Fathers and Sons

The Things We Remember ….

February 8, 2016

I had the privilege of sharing a few words at Dad’s service on Saturday.

Told those who came that I knew exactly what Dad would say if he were physically able to be with us. 

I was pretty sure he’d have said exactly what he said to me about 8 or 9 years ago, under very different circumstances. 

(Some of you may have heard this story before. But, as some of you may also know, our Dad was not above getting great mileage from a good story – ha). 

He was scheduled for surgery … no, make that surgeries (plural) … on an aneurism in his stomach, and another one in his leg. It was scheduled for first thing in the morning in Pittsburgh, which, when you live in Uniontown, means that you have to get up in the middle of the night. And my sisters Missy and Kim, as they often did, shouldered the burden of getting Mom and Dad out the door and shuttling them to the hospital (no small task, given that Dad had to be early for everything, while our Mom, um, was not as meticulous about her punctuality). Laurie, as she always did, met them at the hospital and made sure they got checked in. 

By the time I got there, Dad was prepped, and was in a room waiting on the surgeon (who was delayed by some other emergency). Mom and the sisters were keeping him good company. After a while, Mom needed to go out for a cigarette (Gram always needed her smoke), and the sisters accompanied her, leaving the boys by themselves for a couple minutes. 

Think about what might be going through your mind if you were the 80-year-old lying in the hospital bed, after having to get up in the middle of the night, suffering that long drive down Route 51 thinking about your pending surgeries, forced into that hospital gown that barely covers your dignity, only to be asked to wait for goodness knows how long on the surgeon? What would be going through your mind? 

Barely seconds after my sisters and Mom left the room, Dad looks up at me, with the biggest smile on his face, and says, “Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

As naturally as if we were on the front porch on the 4th of July. 

As if he considered the prospect of invasive surgeries a pretty reasonable trade for spending time with his family. 

“Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

That’s exactly what he would have said on Saturday. 

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

But some of the best parts of Saturday were some folks who wanted us to know some other things about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

There was Jim, a trumpet player who shared a section and a bandstand with my Dad for a handful of years. He saw me when he entered the church, and, after offering his condolences, told me how Dad was a hero to him who taught him so much about playing trumpet. Said he still can conjure the image of Dad standing up to take his solos. I told him that Dad often said that the trumpet section never blended better than when Jim played. 

There was (another) Jim … a nurse who made weekly home visits to Dad for a while. Jim was a guitar player, which instantly made him my Dad’s favorite nurse. They hit it off so well that Jim re-arranged his schedule so Dad would be his last appointment of the day … allowing him to stick around and B.S. (mostly about music) after he finished his evaluation. Dad came to see those visits as a highlight of his week. Jim actually brought his guitar with him a couple times, and coaxed Dad to break out his horn. Those jam sessions with Jim were the last times Dad ever played with another musician. Jim stopped Saturday to tell the family how much he genuinely loved those visits. 

There was Harry, one of the fixtures of the old Presbyterian church where we held the service. He was one of the army of good souls who helped with the reception after the service. Harry told me how much he admired Dad’s service to the church over the years. Said that they actually named their son after Dad, a fact that I never knew.  

And there were many other sweet remembrances (some of which I hope to share some day) … representing the fabric of a full life, well-lived. That’s what I saw when I looked out from the pulpit as I spoke. There were the grandkids. The great-grandkids. Neighbors. Musician friends. Customers and colleagues from Dad’s years at Sherwin Williams. The amazing souls from the Honor Guard. Church friends. Friends of my big brother and sisters. Friends I grew up with. Friends I made in college. Friends I work with. I knew the day would be over in a blur, and I knew I’d only be able to connect with a fraction of those who came to pay their final respects. I wanted the memory of that beautiful congregation to last me a lifetime.

So, after I told the hospital story Saturday, I rambled on for a few more minutes. But before I sat down I couldn’t resist pulling out a camera and asking those gathered for the biggest smile they could muster. 

Because when I think back on Feb. 6 2016 in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, I know exactly what I will want to remember. 

