In the Death Car

Maybe it was walking through the school yard gates that made me grip my bags a bit harder. How many girls had gripped their bag harder, bracing themselves for what awaited them through those gates? The difference was they were all under 10, I was pushing 50.

But I had liquid courage rattling in MY bag…..

A small bottle of champagne, a music stand and a trombone was all I was packing for my first band practice. I had gotten there early, hoping to warm up without too many witnesses.

Philippe, the band leader, was already there preparing the room and setting up the mics. He eagerly handed me my sheet music that he carefully prepared himself. I nodded and started to panic. It was if I was handed a document in Chinese. I couldn’t remember how to read sheet music! I had no clue what the notes were!

Oh, nightmare.. practice was starting in 20 minutes.

I quickly put my horn together and slipped out into the night. I went behind a prefabricated classroom and started to do scales. As discreetly as you can on a slide trombone… Like an elephant trying to blow its nose. Good. Scales. I remember how to play a scale. I’ll impress them with my ability to play 9 notes! Dear Lord, I’m going to die in there.

When I walked back in, the other band members had arrived. They started to take their places, so I slowly gravitated to stand near the banjo player.. hoping it would make me look good..

Luckily for me, their dedicated roadie Eve had played trombone in the past but was too shy to play on her own. So she brought her horn to practice for the first time with me. When I started to practice a scale, she looked at me in wonder and said, wow, can you show me the positions? I could have kissed her.

Everyone took their place and we started with “Monkey Man.” And we stopped after two notes. Philippe cleared his throat and walked over to us. “Fa fa so te do” he sang over and over till Eve and I got it right. Sweat was pouring down my back, trying to play it right.

The band started playing again and Eve and I started to be a bit more confident, we had that fa-fa-so-te-do down pat! Oh shit. There were other notes to play. We looked at each other and just started making up notes..and started dancing. Until Philippe walked over, playing his guitar and gave us the conductor laser eye.

If you have never played in a band, the conductor can yell at you by just raising an eyebrow. Philippe had raised two. We stopped and sheepishly went to the drink table. Philippe stopped the rehearsal and said “the trombones don’t get to drink yet.” At that point, the banjo walked across the room to stand next to the backup singers.

When a banjo abandons you, you know you are in trouble.

Dying a slow and embarrassing death, it was appropriate that the next song was “In the Death Car.” Philippe did his fa-fa-so-te-do trick again for Eve and myself, even though he didn’t seem to be singing it as cheery as Julie Andrews did in the Sound of Music. Eva seemed to play better than myself so I just started faking it, pretending to blow in my horn and move the slide… Just like in high school.

The last song that had the trombone part prepared was “Love Potion number 9.” We limped through that one OK and I was relieved when our bit was finally over. We finally could go to the drink table. I poured a large dose of champagne into a coffee cup and handed it to Eve. “Drink.” She did and then I did. Risky thing to do in flu season but screw it. We survived the death car and we were still ALIVE.

“Why are you doing this?”

I sat my son down to announce that I was leaving to go buy a trombone so that I could join a steel drum band. He pulled his gaming headset off and put his PS4 control down, and sighed. “Mom, why are doing this?”

Sometimes my son makes me feel like I am the 14 year old and he is the adult.

“What is wrong with my joining a steel drum band?” I said. “What do you want me to do, sit around here and watch Netflix?” “Yes,” he said while readjusting his gaming gear and turning his attention back to the screen.

I think sometimes he just likes me to be home… and it doesn’t matter if he is there or not. Once when he was staying at his dad’s, they stopped by unannounced to pick up a forgotten item. Surprise, surprise… I wasn’t there. When I got his, not his father’s, irate phone call, I said rather exasperatedly that I was not the fixed point in the Universe.

At least not anymore.

Understandably, for many years, I was. Cooking and baking and basically being at home looking after my family when I was not tripping on the corporate ladder. Who has time for outside interests when you are holding down a full time job and taking care of your family? (Well, French women in general, but that will be a blog post for another time.)

When the day came when I did find myself alone for the first time in years, I remembering sitting back on the couch trying to remember what “I” liked. Not the collective “we” but “I.” What books? Movies? And what did “I” like to do? Frightening how quickly one can forget.

To complicate matters, my language setting up to that point was in French. I watched French TV, listened to French radio, and I was working for one of the largest French companies where I worked mainly in, you guessed it, French. Looking back, I really only spoke English when conversing with my son.

Some time later I flew to London to stay with my host sister and I remembering the unbearable lightness of my situation. No diaper bag, toys, snacks…no one to take care of or look after except myself.

It was like I had stepped into a parallel universe, what my life would have been like if.

I remember taking a random double decker bus and rode it until it took my fancy to get off. I laid in the grass of Kensington Gardens just watching the clouds, and dreaming. I went to the theater, saw Shakespeare and Hair, and found myself in the end dancing on a West End stage, imploring until I was hoarse to let the light shine in.

