Well, as some comedians have said, the terms “the military” and “intelligence” are mutually exclusive; others have argued that the terms “the military” and “music” are also incompatible.
I beg to differ! While I never met Toscanini or Bernstein while in uniform, I certainly had met and served with many, many exceptional musicians and I’m richer and better informed for having done so.
In the summer of 1977, I was approaching the end of my first enlistment and began thinking seriously of making the Army a career. But I wanted to get out of cooking and get into the Army band program because I wanted to play the euphonium and get paid for it. The supply sergeant and a fine euph player by the name of Bill Chambers over in the 18th Army Band at Ft. Devens conspired to loan me a horn for the purposes of an audition. After a couple of weeks of working the kinks out due to a 3-year layoff, I auditioned and was accepted. That started me on the process of reenlistment and then attending the Basic Music Course at the Navy School of Music in the late fall of 1977.
Following graduation in Spring 1978, the Army sent me back to Ft. Devens (surprising, actually, because by all rights I should have been sent elsewhere) for duty with the 18th Army Band. My time there was brief as it turned out, because after a year in early Spring 1979, I was reassigned to the 1st Armored Division Band, stationed in Ansbach, Germany. I spent a 3-year tour there and fell in love with Germany – the culture, the food/libations, and especially the positive way audiences reacted to our performances. But all good things have to come to an end, so I left after my tour completed after having served with some professional-caliber players who are still playing and teaching today. Chris Burnett and Bruce Shockley come to mind, but there are others.
In the early Spring of 1982, I was reassigned to the 2nd Armored Division Band at Ft. Hood, Texas. This was a far cry from what I had come to love in Germany, so after the briefest of assignments, I used a reenlistment option to return to Germany. I am grateful to Gareth Mark, bandmaster of the 2AD Band and to Carlton Morris of Harker Heights, TX for the various opportunities I had in solo performance and in lessons. I still use Mr. Morris’ practice techniques today.
In January 1983, I reported to the 298th Army Band in West Berlin, Germany. This single assignment turned out to be the longest in my career, and I saw and did many, many things – musically and otherwise, as my daughter Jessica was born there! From a slightly different perspective, however, it is important to underline the very reason I and others were there – as the presence of West Berlin was literally a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union and communism, I saw first-hand the falsity that is communism and the lie that it perpetuates on its people. It is a lesson that continues to have a profound effect on me today. It is no small statement to make that as an occupied city remaining from the agreements between the Allies after World War II, those of us stationed in Berlin were the last line of defense for the West Berliners themselves.
From all sorts of perspectives ranging from the political to just having some fun, there were many opportunities for performance. Ceremonies of all shapes and sizes, community relations gigs for the Berliners themselves (favorite spots were in the various “garden colonies” that were sprinkled throughout the city), charity concerts with the other western Allied bands of France and the U.K., and supporting countless festivals within the city. We also spent a significant amount of time on the duty train and bus heading out of the city, and performed in many venues in West Germany (aka “The Zone”), Austria, Belgium, and even as far north as Stockholm, Sweden. It was a fabulous way to serve and to represent the U.S.
My Berlin experience also permitted me to take and pass a comprehensive examination in the German language. I used my linguist skills throughout the rest of my Berlin assignment, into the next, and even in the sciences today. It wasn’t enough for me to just be another GI in Germany – I wanted more from the experience and to immerse myself into the culture.
In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Witnessing that unique historical event and being part of the political aftermath was a highlight of my career that I’ll never forget. Performing with a Soviet band and otherwise traveling to areas in the former East Germany that had previously been off-limits to us were once-in-a-lifetime events for which I’m grateful.
In September 1991, my long tour in Berlin finally came to a close and I was sent to the 8th Infantry Division Band in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. I still could not bear the thought of leaving Germany, and the Army permitted me to stay in what would become my final assignment before retirement. But no sooner than I had the 8th ID patches sewn to my uniforms, they would have to come off. My old unit, the 1st AD, had returned to Germany from Desert Storm and was slated to move its headquarters from Ansbach to Bad Kreuznach. The 8th ID would deactivate and the 1st AD would essentially take its place. I found myself once again in the 1st Armored Division Band.
In this area of Germany, noted for its wine production, there were again many opportunities to perform ceremonies of all types. This was a given, as we supported the division, but we also performed for the German community by performing wine festivals, formal concerts, and parades. I am proud to say that I was instrumental in developing a wonderful relationship with a partnership unit, the 920th Signal Battalion of the German Army. This enabled many of us to participate in various military activities including rifle marksmanship and physical fitness events coupled with basic soldiering skills. I was fortunate to have qualified for the German Army Leistungsabzeichen in Gold, a process that was determined to kill me. It was a very demanding, physical effort that put me through some serious paces, even though I was in pretty decent condition having completed some eight or nine marathons during my final assignment in BK.
I also managed to finish my bachelor’s degree in May 1994 and began planning toward transition leave in November 1994 and retirement in February 1995.
The absolute highlight of my final assignment occurred when the band was tasked to support a series of commemoration ceremonies in southern and eastern France, fifty years after liberation from Nazism in World War II. These events brought home the very real point as to the level of sacrifice that the American military has made yesterday, and today.
I served with some incredibly talented and dedicated people who volunteered to do what they did. I’m proud of our collective efforts and of our country in supporting the cause of freedom throughout the world.