- Such as Ground, So Close to Air
Late in the summer before I would start fourth grade, my father mentioned an evening outdoor band concert. Local developers were bringing in a star for a promotional family event. Would I like to go? Shopping malls were just beginning to bloom as points of destination, away from the city center, brighter constellations of commerce for cars to be drawn into lower orbits, searching for the stuff of life and a suitable space to park. This mall was not the modern enclosed and climate-controlled cluster of big and bigger boxes. It was a deliberate convergence of landscaped promenades, some with goldfish ponds and stepping stones—a postwar vision of Olmsted and open-air respite between the fronts of small-town stores aligned in vectors toward the beacon of a Marshall Field’s. At the intersection of corridors was a Norman Rockwell bandstand, surrounded by swards and swales, berms and benches, straight from an architect’s rendering of rising opulence and lives we were to imagine ourselves becoming.
My father idolized Benny Goodman, so in his early teens he’d learned to play the clarinet. With his brother on drums, they formed a swing band in high school, with members of their neighborhood baseball team each taking turns on sax, bass, trumpet, and sometimes piano. The clarinet is one of the few things he carried with him from adolescence into becoming a dad. He’d returned from serving the duration of the Pacific War, reprieved from the expected invasion of Japan, without souvenirs or trophies—only spiral notebooks of lyrics for big band ballads, a folder of scorecards for dozens of baseball games played over three years on too many islands from Hawaii to Leyte to Okinawa. When he married and moved from his parents’ apartment to [End Page 53] the one above his wife’s parents, he brought along his clarinet. He found work fixing boilers and furnaces, fitting pipe, bending tin to shape his improvised runs of ductwork, his fingers growing thick and familiar with tools, machines, and drafting squares. His days filled notes scored along the lines of a different staff and signature, a family grown to three, then a modest ranch house on a lot once plowed for truck farms, the obligations that kept him anchored and accomplished.
Still there was the siren of all those lyrics he knew by heart, the downbeats and arpeggios, the melodies he could pluck from the air like soft fly balls and play by ear. He kept his clarinet in a snug, form-fitted leatherette and velveteen case on the top shelf of our linen closet. Maybe once a month he would take it down, unsnap the brass clasps, and then methodically assemble its impossible ligature of silver bars, buttons, pads, and tabs, lightly greasing the cork rings before he’d shuffle-twist the sections together, all the while moistening the reed in his mouth. When he set it down on its bell on our linoleum floor, it looked to me like an ebony rocket ready to be lit. Settled on the corner of an armless chair, his breathing found both cadence and purchase: uncoiling his spine, leveling his shoulders, investing him just so. His taut belly pooched out and his eyes closed, and the instrument appeared to float in space for his fingers to press and release, to register the muscle of his memory. His head would tilt back slightly, and then the spaces between us, connecting us, became the dotted lines of tempo and syncopation. He seemed to swell and tremble until the air deep inside him was pulsing in rushes of sound, leaning me back, my own head tilting upward, my eyes tracing imagined arcs of sound.
In fourth grade the school would be fitting us for the instruments we wanted to play, or our parents could afford to rent, or that they thought us physically or otherwise best suited to assume. My older sister Nancy had been coerced into the clarinet, so my father thought I would like the trumpet or cornet.
The concert? I quickly said yes. The outdoor show we went to see was...