Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Life and Times of Larry and Ernest - 2

(Originally run 5/1/04 on our old site)

Ernie Simpson


The Night the Lights Went Out in the Band Room

(Published in the White County Historical Society Newsletter, December 2003)


I have been very fortunate and blessed, to learn many of life’s lessons by not having the event or actual episode from which I learned actually happen to me. I consider myself also very fortunate to have realized what I was witnessing, and analyzing what it meant in order to gain the most from the lesson. The events themselves were not as momentous as the lesson learned, yet sometimes as important for the observer as the participant.

We had a guy in our high school band who was a good athlete, competitive, and a good musician. He was a trumpet player, and was difficult to beat in competition. I managed to outscore him in tryouts once or twice during my Jr. year, when he was a senior, but it was tough. Technically, he was a good player, and I could typically get him on tone, but not technique .He was a good friend and a good moral person, but sometimes his attitude did cause problems for him as well as others. We were friends, and Larry, Frank and I were often around him and with him.

His air and competitive outlook reminded me of the old country song by Mac Davis:

Oh, Lord it’s hard to be humble,
When you’re perfect in every way;
I can’t wait to look in the mirror,
Cuz I get better lookin’ each day;
To know me is to love me,
I must be a hell of a man;
Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doin’ the best that I can.

The Night the Lights Went Out in the Bandroom

Al English came to us in the summer of 1954, by way of his first teaching jobs, Refugio, TX, and DeQueen, AR. He had received his degree from North Texas State, and was one of the finest jazz trombone players it has been my privilege to know. He could play a perfect third part along with the recorded duets of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, who made their reputation with recorded jazz trombone duets. Al’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s, “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” done as a trombone solo/ballad set a standard for me I won’t forget. I can hear that wonderful solo in my mind even today.

Performer, composer, teacher, he was all of that and more. He was tall and lanky, yet muscular, with his Mr. Peepers look behind his glasses that would belie much about the man, and how much more talent he had. How much more we found his talents stretched, in the summer of 1955.

1955 was a great year, we were reaching towards the middle of high school, finding out about life, relationships, girls, cars and what high school was all about.

During that year, the relationship between Al and our trumpet player friend deteriorated. First, Al brought a sense of military, no-nonsense discipline to our band, and only wanted input when he asked for it. Although it was often, as he liked what we had to say, he didn’t appreciate it as much when opinions were not asked. Some of our more progressive classmates felt they should voice their opinions whenever they wished. This soon brought about conflict with a very few as to who was the teacher and who were the kids or, put in another way, who was the chief and who were the Indians.

Couple that with the rumor that Al had some boxing ring experience, (it turns out, he had been a Golden Gloves champion) and that’s all it took for our friend, who was sure he was the best boxer/student to grace the halls of Searcy High. It was not long before the conflict and the invitation ‘to go a couple of rounds’ with Al escalated into an outright challenge.

So, it was in the summer of 1955, that the following took place: Our trumpet player had brought some 16 ounce gloves to band rehearsal that evening, a warm August night before school started. We had a good rehearsal and, afterwards, everyone left, except for Frank Thompson, Larry Maness, Al English, our friend, and me. Al reluctantly agreed to spar a couple of rounds, so we moved the folding chairs in the rehearsal hall into a large circle.

The gloves were put on; the 16-ounce gloves were huge pillows used in sparring to avoid injury in boxing workouts. Our trumpet player friend was aggressive and excited, anxious to get going, I know, ‘to show the old man a thing or two.’

They began slowly, our friend the aggressor began immediately with hard jabs. Al circled to the right, keeping his face and head covered, elbows in tight. This continued for almost a minute, circling right, Al keeping covered, receiving the blows. I was beginning to wonder about this, more curious than anything. I didn’t know what the others were thinking. I was watching the proceedings intently, wondering. Is he, or isn’t he, will he or won’t he, what’s happening here?

Suddenly, Al clenched his teeth, and his right fist moved like a bolt of lightning. For the life of me, it couldn’t have moved more than eight inches, straight out. It caught our friend full on the point of the jaw. BAM! His arms went to his side; he straightened up, rocked back on his heels as if coming to attention, and went straight back into and over the row of folding chairs with a big crash.

We rushed over, and sure enough, he was out cold.

