Transition

We played baseball every waking daylight hour all year long with an occasional drift into football in the fall. I hated meal time because I had to “come in” to eat where I gobbled my food as fast as I could to hasten my return to the ball field off Rampart Street. From ages 7 to 12, baseball was my life.

By third grade I saw through the educational system. They had taught me how to read and write and how to learn. I could learn the rest on my own. I didn’t need them. Mean old nuns were prevalent in the elementary schools of New Orleans Parish. They were all ancient and they smelled of moth balls and decay. The scent was overwhelming, smothering; deadly in even modest doses.

In first grade, my teacher constantly corrected me from writing with my left hand, which just felt natural for me being that I am left-handed. She’d whack me on the left hand if she caught a pencil in it. One day she grew tired of constantly correcting and whacking me and tied my left arm to my left leg before our printing and cursive practice session. She continued this practice for a week. I finally got the message. I wrote right-handed, shitty as it was, from that point on. I got A’s and B’s in all classes every semester except for a consistent D in penmanship.

Third grade introduced the insane English exercise of diagramming sentences. I understood the elements and constructs of writing, but this futile journey into inanity was too much for me to swallow. Not to discount the attitudes of the adults around when I responded to their polite questions with earnest detailed explanations of my subjects. There wasn’t one of them who didn’t wriggle their body and twist their face when I mentioned diagramming sentences as my latest learning. It was like they’d just been served raw liver.

I protested that diagramming sentences was a useless exercise that I wasn’t going waste my time with. The teacher scolded me sternly, which caused my resentment of her and diagramming sentences to grow exponentially with each word out of her craggy mouth.

I proclaimed that I was quitting school, never to go back when I got home. I was slamming angry. Slam the door. Slam the books. Stomp the feet. Lower lip protruding like a pelican bill. My dad, the Army sergeant, wasn’t hearing any of that. “You will go back to school. You will apologize to your teacher. And you will do as she says. Is that clear?”

I returned to school, but I fooled them all. I got F in Math the third and fourth quarters. I completed all of the exercises in the book the first weekend I had them. Math made sense to me. It was finite and relational like a piano. It came as natural as peeing. So, to fail the final half of the year I had to not turn in the homework that I completed that first weekend, not participate in class, and purposefully answer questions wrong. It’s not as easy to get a 0 on a multiple choice test as you might think. In fact, it’s nearly impossible if you don’t know all the right answers. The laws of probability guarantee one or two correct out of 100 questions. I showed them. While the other kids were struggling with addition of fractions I was studying Algebra from a book that checked out from the library. I wound up with a C for the year, passing, but I felt I had made my point.

I loved to write, all the way back then. Writing was a release, a place to write my fantasies of being a Major League baseball player. On many a night, I fell to sleep listening to the famed broadcaster Dizzy Dean describe St. Louis Cardinal Ballgames. “It’s a home run. That pitcher fed him a pitch like he was his momma and she didn’t think he’d been eatin’ right.” The man had a colourful approach to telling the story of the game that transported the listener to the park; at least, it brought me there.

As I said, baseball was my life. I continued practicing piano when I could on weekends. But, baseball was what I lived for. That is, until one fateful month in my twelfth year.

Kenny was an infrequent participant in the weekly card parties. Michigan Rummy had become the standard game long before: chips, cards, and a few new colourful card game clichés. It was all too boring if you weren’t in the game and I was way too young to join the adult game. I continued to play piano along with WWL radio whenever we visited a neighbor who owned one.

I first remember Kenny playing at my folks place. He originated from the same area as my dad on Lake Superior in Wisconsin. His full name was Kenny Black, which struck me funny because he was one of the whitest people I had ever met. He was a funny guy, a musician who was in the Army serving under my dad. In that way, we shared a kinship because when you’re the son of an Army sergeant you are in the Army too. I pinched a Mars bar from the corner store. No one had witnessed me taking it. My dad knew about it before the chocolate hit my lower intestine. Kenny shared a similar experience with the group one night. Kenny played a gig in the French Quarter one Friday night without permission from the Army. Sunshine knew about it before Kenny had time to blow the spit from his saxophone.

Sunny referred to Kenny as a beatnik. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I had heard the adults talking about Kerouac’s On The Road novel n scintillatingly hushed tones, but a kid my age didn’t have access to literature of that nature. Kenny had a lingo all his own. “Cool.” “Smooth.” “ I dig.”  “I dig you the most, daddy-o.” “I scored new threads for this hip gig.” “Nice tits on the blond”. It was English, but like none I’d ever heard. The man fascinated me. And he wasn’t even a baseball player.