Wasn’t it great having everybody together.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

New Year’s Eve, in particular, was always special. It was the best gigging night of the year. “The only night you make a little money,” Dad would say. From the time I was 14 ‘til I was almost 30, I never saw a single ball drop on New Year’s Eve. For many of those years, Karry didn’t either, though, admittedly, she had exponentially less fun listening to me play music than I had playing it. 

On New Year’s Eve, there was a sense of expectation that started in the early afternoon when I’d start getting ready, packing my drums in their cases, carrying them outside and setting them on the wall in our front yard, donning my tux. Around 5:30 or so Mac would swing by and we’d load my drums in his van, always in the same order and placement, and climb aboard. My Dad and the older guys would spend the better parts of those rides to the gigs telling stories and reminiscing about all the musicians they played with in high school, in the Army, in other combos and big bands. They’d laugh remembering the characters. Speak in reverent tones about the Players (capitol ‘P’). Lament the passing of colleagues with whom they once shared a stage. Since I was anywhere between 20 and 40-plus years younger than most of the guys in the band, I said very little on those long rides. Was more than content soaking up every word.  

When we’d arrive at whatever hall we were playing at, we’d unload Mac’s and Sam’s vans. I deemed it my honor to try and haul as much as I could up and down the steps to spare the legs of the older guys. Once everything was hauled in, everyone wordlessly knew their roles in the un-packing and set-up … the speakers, the books, the sound board, etc. Dad helped set up the music stands and their accompanying lights before I’d hear the clasps on his trumpet case spring open (one of my favorite-est sounds of all time). After tuning and warming up to his satisfaction, he’d fetch us both a can of Pepsi, always placing mine on the riser next to my bass drum.  

I never played for more appreciative audiences than the older crowds who came to hear the Great American Songbook, whether we were at Linden Hall near Perryopolis, the Palisades in McKeesport, or the Palace Inn in Monroeville. I can still summon at will the inimitable sound — the shuffle-y swoosh — of a dance floor full of fox-trotters tracing ballroom circles back to their youth, our humble renditions their sonic roadmap.

Owing to everyone’s good mood, the playing seemed more relaxed on New Year’s Eve. As we’d near midnight, the sense of expectation in whatever hall we were playing grew more palpable. Sam would do an unscientific countdown close to midnight and we’d break into Auld Lang Syne. One of my most vivid memories is when we’d finish, and I’d stand up from my drums to exchange hand shakes and Happy New Years with the rest of the guys. To be a teenager shaking hands with my Dad and his peers atop a bandstand on New Year’s Eve signified my membership in a larger, sacred fraternity. 

After Auld Lang Syne came the best part of the evening for me. Before the applause and cheering for the New Year died down, Sam would pick out and count off a couple of our better jump tunes, the ones that swung just a little harder. Maybe Woodchopper’s Ball or Two O’Clock Jump (Dad had solos on both). Sometimes, when the spirit moved, he’d pay respects to his idol, Harry James, with a note-for-note rendition of James’ famous trumpet intro over the piano solo in our arrangement of Two O’Clock.  

New Year’s Eve was also one of the rare nights where we might also get fed. Though it was sometimes nothing fancier than hot dogs and sauerkraut, it made us feel part of the celebration in addition to supplying the evening’s entertainment. 

When the actual two o-clock came (which came a lot earlier to my younger self than my present remembering self) and we’d close the night, as we always did, with “C’est Si Bon,” and then Sam’s theme, “I Still Get a Thrill,” part of me always (always) wished we could play some more. Dad often said that playing music made time stand still. I remain grateful that he passed that gene on to his son. 

While we were tearing down (incidentally, you can tell the professional grade of a band by the speed and efficiency with which they tear down), Sam would come around and pay us. I still remember how giddy I felt my first New Year’s Eve when Sam put $75 in my 14-year-old hands. Over the years, we’d sometimes break triple digits, which, when considering we were a 10-piece orchestra, was nothing to sneeze at back in a day. Truth is, Dad and I would have played for free. 

Even after I quit Sam’s band and Dad continued on … and even after the grind of the travel finally forced him, in his early 80’s, to give up playing out, I’d always call Dad on New Year’s Eve, and we’d spend a few minutes recalling those days when we shared stages, and what great times we had. We didn’t have to be in the same room to hear the smiles on each other’s faces.  

