By Joe Rector
As soon as I unzipped the bag, that familiar smell wafted out. It was as strong now as back in the 1960s. I’m not sure what’s in the backpack that I carry to school, Gallatin, and any other traveling destination that created the same odor. Perhaps it’s the laptop and devices that go with it. Maybe it’s the mid-morning snacks crammed into the bag. It also might come from more than 10 years of wear from carrying this thing with me. At any rate, that smell hit me and beamed me back almost 50 years ago. What was that powerful essence that filled my nose and flooded my head with memories: valve oil.
Ball Camp School fifth graders had the chance to join beginning band. My older brother was in the high school band, and Jim and I couldn’t wait until we also could begin playing instruments. My twin brother started on an old clarinet that I think belonged to an older cousin. He might not have been excited to play that instrument but accepted it and set out to work conquering it.
I wanted to play the trumpet because the screeches from a reed instrument always made me think of scratching a blackboard. Mother and Daddy traveled to Hewgley’s Music Store and purchased a coronet. It’s a shortened trumpet, and I suppose they bought it because the thing was less expensive. I didn’t care; the horn was shiny and new.
At first the only things I could get out of the horn were sounds that resembled wounded animals or wildlife bellowing for a mate. Charles Scott, the band director, worked with his new crop of musicians, and before long, we belted out such popular tunes as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Lots of slobbering occurred as novice musicians struggled with instruments. Mr. Scott showed me where the spit valve was located and how to blow through the horn to clear the stuff from it. When a bubbly sound came when playing the horn, I knew it was time to empty it out.
After playing the horn for a while, the valves would also become sticky. They no longer glided in the tubes in which they were housed. That meant the time had come to unscrew them, remove them from the horn, and apply a few drops of oil. Bingo! The valves once again worked perfectly.
The downside was at the end of each class, a puddle of spit covered the floor at my feet, and the smell of the oil was trapped on my hands and in my nostrils. It never seemed to fade, and the smell oozed out of the horn case any time I opened it.
I played that horn through my freshman year in high school. No, I wasn’t the best, but neither was I the worst. I practiced, on occasion, at home, but the music never sounded good. I wore braces at the time, and the mouthpiece pressing against that metal on my teeth proved to be uncomfortable. I had reached the pinnacle of my musical instrument abilities and decided to leave band.
The next year, Mother sold my coronet so that she could purchase a new clarinet for Jim, who went on to become a music major and a band director. Even though the horn is gone, any time I smell anything that resembled that valve oil, plenty of good memories come back. My best friends from high school were in band also, and I enjoy seeing them and talking about those good times a half century ago. To some, valve oil reeks, but to me, that strong smell is mixed with some sweet thoughts of another time.