Eventually, the stars aligned, schedules coincided, and fate conspired to place Kenny in a card game at a house with a piano. I was nearly 6 feet tall, my fingers had lengthened, and my ability had grown. I was playing nearly note for note with the piano on WWL’s Louisiana Hayride by that time. Kenny commented several times to the adults around the table that I was pretty good on piano. As the cards, time, and beer flowed his flattery grew.

Finally, Kenny retrieved a crusty sax from his car. The radio was silenced. “Play Kansas City… in C” I knew the tune well yet I was flustered at playing with a real musician. I stumbled on the beat at first until Kenny’s sax pulled me back. From then on it was magical. He taught me songs through words and body motions. He had a great smile and an air about him that set me at ease. We clicked together like tumblers in a Swiss safe. The adults soon returned to their cards having written Kenny off for the night.

The next day, Kenny stopped by Bartholomew to pick me up. We drove across Lake Ponchartrain, the 28 mile bridge spanning between New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, and on up to Baton Rouge to a club near the LSU campus. During the trip Kenny explained to me that he wanted to introduce me to the piano player from WWL’s Louisiana Hayride. Sitting at the piano rehearsing with a country band was a lanky who looked to be about Kenny’s age, somewhere in their thirties; in short, old guys.

We approached the stage, waited respectfully for them to finish the song, and then Kenny introduced us, “Armond, this is Floyd Cramer.” I shook his hand firmly as my dad had taught me to do, but his name didn’t register. Floyd? I had an uncle named Floyd back up north somewhere. It wasn’t a common name, even then.

Ken noticed my confusion and jumped to my aid, “Floyd plays piano on the Louisiana Hayride. He is also a Nashville studio musician. He’s played on records with Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, and Elvis Presley.”

“Patsy Cline? Really,” I stuttered. “I love her.” I had heard Elvis’ name before but didn’t hear much of his music. They didn’t play Elvis on WWL. I’d heard of the Beatles by that time too and was equally unimpressed. But Patsy Cline, that said something to me. I knew every one of her songs. The piano parts were simple, note wise, but complex in the feeling they exuded. “Crazy! Crazy for thinking… about  youuuuuuuuu. I’m crazy! Crazy for feelin’ so blue-who-oo-oo.” So, this was the guy who played those beautiful parts.

We watched the band rehearse for a while. I focused on Floyd’s hands, watching as they flowed over the keys. After about 45 minutes, Kenny dragged me back out to his car and drove me to a warehouse to another studio where his band members were slowly assembling.

“I want you to join my band,” Kenny stated.

I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t considered it. I was going to be a baseball player. It was fun riding the streetcar down to Valens Street to watch a family of brothers named Neville rehearse. I dug the adoration that the neighbors heaped upon them. I loved the feeling, the groove of their music. But, I was going to be a professional baseball player.

“Sure?” said I. “What does that mean exactly?”

“I want you to play keys in my rock band. I’ve got a portable organ you can use. It’s over there.”

I glanced over to spy a fire engine red keyboard with the name “Farfisa” stenciled in white on the modesty panel.  Beneath it, I found a gas pedal that controlled volume. There were buttons that changed the tone and two that caused a vibrato, warbling effects. The keys were springy, way easier to press than a piano. My hands flew across the keys of this post-Chrome era keyboard.

The rest of the “cats” in the band were “cool”. For the next few months “cats” and “cool” gained frequent use in my vocabulary. That remains true to this day. We played through a “set”. A set is comprised of enough songs to fill a 45-minute period of time, which is followed by a 15-minute break that leads to the next set.

I filled the bill for what Kenny expected out of an organ player. In beatnik lingo, I got “the gig”. Then, Kenny explained that I’d be paid a quarter per gig, four bits for weddings. My allowance was 25 cents per week so a doubling of my income or more sounded great.

Our first gig was at a church social. We played Rock and Roll songs along with many Country standards. The crowd was hugely appreciative. My parents were in attendance and quite proud of their little Armond playing with a real band, though my dad had nothing but disparaging remarks about the Rock part of our repertoire. At the end of the night, Kenny handed me a wad of green bills. I counted them. There were 25. This was a new great part of the beatnik language that I could really dig: a quarter meant 25 dollars. This was more money than I had earned totally up to that point in my life.

“Practice on Tuesday, I’ll pick you up on Friday. We’ve got a club gig that night and a wedding on Saturday,” said Kenny.

The next weekend, I earned $75.  In two weekends I made nearly as much as the government base salary for guys of my dad’s rank in a month. This was part one of my transition.

Transitions seldom occur due to a single influence, event, or wave in life. Transitions are the result of numerous influences molding us toward a conclusion.

My second transitional current sprouted from young boys camping together in a tent. All of our parents were at the bar overlooking Cranberry Lake spanning time that bracketed my introduction to band life.

