Train Ride Becomes a Musical Journey

It’s generally accepted that insignificant things that happen during one’s early childhood can have an influence on directions we take and decisions we make in subsequent years. Such is the case of picking up a vacation souvenir, and having it turn into a serious avocation.

Train_IndianapolisWhen I was about nine years old, my mother, Minnie, and my stepfather, Frank,  took me by train to visit some people in Indianapolis. I don’t remember who they were or why we went there. All I remember about the trip is the little red plastic saxophone my folks bought for me at Indianapolis Union Station. It had a few little keys, which limit the song choice, but made it easy to irritate other passages on the train ride back to Kewanee. Also, it sparked an impressionable little kid’s interest in the playing saxophone.

Mr. Bickhaus, the band director at Wethersfield Schools, was a good friend of my parents, and they talked him into giving me real saxophone lessons, even though I was only in third grade. Normally kids started band in sixth grade. My hands were too small to fit on the keys of an alto sax, so they bought me a smaller soprano sax. By the time a was in fourth grade I was playing in the junior high band, normally reserved for seventh and eighth graders. When I reached sixth grade, I was playing in the high school band. At graduation I was presented the Arion Award for music excellence, and almost decided to become a music major in college. I chose to major in art instead, but did take a few courses in music.

At Illinois Wesleyan University I played baritone sax in the 16 piece jazz band of the Phi Mu Alpha fraternity. I wasn’t a member of the frat house, but they asked me to play anyway because none of the fraternity guys played baritone saxophone. I didn’t either, but I borrowed one and it didn’t take long to get used it. Mr. Bickhaus joined my parents in attending a concert at the college on the night the jazz band was recording a live album. I still have the album, and I still have the soprano sax and the alto sax. I also have a bunch of awards and a lot of great memories, thanks to Mr. Bickhaus* and the little red saxophone. Imagine what might have happened if they had bought me a little red stethoscope?

* Mr. Charles Bickhaus spent his entire teaching career with the Wethersfield school system. In the early ’40s, Mr. Bickhaus played first chair trumpet in the Air Force Band conducted by Glenn Miller.

Original version of this story was posted 11/02/15 as “Little Red Saxophone.”

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