The day we all got tattoos was just like any ordinary day, except for the fact that we all got tattoos. It was a journey to be blessed by patron saint John Coltrane, praised by Billy Holiday, watched over by Miles Davis, the adventure's bass line laid down by Charles Mingus with the occasional solo by Ornette Coleman. It was a decision built on spontaneity with ramifications that would have a lasting impact to all those involved, making us feel like a connected group no matter which path life would take us.
I was leader amongst my small circle of friends/fellow tuba players ever since being propelled to the coveted position of First Tuba Chair in the Wilcox High School Marching Band. Though ostracized by the rest of the musicians, the tuba section stuck together like a jolly band of pirates but without the hooked hands and buried treasure -- simply for the love of the instrument.
To a majority, the tuba isn't the most glamorous instrument in our marching band. Sure I could be like Lance Hamilton, the saxophone player who swoons the girls off their feet. Or Tyler Murphy and his pretty-boy cymbal crashing. But I prefer the tuba over any instrument. I love the shape, the extreme size, the low tonalities it resonates deep within the bowels of the instrument. Everything about the tuba flames my musical desires.
At the lunch table, on that life-changing day -- a day which would put our names on the tips of everyone's lips-from the cheerleading squad to Mrs. Perkins in Home Ed -- my colleagues, Terry, Toby, and Carmicheal sang their celebratory praises of my tuba playing ability.
"No one can start a polka like you can, Nathan," proclaimed Carmicheal, picking large chunks of peanut butter from his orthodontic headwear.
"Thanks Carmicheal, have an apple," I gratefully replied, opening up my bag lunch.
"The way you can improvise on your treasured horn is very impressive," added Tiny Toby.
"Thanks Toby," I retorted, "have an apple." I patted him on his small head, handing him a Macintosh.
"I think you're the Charlie Parker of the tube," commented Terry as he accidentally spilt his pea soup.
Unfortunately, the nickname "Bird" was already taken by the great Charlie Parker. I was left being called "Elephant" due to the sheer size of my instrument, and not the slight weight problem I'd been adamantly trying to correct.
Our lunch, conversation and compliments abruptly came to a disappointing close when an anonymous tuba-hater tossed a full, open carton of milk at our table, exploding, spraying white liquid all over our food and clothes.
At Thursday's band practice, our tuba section played fabulous, as usual. With the last few notes of Chumbawumba's "I Get Knocked Down" still echoing through the room, Mr. Fiderwitz, our stoic band leader, explained about our anticipated performance on Friday. He walked around the room like General Patton addressing the troops at Normandy.
"Tomorrow, as you all know, we will be playing "La Bamba" as a part of the grand opening of Peabody's Grocerymart in nearby Peoria, Illinois."
Complete with elaborate tuba solo, mind you, this was going to be our moment to musically shine, witnessed by the whole community. Grocers, butchers, podiatrist would all take note of our tuba-proclivities. There was even going to be a photographer from our local paper, The Daily Bugle, capturing our virtuosity in photographic spender.
Mr. Fiderwitz continued, "But due to space limitations on the school bus, I have to ask the tuba section to ride with Miss Ehler, the school nurse."
The class took delight in our misfortune.
"Hah! Tuba dorks! Losers! Bah!" Those and other insults flew through the air of the soundproof music room. From our location in the back corner by the extra music stands, we tried our best to ignore the remarks with dignity. Carmicheal fiddled with his headgear. Terry hid his weedy body behind his stout horn. Tiny Toby stood tall. Stepping forward, I vocalized for my friends.
"May we practice, 'La Bamba' one more time," I requested in a loud, clear voice, wanting to musically blow all the other heckling instrument sections out of their perspective waters.
"OK class from the top," instructed Mr. Fiderwitz straightening his sheet music. "This time with a little salsa" he added, wiggling his hips on the word, salsa.
The band performed the song with vigor, hitting each note with the skill of a diamond cutter precisely cutting a rare jewel. Mr. Fiderwitz pointed to each musical section, signaling for their individual part. First, in front of me, Herby the flamboyant accordion player from Venezuela wailed like a bullfighter gracefully waving a red cape. Then to the right, Howard Epstein, the kid who always put his full lips over the drinking fountain nozzle, pounded away on his bass drum like a skillful, crazed baboon.
Mr. Fiderwitz's arm went up once again, his finger fully extended, meticulously bending his wrist, pointing directly at the tuba section. It was our moment; this was about us. Our lips puckered. Tubas in position. We played in perfect unison capturing the full essence of the song, yet reinventing it with our own unique interpretation.
Five measures into our solo there was a loud crash followed by some moaning. All heads turned and ceased playing.
"Aaah," grunted Terry, lying on top of his fallen music stand.
Howard the bass drummer had become over-enthusiastic about his music, and accidentally hit Terry in the pelvis with his bass drumstick.
"Sorry tuba twerp," sneered Howard.
Terry immediately regained his composure. I signaled, and we quickly began our solo once again, this time playing with the full-hearted fury of a pendent-seeking baseball team on a mad winning streak. The sweet music almost brought tears to my eyes, flawless, as we spontaneously swayed our mammoth horns to the Latin beat.
As my tuba comrades and myself belted out "La Bamba's" last remaining notes, I looked up to find most of the class already packing up their instruments and heading out the door. The sounds of closing cases and snapping buckles overlapped the echo of the reverberating last bars of our blessed solo.
"Ah, that was good, boys," said Mr. Fiderwitz, who immediately diverted his attention back to the trumpeters.
