Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Hey, you in the wheelchair. Stand up!

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Joe Biden made big headlines and starred in one of the most viewed YouTube videos of the presidential campaign when he commanded Chuck Graham, a wheelchair bound Missouri state senator, to stand up and be recognized.

“Stand up, Chuck. Let ‘em see ya. Oh! God love ya. What am I talkin’ about?”

When I saw this clip for the first time, I almost choked. Yes, it was Biden being Biden, but it also dripped of déjà vu.

I played in bands since I was in junior high. Rock bands. Country bands. Variety bands. Any format that would land us a job. In my first band, I played trombone. It was back when the bands Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Earth Wind & Fire were popular. All of them incorporated trombones as well as trumpets and saxophones. Unfortunately for us, our brass section was comprised of a single slush pump player.

What’s the difference between a frog driving a car and a trombone player driving a car? The frog is more likely heading to a gig.

What do you call a trombone player with a beeper? An optimist.

What kind of calendar does a trombone player use for his gigs? Year-At-A-Glance.

So when the bass player quit, I saw an opportunity and started my career as an electric bassist using a borrowed guitar and amp. (For an update on the exploits of my trombone, see Happy Holidays from the Bunyan Household.)

Fast forward from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. We were still hustling gigs, some of us to earn college tuition money, some of us to support kids, and the drummer to attract chicks. We worked with an agent, without whom we never would have landed a wedding reception at the Missile Inn on Dyer Street. This place was a dive—surrounded by strip malls, hock shops and fast food restaurants—that got its name from the fact that Ft. Bliss, Texas, was the Army’s training center for Hawk and Hercules missile systems. It was also a short drive to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

In all of the years that we played parties around El Paso, we never stepped foot into the Missile Inn. The karma wasn’t good and, in spite of the fact that I grew up in the northeast side of the city, it was not the part of town that made for good gigging.

The ballroom was small and uninspiring. I’m guessing that the bride’s father got it for a song. Maybe just a lyric or two. Capacity was probably 100 or so, but there were at least 150 people jammed into this place. To say it was hot would be an understatement. A June wedding is traditional, although in the desert, it comes with 100+ degree days—more than the air conditioning could handle.

After the first set—a quiet, unobtrusive collection of jazz and pop tunes to accompany the obligatory chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and green beans—we were ready to crank it up and get the party started. Now, you have to picture us making the transition from a lounge act into a frat house band. Five out of the six of us had the eyesight of a mole; all except for the drummer, who sported the 20-20 vision necessary to zone in on babes across the room. Our agent hated for us to wear glasses and use music stands, so we put both away in preparation for our metamorphosis.

Bill, our front man, lead singer and rhythm guitar player, was finishing wiping down his guitar with a polishing cloth and tossed it back onto his amplifier. Everyone turned up the volume and we started rockin’. Half way through “Pretty Woman” the eagle-eyed drummer noticed that Bill’s polishing cloth was on fire. It was fortunate that one of us wasn’t cripplingly nearsighted. Somehow it had fallen into the back of the amp where the hot vacuum tubes ignited it. Bill put it out without missing a beat. That’s talent.

The rest of the set went well with the pyrotechnics under control, but we knew we were in for more fun before we got to “Save the Last Dance for Me.” At some point during the next set someone scrawled something on a napkin and asked a waitress to deliver it to Bill. This was nothing unusual as we received song requests all the time.

On closer inspection, Bill realized that this person had scribed a joke and punch line that he obviously thought would improve our heretofore unfunny performance. You need to understand that Bill is a very funny person—a quick wit ala Robin Williams—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him tell a joke. That wasn’t his style. And the thought of someone sending up a joke was a bit of an insult.

The unspectacled Bill, in a darkened room, asked the crowd who had written this joke. Off in the corner, a guy yelled out that he was the author. Bill fired back: “Come on up here, funny guy, and tell the joke yourself.” This was met with a noticeable gasp coming from the general direction of the instigator.

Gary, another one of our Mr. Magoos, sensed that something was up and wandered back to his guitar amp to recover his glasses. After struggling for a second to focus, he turned to me and said “Oh crap! The guy’s in a wheelchair.” I, in turn, tripped back to my amp and mounted my Coke bottle lenses on my nose adding, incredulously, “And he’s trying to stand up!”

By the time all of us had donned our prescription eyewear, this guy had made it half way across the room, using the tables to support himself as he dragged his feet behind him. It was as if we had been transported to a miracle healing rally. Bill parked his guitar in its stand, rushed over and, along with another gentleman from the crowd, assisted the soon-to-be comedian to the stage.

I don’t remember the joke or if it was funny, but I do remember that the entire place erupted in applause after the punch line, much the same way that the crowd in Missouri gave Chuck Graham a standing ovation. It’s a way for the audience to dissipate the tension and, in our case, show their appreciation for the gumption displayed by this fellow in taking Bill up on his dare.

So don’t feel bad, Joe. It happens to the best of us. But even Bill knows that FDR’s fireside chats weren’t televised.

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