This was our first New Year’s Eve since Dad’s passing. I consider it fitting that New Year’s Eve marks the last of “The Firsts.” Can’t believe it’ll already be a year January 29. 

I find myself In a Sentimental Mood. 

Thinking about those good times the past couple days has been like taking a last van ride to one of those old gigs, where I find myself the one reminiscing about all the guys I played with. Laughing at the characters. Reverently remembering the Players (capital “P”). Lamenting those who’ve passed. 

So here’s to Dad. And to Diz. Roger. Joe and Joe. Shifty. Pete. John. Wally. Jess. And all those who piled into vans on New Year’s Eves to make time stand still for themselves, and to give the people a reason to come out and dance. 

For Auld Lang Syne. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

I have this indelible image in my head every time I think of the years (high school and through college) I was privileged to share a bandstand with my Dad when we were but two pieces (drums, first trumpet) of a 10-piece, big-band-style orchestra. Whenever Dad would take a ride solo, I’d steal a glance to my right, see him stand up from his chair a couple measures before, tip the mic up, draw the horn to his lips, bend his knees ever so slightly as he leaned back, close his eyes, and blow. 

He always solo’d with his eyes closed, the music taking him somewhere else. 

Unconsciously, I’d often close my eyes as well, and try to follow his horn like a compass to wherever it was it took him. He took great pride in never playing the same solo twice. Though they would rarely last more than a couple choruses, those solos were some of the best trips (of many) we ever took together. 

Music has always had that bewitching effect on him (and me) … although it occasionally got him into trouble. He recalled one such instance for my sister Laurie and me when we visited with him on Christmas. 

On their second date, Dad thought he would impress Maggie Johnson by taking her to see Les Brown (and his “Band of Renown”). 

Best laid plans. 

“She got so mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her,” he recalled. Technically speaking, he was totally ignoring her, such a slave his attention was to good music. Fortunately, she forgave him enough to entertain a third date, and the 60+ years of marriage that ensued. 

With Dad confined mostly to his bed these days, it’s become more of a challenge to bring the kids with me for my weekly visits. Knowing how crazy the back-to-school schedule will be, Karry and I seized the opportunity Saturday to bring Emma with us to Uniontown. 

I asked Em if she’d be up for taking her alto sax with her. I figured it would give her something to do (practice), and thought that Pap might appreciate it. 

She’s only in her second year with the horn … but, much to our surprise, we don’t have to twist her arm to practice. She enjoys playing. Enjoys getting better. Seems to take a pride in it.

Dad was resting when we arrived, but a smile broke across his face when he saw Karry and Emma, two of his favorite faces. We weren’t but a few minutes into our visit when he asked Em, “Did you bring your sax?” 

He’d never heard her play before. 

I went downstairs to the basement and dug out his old music stand (it’s been only a few months since the 88-year-old put it away … for probably the last time), and Em pulled her horn from her case and set up in the next room since we didn’t know if she’d be too loud for him. 

She started into some scales, and then some songs she’s been learning for her lessons. 

Dad remarked what a good tone she had for a beginner (the brother knows from tone). We sat without speaking and just listened. She had played maybe a half dozen tunes … before she broke into Ode To Joy. 

By the fifth note, Dad had closed his eyes, and another smile broke across his face. The music was again taking him someplace else. I closed my eyes too, and met him once again in that place. 

After her last note, he opened his eyes, the smile still going strong, and said to the heavens … “This makes me feel good.” 

His words were as much a gift to me as Emma’s notes were to him, and the lump in my throat I feel at the mere recollection of that moment bears testimony to those truths. 

I find myself grateful for the lessons that still abound from the labored breaths of an 88-year-old sideman, who, though bedridden in failing health with a failing heart and a laundry list of maladies much too long to capture … still sifts the precious moments for joy yet and still. 

Find myself grateful for music that can transcend the moment, the physical, the generations, and bring us that much closer together, and to the divine. 

And find myself grateful that the old house on Mullen Street still has a few beautiful notes left in it.

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