Dejected, I began putting away my tuba, lightly wiping off the brim with cotton cloth. Carmicheal, doing the same, leaned over and whispered. "I think we need a secret tuba section meeting later tonight."
Cleaning out my mouthpiece, pondering for a moment, I strongly agreed, and constructed a quick list of topic agendas.
"Seven thirty, Toby's house, be there tuba dude."
We quickly did our secret tuba section handshake, which involves placing elbows together, sticking the tip of the thumb in our mouth, and making a brass instrument noise. "Bbbrrr!"
Walking from the room, I accidentally bumped into a jealous Lance Hamilton, jolting his saxophone case.
"Get out of my way, tuba geek!" He needlessly barked, obviously seething with envy at our playing agility, hiding the fact by continuing to talk to Cheryl, the pretty blond flute player.
Returning home, my mother had once again prepared my favorite Thursday evening meal: Hamburger Helper Lasagna. Hurray! After eating, I quickly cleared the table. While meticulously doing the dishes, my mother dropped, what I considered, a hydrogen bomb. She informed me that she couldn't attend Peabody's Groceymart grand opening.
"I have to take your younger brother Darrin to the doctor so they can reexamine his hernia."
"But mom, the Daily Bugle's even going to be there to take our photo!" I pleaded.
"I'm sorry Nathan, but if I don't get Darrin to the doctor, he might have to wear a truss for the rest of his life. Do you wish that on your very own brother?!"
Darrin made a sad face. So did I, as I put the wet dishes in the drying
rack one dish at a time. It was out of the question that my father attend, for he was gone most of the time doing business administrative for a local traveling circus.
Silently, I headed over to Toby's house via the shortcut through the woods. I rang the doorbell. To my surprise, Mrs. Wellson didn't come to the door, instead Toby's older, cigarette-smoking brother answered. "Hi Dickweed," was his greeting for me at the door stoop.
Thor isn't a bad guy, he just tended to hang around with the "fast crowd" who also smoked cigarettes. I didn't know him that well because he usually spent his summers at the Morton's Juvenile Reform School.
"Good evening Thorson, is Toby at home?"
"Don't call me Thorson!"
"I'm sorry Thor."
"Say it don't spray it, booger-boy-breath."
He then proceeded to grab my right nipple and began twisting hard, quite hard.
"Whistle or lose it, retard."
"This isn't necessary, Thor."
"Whistle or lose it!" he said in a louder, harsher voice, applying greater pressure.
Thinking fast, I managed to let out a few bars of "La Bamba" from my forced pursed lips, this in turn caused Thor to cease the nipple pressure, removing his pinched fingers, and let out a laugh that sounded like a rusty lawn mower starting in an empty pool. I hurriedly headed for the sanctuary safety of Toby's room in the basement, quickly entering and slamming the door behind me. Looking up, Toby, Terry, and Carmicheal, each were sitting on a beanbag chair, holding their perspective right nipple. I got the impression each had been through Thor's torturous nipple inquisition.
"Did Thor terrorize you too," said Carmicheal, halfheartedly picking a scab on his arm.
"Yes," I said without enthusiasm.
"To say he's nasty, would be an insult to nasty," Terry spouted, grabbing for Toby's Gameboy, trying to regain his high score.
"Don't worry about Thor," Toby consoled. "He's going back to Morton's Juvenile Reform School soon." Then he became solemn and added, "We deserve better than this. We're only the best tuba section in the country."
"In the world," added Terry.
"In the universe," Carmicheal interjected, taking Terry's idea one step further.
We quickly did the secret tuba section handshake. "Bbbrrr!"
"We'll show all the Thors of the world," I said, leading my friends off their beanbag chairs and toward the front door. "Come on guys, we're on a mission! I know just what we need to do!"
Luckily Thor was in the kitchen. Through the crack in the door, I actually saw him drinking one of Mr. Wellson's beers! Without permission! We quickly ran past him and out the front door with the screamed words, "Wiener-heads" echoing in our ears, emitted from Thor's cigarette-infested voice.
"Yes, we'll show all the Thors, Howard Epsteins, and Lance Hamiltons of the world, that we mean business," I informed the group, hurrying along.
"And the Mr. Fiderwitzs of the world," Toby said, adding to the list. "We'll show them as well,"
We agreed action needed to be taken. But what? Wasn't playing at Peabody's Grocerymart's grand opening, complete with highlighted tuba section solo, enough? Obviously we needed something to show the outsiders we weren't just tuba playing wimps but dedicated musicians who meant business -- tuba-business!
Our heads were buzzing with the thought of being taken serious for our passion of the tuba, and not seen merely as a musical freak show.
"We could get tuba necklaces," brainstormed Toby
"Tubas shaved into the sides of our hair!" proclaimed Carmicheal, slightly tripping on the curb.
"Fur-lined tuba cases!" remarked Terry.
The wheels in my head were turning with high-speed merry-go-round intensity. We needed something spectacular for future horn players to look up to. What we decided needed to make us legends in our own time. We were going to be the giants, whose shoulders future tuba players would stand upon.
Turning the corner of Mockenbrook Street, out of no where, like a sign from God, like a burning bush, we found ourselves standing in front of Omar's Tattoo Palace. Judging from the newly risen grins on my friends' faces, I knew we silently reached a decision. I just needed to put the frosting on the cake.
Clearing my throat, I spoke softly, but distinctly.
"Gentlemen, I can't wait to see the looks people give us, when each one of us shows up at Peabody's grand opening, with a tattoo of a tuba right across each one of our faces."
We formed a single file line and entered the shop.