And so my new life began. It is not the life I had asked for or even imagined but it’s the one I’ve got. Soccer coach, to surf lessons, to even playing trombone in a steel drum band.

So why am I doing all this?

Because why the hell not.

Black Market Brass

Before leaving the house, I sent a friend the address and phone number of my contact “just in case…”

In case what,” she replied, “he would be the trombone murderer?”

That would be my demise. Lured to a house by an announce on “Le Bon Coin,” the French equivalent of Craigslist, and be killed by a guy who has a thing for girls with a firm embouchure. Maybe that would be my saving grace… sagging lips.

When I knocked on the door, a guy in his late 20’s opened it and he was surprised that I was alone. “That’s it,” I thought, “now he’s got me.” But it turns out he was expecting my son to there too. I figured that one out when I deftly put the horn together and put it on my shoulder to test the slide. “It’s for you?” He asked incredulously. Yes, yes. Me.

I handed it back to him so he could play a few notes. The sound was good… enough. It is a Stagg, more of a practice horn than anything else, but over the din of the banjo and steel drums, would anyone even notice?

That is when he asked if I wanted to give it a try. I guess my deft handling of the horn made him believe I could really play. Well, how hard can it be? It’s like riding a bicycle, right? After I played a few notes, he cleared his throat. “Ahm, so you are going to take a few lessons?” I didn’t even dare tell him that nah, I was good to go.

After negotiating the price, I picked up the horn case and walked back to my car. The weirdest thing was, it all felt so familiar: the weight of the horn, hitting the positions of the different notes on the slide, even carrying that damn case…it just felt right.

…I’m with the band

I walked nervously into a French elementary school with a six pack of beer.

Five people were already there and the eight others that followed me in were all packing flasks, bottles… and musical instruments.

Seems I let a well kept secret slip on a business trip that in a former life I played the trombone. A colleague in my multinational corporation leaned across the boardroom table and immediately propositioned me… to join her band.

Now you have to realize that almost a month to the day I graduated high school l left Ohio, and my trombone, behind. Yup, Europe and sophistication awaited. And my future did not include buckeyes or brass instruments.

Almost 25 years had passed living a sophisticated life overseas and now like an embarrassing childhood nickname, that inelegant part of my past was being revealed.

Pretty petite girls played flute or the clarinet. The cool kids played sax, or trumpet or the ultimate cool; drums. The jokers played trombone. Who takes a trombone, or a trombone player, seriously? We called ourselves the Boners, for heaven’s sake.

(There. You have it. The nickname AND the instrument.)

I had come so far but my past of being an awkward, six foot tall teenage trombonist with an 80’s perm and braces was coming back to taunt me.

I tried putting my colleague off but she persuaded me to come to just one practice, one.

That’s how I found myself one evening walking behind her and her boyfriend through the quiet street of their Toulouse neighborhood with bottles rattling in my bag. They were carrying a flute, sax and clarinet between them, I was carrying the stash. A sophisticated roadie in a Max Mara coat and high heels.

Well, the first thing I saw when I walked into the room were the steel drums…. Then the bongos (BONGOS!) And that is when I turned to see a guy tuning his banjo. How could I not join a steel drum band … with a banjo???

Before tuning their instruments, they all poured their gin and other smooth refreshments to have close at hand. This was definitely NOT Mr. Polce’s 10th grade band practice.

My colleague introduced me to everyone as the potential brass. “Ohhhh, trombone” they all said with a gleam in their eyes… For the first time in my life it was said with admiration, almost. They had wind, and string, and percussion… they even had three back up singers … but no brass. So the stakes were high to get me to join.

They finally gathered in a circle around mics and began to play. Oh, was it good. Eclectic, and good. Brazilian Songs, French songs, Spanish songs… Zydaco to old fashioned American rock and roll. At one point when the clarinet had his solo, everyone danced a joyous, infectious gin-induced dance.

It. Was. Glorious.

During one particular song they all hummed the trombone part, taking obvious turns to try and catch my eye. I was maintaining my poker face but already projecting myself dancing wildly with my trombone in my hands casting off those hard earned years of sophistication.

But I was keeping one last dark secret close to my chest: I kind of sucked as a trombone player.

Dying water buffalo sucked.

I haplessly smiled at them in their sweet attempts to entice me to join, knowing they might come to regret this fated evening.

When rehearsal was over, like in an overenthusiastic church, they all made a point of stopping and welcoming me again. I am sure I heard a happy sigh of “brass” as one of them was packing up his instrument.

I texted my colleague the next day “thanks again for last night…very, very tempting.” She wrote back immediately, “glad to hear it 🙂 go find a trombone!”

Now where was I ever going to find a trombone in the Southwest of France?