Woody                                                                                Reflection 979 words
Howard R Music

An elderly couple moved into the house across the street. A common occurrence in a college town where people come and go with the rhythm of the semesters and, Texas as a whole, has become a haven for retirees from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, so I didn't give it much thought, but my wife, who keeps up with such things, was miffed. She found out the owner was from California and had paid a premium price which she surmised would raise our property rates as well.

Her fears are not unfounded. Economic refugees fleeing the left-coast to get a better deal or, from Taxachusetts as they call it in the east, have driven up property values several-hundred-percent. Appraisers aren't shy about adding digits.

Also, no matter how open minded you are, in the back of every native Texan's mind is a hidden nerve that vibrates mildly, barely perceptible, mostly dormant, but it's there, and energizes at the words, "I'm from California." It's an early warning system, ingrained in those with ancestors who survived Indian uprisings, wars with Mexico, tornados, droughts, and 105 degree summers. When this natural defensive mechanism kicks in it hampers communication because one fears that at the mention of steak or venison people who exist on tofu and celery might fly into a rage and beat you to death with their Birkenstock sandals.

Though silver haired and a little bent with age both were quite active. I saw them on a daily basis carrying cases out to their cars and wearing various colored vests. I wasn't sure what this was about but I suspected the Rainbow Coalition.

I was suspicious of the long walks the woman often took around the neighborhood and wondered if she had code-enforcement on her call list.

Leery and tentative it was awhile before I communicated with more than a wave or passing hello. Eventually we became acquainted, with the ice being broken over a cat, of all things. Just what the neighborhood needed, a crazy cat lady from California.

Actually she was enquiring about the owner of a roving tom that was spreading his affections all over the block including the young female cats in her backyard. Her name was Mary, a retired teacher and quite gregarious. Other than being irritated at an amorous feline she was pleasant with a sharp sense of humor.

It turned out the house was owned by her daughter, a retiree from the Air Force band, who worked in California. The couple were actually Texans, not refugees from the left-coast.

Her husband hailed from Texas City, Texas on the gulf. His name was Woody, and when he introduced himself he included the iconic laugh of the old-time cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, which happened to be one of my favorites as a kid. I learned to draw cartoons by copying his image. After we became friends I gave him a watercolor of the woodpecker playing a sax. Woody got a kick out of that.

Woody's father was a firemen in 1947 when a ship-load of fertilizer caught fire and exploded; one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Nearly 600 people were killed. According to Woody the death toll was high because people gathered to watch the burning fertilizer which resembled fireworks. All but one of the city's firemen were killed. The blast was so intense they never found Woody's dad, or even the firetruck he manned.

Woody was unscathed because he was in college studying music in Denton at the time, which is where he met his wife, also a student of music. They married and settled in Galveston where Woody played with the big bands at the hotels on the beach and docks at night. During the day he ran a music store and Mary taught school.

In fact, they were both professional musicians. The cases they carried were for their saxophones and the vests represented one of the several bands they played in. An amateur songwriter myself, we hit it off, and were soon conversing like old friends, which, was melting my preconceptions like an ice-cube in summer.

Besides their daughter, they had a son who carried on the family musical tradition. He was a professional bass player that did session work, musical scores for movies, and sat in with a lot of big names in New Orleans. Unfortunately, he was born with a heart condition and died young.

Though in his mid-eighties Woody still ran a small repair shop where he worked on woodwinds. Once, he received a request from a girl born with a withered hand who wanted to play a flute. He not only designed a one-handed flute, but published the plans which he would share for free.

Woody showed me a plastic Grafton saxophone he purchased in the fifties, popularized by the great jazz-man Charlie Parker. Prone to shatter, I didn't even attempt to touch it.

Denton has a three-day jazz-fest every spring. Some friends and I put together a band for the event and Woody and Mary were gracious enough to come by while we were on stage. The big bands they were members of also played the event and I went to see them as well. I remember Woody standing and doing a solo. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the big band sound, which is still out there, you just have to know where to look.

For reasons I never understood, Woody's daughter decided the couple could no longer care for themselves, and had them moved to an assisted living center, though they seemed to get around as well as ever. It was a sad day for all of us when they drove away.

I'm sure there's a lesson in this somewhere but it would involve tired old cliches. Here's to you Woody and Mary.

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