Bradley Flemish was a year older than the rest of us, having flunked a year along the way. But he was older and bigger than the rest of us and worldlier. Brad had dared cross Esplanade on his own to walk around the French Quarter. He had even scored a beer at a bar, or, at least, claimed to have scored a beer. So, when pulled the underwear from his chubby torso and started stretching his wee the rest of us followed suit, or un-suiting, as it were.

Under the flickering lamplight he described to us the naked women he had seen on Bourbon Street, performers in East End dives, and somehow hearing this caused a change in my wee that I had never experienced before. It began to grow. I mimicked Brad as he stroked his wee. Strange feelings began to sweep over me: dizziness, quivering in my belly, queasiness, and ultimately an explosion that started near my butt and erupted from my pee-pee. All in the tent erupted within a minute of each other.

What the hell was that, I thought? A new smell logged into my nasal memory banks.  What the hell is that smell, I thought? It was all so confusing. I hadn’t been warned that there were new feelings headed my way. Sex wasn’t something that parents discussed with their children or pre-teens. I had no idea what was going on.

I practiced the wee stroking a few more times while my parents were out. Soon, I was addicted. It felt so good that I knew it must be wrong, forbidden. Bradley called it “jacking off”.  So, one night after I had spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom, when my parents asked me if I had been masturbating I said no with a clear conscience. They didn’t ask me if I was jacking off.

A month later, my nipples got hard, turned the size of quarters and just as hard. Touching them felt weird, tingly all the way down to my nuts. Brad taught us that the two orbs hanging below our wee were nuts. The nuts almost seemed to be demanding that I rub my wee. Oh, and the wee was alternatively called a cock. So, there I sat playing with my newest toys night after night.

Over the course of the first ten gigs, my confidence as an organ player grew. My understanding and appreciation for the red Farfisa Combo Compact grew as well. My “chops” improved with each set. Chops, I learned, are the chords and notes that one knows how to play and, most importantly, how to play them with soul, from the soul. My chops grew quickly.

Gig 11 was in City Park, gig 12 at the pavilion on the lakefront on Ponchartrain. Gig 13 started like all preceding gigs except we were heading west, far west of the French Quarter to a place known as Fat City. Kenny counseled that I should not tell my folks about the place we were about to play. “This is a rather risqué club. It’s all cool, but your folks probably wouldn’t approve.” However, they did approve of Kenny Black and trusted their son to him.

We entered a deteriorating hull of a building that smelled of beer and piss, a fragrant relief from the French Quarter. On the stage stood a large wooden organ that looked as if it belonged in a church. “You won’t be playing the Farfisa tonight. You’ll be playing the C3.” The C3 was a Hammond Model C3 with a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet. “The C3 is a B3 in a church cabinet,” Kenny explained. I had no idea what he was talking about that night. Within 4 years I would become an expert on the Hammond Organ.

A carnival of creatures inhabited the bar full time. That was my first impression upon entry to Cabby’s. Our band set up quickly, I took my place behind the C3 and the show began.

A scene beyond any that Bradley Flemish had described appeared before my bespectacled eyes. A nearly naked girl strutted out from behind a curtain. She became fully naked by the end of the song. My wee stiffened more with every gyration of her heavenly body until I exploded in my pants as I sat behind the organ. That’s right; I launched my special men in the first minute of the first song.

That night, I saw things that I never imagined existed. A flood of undefined terms queued up over the years found description. Knockers, pussy, beaver… Well, they didn’t have as many sexual euphemisms back then as subsequent prolific generations. Screwing still didn’t make sense because the gal in the dressing room seemed more like she was riding her fellow like a horse. When I first heard the word screwing I imagined a rotational action of the cock into the pussy, you know, like a screw.

Bassist Darrel talked me through chord changes and identified the varied crowd activities, which led to more conflicting concepts. “She’s giving him a blow job.” It looked to me like she was sucking not blowing. It looked like it might be fun or torture; difficult to discern from the man’s face which it was. “Look at that cat eating her pussy.” I nearly fainted. That was the grossest thing I had never wanted to see. Still, it appeared as if the guy was licking, not eating. And, “Over there, sixty-nine, oh so fine.” No idea what he meant when referring to the rocking horse couple in a secluded tall booth to the right of the stage.

On breaks, I was flattered and fondled by big breasted aunties with mushroom cloud white-gray hair at the bar. They smelled, too, but unlike the puerile nuns, their stench was derived from marinating for hours in dime-store perfumagation. Add Gin breath to that. Add one drooping eye with slurred speech and you picture my patron, a lady known as Madam Ovary.

It was 1965, New Orleans. I was earning 40 to 60 dollars per night playing Hammond Organ from 5pm until 9 for businessmen looking to relax with naked women. I was gaining knowledge from a source not available to most of my classmates. I jacked off up to a dozen times per night picturing the acts that I saw at Cabby’s.

The third and final transitional event was yet to occur.