Another installment of my writing on my author friend Luis Alberto Urrea’s prompt “What Your Hands Remember.”
Pulling My Radio Antenna Up and Down
Some memories are more mundane, but my hands don’t care. They remember just the same. One of the first significant things I bought was an am/fm transistor radio. I saved my allowance and purchased this marvel of technology with my own money. It was black plastic, about 4 by 5 inches and about an inch and a half thick. So small! So portable! I could take it anywhere to listen to Ron Ugly Thompson play the hits on KCBQ. And it had this cool leather holster which snapped on, with holes to allow access to the controls, a window so you could see the dial, and tiny holes punched over the speaker to let the sound out. It even had an earphone!
My hands remember pulling the antenna out and pushing it in. Over and over. Feeling the metal-on-metal scraping inside as each section slipped along inside the next larger one.
My First Guitar
I was about ten years old when I made another purchase. For $50 I bought my first guitar from Sears. My hands remember the pain of pressing on the steel strings, twisting the tuning pegs. holding the pick, struggling to master this new way to express music. Fumbling to form the chords. Piano had become so easy; this was hard. And on a piano, if you pressed the right key, the sound was right. The piano produced the tone. But on a guitar, if you didn’t press hard enough, the sound was muffled or buzzy.
My hands remember practicing over the years, imitating chords and licks that others used. Forty-four years later, I play guitar pretty good and now I’m trying to learn to play lead. It’s my soul that plays piano, using my hands to do its unconscious bidding. But so far at least, it’s my brain that plays guitar. Either way, my hands love it, and they are ready.
The Feel of a Trumpet
That same year, while beginning to teach myself guitar, I also started trumpet lessons. My piano teacher was actually more of a cornet player than a pianist, so he taught me trumpet, as well. And I started taking band that year in 7th grade. I was only ten years old when I started junior high, and I’d never touched a trumpet until that first band class. My lips want to talk about the trumpet, but they have to wait their turn. My hands remember the coolness of the beautiful silver trumpet my parents bought me. The feel of the mother of pearl on the keys. The Tijuana Brass was all the rage in those days and I worked to play their songs.
Looking back, I realize I had this huge man-crush on Herb Albert. My hands remember trying to hold the trumpet the way he did, as my body swayed in my room playing along with his records. I put my fingers flat on the keys instead of curving them to use fingertips only. Who cared what my teacher said? Herb Alpert did it that way.
My hands remember the day we had a math teacher come in as a substitute and we all played different instruments. I played drums that day, and really enjoyed holding the sticks. Oh, and my hands asked me not to forget to say that by the end of 7th grade, I made first chair in the trumpet section. I beat out Bernard Brafman, who had already been playing a year or more before I started. He was really angry. My hands remember enjoying that.
Sliding the T-control of My Craig® Cassette Player
My hands have one more memory of technology, one which is now unknown to many. My first cassette player. Also bought with my allowance. Also bought at the Navy Exchange. Also mono. It was a Craig player, the kind with that T-control (down for ‘play,’ left for ‘rewind,’ right for ‘fast forward.’ Click, click, click. Oh, my hands remember that. It also came with an earphone (singular). And my first cassette tape was the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, where they all… we all used to live.
And the band began to play…
Spinning a Master Lock on My Locker
About the same time in my life, my hands spent a lot of time spinning the dial of Master locks. Gym locker before gym, after gym, after shower… hall locker how many times a day. Spinning it round, back, and around again. Hearing, no feeling the subtle clicks, imagining myself to be icy cool Ilya Kurakin or the suave Alexander Mundy in It Takes A Thief. On through high school and even in P.E. at Mesa College, spinning those Master locks. My hands remember trying to take a Master lock apart once. Hours in the garage with my dad’s huge vise and tools ranging from sledge hammers to pry bars. Everything but a jack hammer, which is what I really needed. Wham! Bam! And the occasional @#%@&@!!!, my mouth showing solidarity with my hands when I’d miss and hit them with some steel weapon of digital destruction. It was okay, since my mom was far away, in the house. But alas. I never managed to get that sucker apart. Better built than even a Tonka truck. I was impressed. My hands were disappointed.
Sliding on Piano Keys, Slowly, Learning Blues
After nearly 8 years of playing Beethoven, Hayden and Fanny Crosby, my hands remember the summer of 69 (why is it always summers in these memories and movie titles?) My friend Rick Bundschuh explained to me the chord progressions of 12-Bar Blues, the foundation of most rock ‘n roll. “C, F and G, man. That’s it.”
I was awestruck. Was it that simple? Yes, it was. Was it just that easy to just start jamming on it? Nope. My hands remember explaining to my heart that it would take them a while. A thing called practice was required. So instead of “C, F and G,” it was more like “C….. uh….. Fff….. hmmm… uh… G…..” I had done mostly sight reading of notated music. I knew some chords and my hands could play the arpeggios, but blues riffs, that was another story. My hands remember slowly working up and down the keyboard, hitting C then sliding off E flat onto E to get that bluesy mode. Over and over. Slowly at first. Then a little faster. Of course, I was lazy and worked mostly on the key of C, but I mastered it. A little more clumsy in other keys, but in C, my hands could shred. Still can. They remember, but in this case, they still love to play. Ask them sometime.
My hands just reminded me to tell you about the time Greg Gobrecht and I went to Mr. G’s Pizza in Pacific Beach one Sunday afternoon. They remember holding the warm, greasy slices of cheap pepperoni pizza, but that’s not the story. On the way home, we saw a Model T (or model some letter… it was a really, really old car, okay?) Then another one, then another. Soon we realized that dozens of them were parking by this one house and everyone was going in. So we followed the crowd. Everyone thought we were someone else’s teenaged sons, I think.
The home owner had just bought a new antique car (that sounds like an oxymoron) and we all looked at it. Oooh, my hands itched to touch that car, but I said no. But we hung out for a while. Greg and I even kicked the tires and bantered with some friendly folks. Then we went inside and ate the food that was spread out for the antique car club. Yeah, sure, we’d just had pizza, but we were 15. No such thing as being full at that age. That was, like, twenty minutes ago, man!
Then I sat down and jammed on the piano. My hands remember that. Showing off. Enjoying the feel of the keys, as they always do. About the time some people were seeming to be whispering about us, wondering who the heck we might be, Greg and I moseyed off. We had to go find some dinner, you know.