I think it was while we were sitting in the lunchroom eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up. Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply, “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.” Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like. I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is. It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.
Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help. He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica. I told him I learned by just playing around on it. I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.
When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time. So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it. It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket. My mom told me to take it outside. So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it. I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it. I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out. So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.
In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room. I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play. I made up my own notation. The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.
During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family. He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years. He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married. This turned out not to be the case. In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City. I was living in Stillwater at the time.
When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater. I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).
So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while. He at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by. Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help. While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.
One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate. In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting). So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.
When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side. We had been racing with each other up to the main gate…. Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic. I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah. I liked to call him Richard).
As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first. The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening. then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.
Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open. So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.
Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course. Since we were out in the country, on a little traveled rode, that was usually not a problem. This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.
When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written. He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked. He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.
We sat around and made terrible music together for a while. Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater. A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school. That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover). At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year. He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years. Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.
The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond. He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it. So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him. It was just stuff I was making up.
I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio. In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician. There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds. The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life. So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced. The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.
So, what was I supposed to do? I had been blessed most of my life. I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues. As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could. I thought…. what if the world was out of chocolate….. That would ruin everybody’s mood. I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment at living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.
Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home. I think I felt kind of blue that day….. so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.
I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help. Then Art said, “Hey. You are pretty good!” “What?” I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.” “Thank you,” I said. Boy. How pitiful is that? Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….
Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up. I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now. Finally. We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river. I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing. Gee. What a true friend he was.
Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that. I did what I could to help him. Though, I think at times I confused him a little. I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.