Larry patted his face, and he soon came around. Al took off his gloves, went into his office and closed the door without a word. He sat down at his desk, and put his face in his hands. We took the gloves off our friend, helped him to his feet, but his legs were like rubber, so we helped him to sit and got him a drink of water. We looked in through the glass door at Al; he had his back to the door, and was sitting still with his face in his hands. We had no intention of disturbing him for the moment.

When our friend came around and could speak, Frank knocked on the door, stuck his head in and told Mr. English we were going to take our friend home. He wasn’t hurt visibly, although his eyes were glazed, and it was obvious he had his bell rung.

The three of us took him home, and his parents met us at the door. We told his dad what happened, and he was not in the least upset. He just said thanks for bringing him home, and helped him in the house. We said goodnight, and turned and left. We spoke little of the incident on the way home.

The next time we were all together, we didn’t talk much about what happened. I do recall that Al met with Lee Yarbrough (our high school principal) about it, and the whole thing just quietly went away. Our friend had a different attitude towards Al, and they both seemed to have a more mutual respect between them that kept things on a good level for the rest of the school year. I don’t recall any other incident or words between them that occurred ever again. The friend graduated in the spring of ’56, and went on to college to do well.

P.S. I had lots of respect for Al English from the time I first met him. He had talent, compassion and a fire in his belly for teaching. This experience only served as a lesson to confirm to me not to judge a book by its cover, and that humility is a virtue that can be a hard lesson learned. I have remembered this little story for many years, and kept it close to my heart, as part of a time growing up, and not knowing as much as I thought I did.

Our friend paid a high price for his lesson learned, but was the better man for having had the lesson given among friends. Those of us who took the lesson to heart were bigger for the understanding of it, as well. Once, years ago, when Al was in New Braunfels, I was in San Antonio on business. I rented a car and drove up, and spent the afternoon with him. He was still slim and trim, the consummate athlete, and continued to be a bright and creative musician. I will admire this man as a mentor and friend always.


Graduation Day

May 17, 1957 was a nice warm Friday. For me it was a strongly profound day, and somehow surreal.

We had our day off, but we had commencement practice that morning, and after that had only to report that evening for the ceremony. Those who were speaking in the program were required to stay a while after the processional rehearsal. Verna was doing the opening prayer, and turned to leave. Jo Ann asked, “Verna, aren’t you going to stay and practice?” This is where Verna issued her famous admonition to JoAnn, “JoAnn, you don’t practice the prayer.”

I think only three people heard that statement, I was lucky enough to be one of those.

We were not in the band to play at graduation, funny, somehow that we weren’t there. We had passed the torch to the Juniors to play the graduation march, but we had been there so many times before, it seemed to some of us as though we should still have the duty to do that one last thing at Searcy High.

After the rehearsal, Larry and I took my ’49 Ford and went out to my house on North Main by Rocky Branch, past the little Ballew community church, had a snack and headed to the river. Little Red River it is, Echo Dell, Flat Rock sometimes called, where the ‘upper dam’ is. Rocks so huge and flat you could wade across the river where the water is low in some spots. I had spent many an hour here as my brother Jim and I grew up on the farm; I always loved it in the summer when dad came in from work so we could ask him to take us swimming in the river.

That day, it was just us, Larry and Ernest, winding it up after twelve years at the same school. So we just visited and talked and waited for the evening.

Larry and I had great conversation that afternoon about a lot of things, just young men/brotherhood kind of stuff, what was fun and how far we had come. We even decided it was warm enough to go swimming, so what the heck, let’s go.

We laughed about it many times years later that on our graduation day, Larry and Ernest went swimming naked in the Red River at Echo Dell.

We got back to my house where Mom had made dinner for us; summer foods with cornbread, and it still gave us enough time to get ready for the ceremony that evening.

The greatest remembrance of that day was not of the ceremony and receiving the long awaited diploma, but our time together as friends. I believe the value of that day carried us forward for many years.

I learned to swim in that river, at that place as a teenager growing up. It was a great swimming hole, and was even a great place before the municipal pool on East Moore. It was a sanctuary for many who wanted a cool respite from town at a wading and swimming place that was peaceful and cool. Echo Dell, not easily forgotten by those who had a chance to go there.

To be continued


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