The Army Years

Some two months after I arrived in the US, I became a guest of Uncle Sam for two years. On induction to the army after taking an audition on drums, I was assigned to a division band that was experimental. It was to be about twice the size of a regular division band, having 68 pieces. It was able to split into two 34-piece marching bands when necessary, and also contained a drum and bugle corps, two 16-piece dance bands, and numerous small groups—trios, quartets quintets, etc. I played with an octet (think Dave Pell), a trio, and a quintet consisting of the leader on reeds (clarinet and alto sax, and he also played flute), trombone, string bass (who doubled in trumpet), piano, and drums. We had a steady paid Saturday gig at the officers’ club. One night there was an obnoxious colonel who, to impress his lady friend, I guess, would, as they danced past us, whack my cymbal with his finger. But it contributed nothing to the music. After the second or third time, I watched for him, and when he reached for the cymbal I brought my stick down hard on his finger. I apologized immediately, of course, saying I had no idea his finger would be in the way of my stick. Needless to say, he never again tried it, that night or on any future occasion.

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Another of the strange variety occurred at the monthly ten-cent beer night at the NCO Club. Each month a different group from the band played at it. These tended to be raucous occasions, as could well be imagined. One time when I was playing there, this guy’s date, who was feeling no pain, got up on the table and started to do a shimmy. We fell in line and launched into The Stripper. She took the bait, and started to shed articles of clothing to the great delight of all the clientele, who stood roaring their approbation. As Fats would have said, “The joint was jumpin’.” But it seemed some blue nose had alerted the authorities because the MPs appeared at the entrance and started to fight their way through the crowd. As they did so, the stripper (now topless)—and all her clothes—magically disappeared from sight before the gendarmes reached the table. Like any dutiful band, we just kept on playing through it all.

Red Wood Coast

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One final experience that nicely illustrates why the term “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. It was winter in Kentucky with about four or five inches of snow on the ground. The 34-piece band I was a member of was assigned to play a reveille formation one morning in these conditions. These formations took place at 6 am, and there we were, out in that brutal cold trying to stay as warm as possible in our lined field jackets, woolen gloves, and long john thermal underwear. Of course, all the valves froze and no one would dare put a horn to his lips. Only the drummers could make any noise, although holding the sticks was difficult with gloved hands. So there we were, banging away while troops marched to form their platoons. A second lieutenant came rushing up to the first sergeant of the band and demanded to know why we weren’t playing. He was told we couldn’t as the instruments had all frozen up. Then he said maybe we could apply a little antifreeze to them and he would send someone to the motor pool to obtain it. He was then informed that antifreeze would undoubtedly destroy the instruments, and destruction of government property was a court martial offense, but if he was ordering us to do it . . . . No one was sent to the motor pool.

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“Those were the days, my friend/ We thought they’d never end”—but thankfully they did.

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Born in Dundee, Scotland, Bert Thompson came to the U.S. in 1956. After a two-year stint playing drums with the 101 st Airborne Division Band and making a number of parachute drops, he returned to civilian life in San Francisco, matriculating at San Francisco State University where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. He went on to matriculate at University of Oregon, where he earned a D.A. and a Ph.D., all of his degrees in English. Now retired, he is a professor emeritus of English at City College of San Francisco. He is also a retired traditional jazz drummer, having played with a number of San Francisco Bay Area bands, including And That’s Jazz, Professor Plum’s Jazz, the Jelly Roll Jazz Band, Mission Gold Jazz Band, and the Zenith New Orleans Parade band; he also played with some further afield, including Gremoli (Long Beach, CA) and the Phoenix Jazzers (Vancouver, B.C.) Today he reviews traditional jazz CDs and writes occasional articles for several publications.

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