Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hail to the dark and stormy day

A beautiful Friday dawned in Paterson in June of 1976, and I had volunteered to provide music for the visit of Gerald R. Ford, the president of the United States, to the home of Lawrence F. Kramer, the mayor of Paterson. It was a fund-raiser, I guess, but tickets didn't cost much, probably $25 to $50 each, and it was in the era of gentle Republicans, such as Ford and Kramer -- before the broad-sworded hateful, conniving Ronald Reagan and others arrived to employ race- and gay-baiting and mass murder as tools to bring political power to a Republican Party that would have ashamed Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and maybe even Richard Nixon.

The mayor's wife, Mary Ellen Kramer, who was brilliant and effective in a way that many are not, asked if the band could play, "Hail to the Chief," when the president came to deliver his speech. "Sure," I said. There was a lot I did not know. Go to a music store and ask for "Hail to the Chief." No one has it. It's played only for the president, and the president isn't there. I promised sheet music, and I did not deliver....

I went to Schermer's on West 46th Street in New York, the finest music store of its time. I called high schools and universities. No "Hail to the Chief" was to be found, any where.

Friday, I arrived at the hour appointed for me to meet with representatives of the Secret Service and convey the names and social security numbers of the five people chosen to perform in a jazz band that would play the next day, and to entertain the 300 or so guests who would have a chance to meet the president. Though I am a part-time musician myself, I knew that Gerald Ford was out of my class, and I hired real pros.

Also, I wanted diversity, so I chose men whom I knew well, an excellent cornet player, whose name will not be revealed here; Marv Rosenthal on clarinet, Gim Burton on banjo, and Marquis Foster on drums. Though I did not know her well, I engaged Barbara Driewicz to play tuba. The result, three white men, one black man, and one white woman. When asked the name of the group, I hesitantly, and humorously, answered, "Affirmative Action Five." To the Secret Service, it wasn't a joke. It was written down.

All looked well. Until the day of President Ford's arrival, June 6, 1976. What was forecast as a beautiful blue day like the one before was instead one of pouring rain. Ford was soaked head-to-toe, shielded by rain only by an umbrella, by the time he finished his speech at Paterson's Great Falls. When he arrived at 114 East 38th Street, the Paterson mayor's residence, he was still soaked. He asked for privacy and time to change his clothes, The people waited outside, most protected by a huge tent Mrs. Kramer had had the foresight to rent.

My band, meanwhile, entertained with songs that appeared to please the crowd. Champagne flowed as it did in what I consider to be the golden age of my life, the nonjudgmental period preceding Reagan when no one cared too much about who slept with whom, who drank how much or who was 15 minutes late to work. A few people smoked pot and fewer used harder drugs, but it was what kind of person you were and far less what you churned out for your employer that determined the charity with which you would be receive.

Mayor Kramer, a gentle, humorous man of signficant intelligence and leadership ability, had joked that he would require some time to introduce President Ford properly. He had no such oration in mind. There was a pause in music when the sparklingly clad Mayor Kramer, as heavy rain poured relentlessly around him, walked onto the platform and drew the crowd's attention.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," Mayor Kramer announced, "the president of the United States."

The band, at my direction, began to play "Hail to the Chief," or what was supposed to be "Hail to the Chief." It was unrecognizable as "Hail to the Chief"' or anything else. The president of the United States did not appear; awaiting his familiar cue, he remained in the Kramer house.

The cornet player, perceiving, the deficiency of his initial effort, lifted his mouthpiece away, and said to no one, "Boy, did I blow that." After the first, dismal attempt, the band looked at me for help.

"Again," I said.

Then, the perfect moment occurred. As well as any band ever has, the Affirmative Action Five delivered a flawless rendering of "Hail to the Chief." The dry President Ford appeared and gave his speech to the joy of the throng and to the delight of the Kramers, who had committed much family treasure to his visit. I felt as if I had done my job, Mrs. Kramer felt vindicated in assigning the responsibility to me, and President Ford truly felt welcome in Paterson. The Kramers went on to be happy that night, and so did I. One of the best days of all of our lives.

It was not a dark and stormy night, but a dark and stormy day. Yet for all concerned, it was perfect.

Laird, Paterson, New Jersey

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