearly, the audience saw who had the lead voice in the trumpet section and it wasn't me. Our last tune was a rock version of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." He, despite the fatigue of the rest of us, stayed well above the staff for the final note of the evening. His final note rang out to the back of the auditorium. I was nowhere to be found. Fred was in the same section with me for the concert. I was only able to imagine what he might have taken back to CK about my miserable outing. Forget Elvis. Spiro was clearly the king.
I just couldn’t beat him at our game. His notes rang out. If I had only practiced more than I did, I would have been just as good as him. No, I just didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. If Spiro was headed for stardom, I was headed elsewhere. Clearly, if I was to make a name for myself, I had to do it when he wasn’t around. I just couldn’t believe it. Here was a guy who was just so much better than me. He was doing everything that I thought I could do. I tried to break our playing qualities into different categories. The only problem was that he was beating me in every one of those categories I could imagine. Probably I could have given it some sort of musical fight, but I had nothing to show for it. He had an impressive background in music. I just had an outstanding music teacher. He was on the horn three times longer than I was. I just didn’t belong there. I felt the ground floor of reality just hit me in the face. I seriously considered, for the first time since I started playing, putting my horn-Rosie-away for good. If Mr. Price had allowed Spiro to assume the Severinsen position in front of the band, no matter how talented Spiro was, I would have walked out right then and there. When the concert was over, I went home. I eventually changed my mind about quitting music.
I went back to the empty auditorium the next school day. I sat in the two seats-Spiro’s and mine. How I wanted to have been the trumpet leader that night. Again, I was a subordinate to the leader. If it wasn’t Gene, it was Spiro. I envisioned that one day, I would be a lead trumpet player somewhere once again. I just lost my competitive edge. It was a part of my slide from the year before. I still blamed Eddie for it. There were times that I blamed myself. I was confused. I felt like the defeated ex-world champion walking around the ring after his worst loss on the road back to the championship. It was a fitting end to a most traumatic year—a new and swift educational pace, a friend’s death, my grandfather’s death, Spiro and, finally, a whole year, the first, without Rose. Life can’t be this rough.
Still, I saw the need for the way things turned out so far. I wanted to get into SJU and I was here. I just needed a way to turn my negatives into positives. I had let the others, including myself, knock me down. Now, I had to pick myself up. If I wanted to be a champ of anything, I had to act like a champ and not a chump. I needed to assert myself and stay the course. I let Eddie walk all over me. I let Spiro’s talent get me down. This was no good. I was determined enough to get this far. I had to get tough again and regain my edge. I didn’t want anyone to do things for me anymore. I wanted to do for myself. All good intentions were nice, but I needed to make more room for personal achievement.
Toward the end of the school year, a classmate and I took a job as a gardener for three days a week. We reported to the address that was given to us by the university job office. I intended not so much to make the lawn look pretty but to save up enough money to buy a car. The demand to spend for carfare and other essentials sabotaged me. Coupled with the need to go beyond the learner’s permit and buy the expensive insurance for my age group made the likelihood of having a car an impossibility. I had to give this one to Eddie. “He had no job. Mommy and Daddy bought him a car,” I thought. I was working on my things.
Later, when the summer vacation began, I met up with a guy named Mike from St. Gerard Majella, a neighboring parish of SCS. Mike talked me into joining the drum corps over there. I knew that this would be the way for me to get back my musical edge. I agreed to do so. I had allowed my imagination to run away from me. I went over there to St. Gerard's to see what I could do. I rode my bike so that I could be ready to leave if things didn't turn out like I wanted them to turn out. Mike introduced me to the guys and gals who showed up. I decided to do my warm-ups. I used what my teacher showed me. I could tell that I sounded pretty good, but was it good enough to take the top spot? Was I the best player in the room or could I challenge the best player in the room if it wasn't me? It really didn't matter as I was the second oldest player in the room. Most of the other players were kids and I was trying to show that I was a better player than any of them. I was ready to find out. If Spiro could be like Doc Severinsen, then I could be like Clifford Brown. I decided to do my own stretch for the upper notes. I only managed to reach the E above my high C, far short of what Spiro would reach. Still, it was a start. I knew that I could outplay anyone in the room. As it turned out, I was the best in the section which should explain how good the rest of the band was. I played a few tunes for the director. He liked it. Little did I realize, something else was taking place.
I didn’t realize how important it was to have some sort of coordination. I would spend the entire summer trying to march in step with the rest of the corps. One of the parents would walk up to my ear and whisper that I was out of step with the rest of the group. It was a customary procedure for me. Still, I kept coming back each week in the hopes of finally getting it right. From time to time, I would glance at a hidden section of my horn at Rose’s name that I had conveniently taped to the end of the instrument. If only she could have seen me marching so proudly on my parade routes.
I played the whole summer with the corps. I enjoyed the experience. I was assigned the job of playing the higher notes for the group. I did what I could. After each parade, we would go to the nearest pizza place and share some good moments. Somewhere along the way, however, I showed the group how human I was. I cracked on a note that should not have cracked—the high C. At that point, I lost their confidence in me. A few days later, the director asked me if I was going to be present when the band heads off to Canada. I told him that I would be there to see them off. He insisted that I was going to be on the bus with the rest of the group. Someone pulled me aside and told me that I was indeed going to be on the bus with the rest of the group. Somehow, they managed to raise enough money to get me and another player some carfare for the trip. All I needed to bring was some spending cash, my horn and my luggage. I was thrilled. I was on a summer-long audition and I didn't even know it. We even played at the Canadian National Exhibition. This nearly offset the fact that I lost my grandfather the day after the spring concert. I cleared an obstacle thanks to my talent.
The rest of the summer was spent enjoying the music, listening to disco, singing Frankie Valli songs, and getting my tuition together for school. Ah, yes. That was the summer of 1975.
Chapter 6: The Newest SJU Sophomore