The stories continue. If you ever find yourself in Nashville, it’ll be hard to miss the stretch of Broadway in the Historic District downtown. Quick digression here. There’s no end to the delicious food you can find along this strip, but for you brisket lovers out there, Jack’s Bar-B-Que is some of the best I’ve ever had. And I’m a big BBQ guy. You’ll thank me. Just look for the flying pigs. Ok, back to business. While the brick buildings that once housed furniture and hardware stores that boosted the city’s economy in the late 1800s have been repurposed as restaurants, you’ll also find a collection of honky-tonk bars that continue to power the country music scene. The Ryman. Music City Roots. Wildhorse Saloon. Bourbon Street Blues. Perhaps the most recognizable, mostly because of its lavender-painted bricks, detailed arches over the 2nd story windows, and the line of thirsty folks lined up outside, is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. World Famous, it boasts from the glass at street level. It has welcomed and nourished artists like Faron Young, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Taylor Swift, and Loretta Lynn. The wall of fame will stagger you, as the owner, Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess, often catered to young, struggling musicians before they became the stars we know today, lining their pockets with five and ten dollar bills, or accepting their IOUs as currency. I was there two summers ago, and had no idea that Grandma Bonnie and Howard had once played there themselves.
They had visited Alabama to see Howard’s son, Wayne, and having driven to Nashville to catch a plane home, they decided to see Rymers Auditorium to kill some time before the flight. Around the corner was Tootsies, and Howard often talked about how, after performances on The Grande Ole Opry, the real music continued at Tootsies after the show. They stopped in for an early lunch, and listened to some local musicians play songs while they ate. Howard’s son made an effort to approach the band and explain that they had some Illinois celebrities in their audience. Since Howard never left home without his guitar, it was only a few minutes before he and Grandma were invited up on that stage, playing for the the gathering crowd. I confirmed the tale today, as I’d never heard this story before, and Grandma Bonnie laughed over the phone when asked about it.
“People that were walkin’ by just stopped, and they came right in to listen,” she said. She remembers yodeling her favorite, “Chime Bells,” while Howard followed with, “Make the World Go Away.”
“And, boy, did they give us a big cheer when we finished,” she laughed.
I hear there might be video of this event, and if I’m able to get hold of it, I promise to share.
The year 1940 saw Howard make a major change in his life, moving from Arkansas to East St. Louis, Illinois, although his explanation for the drastic overhaul was simple.
“Well, I uh, just didn’t wanna pick cotton no more.”
After his brother, Lester, left home, there wasn’t much music around the house anymore. Lester played banjo and fiddle, and was responsible for recruiting Howard to play his first gig, you might remember, where his 12 year old fingers were numb and bleeding after a few hours of strumming. Having lost his first guitar mere hours after obtaining it, Howard wouldn’t have another one to call his own until years later, when he joined the Navy in 1941.
“And in nineteen forty-one, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and I was gonna, I went into the service. So, ah, I don’t know. So, when I leave, and uh, Pearl Harbor, when I went through there on the way to the South Pacific, I bought an old guitar, and it had…pictures of palm trees on it.
In 1941 the US military had 70,000 civilians working construction projects overseas, and when Japanese carriers returning from invading Pearl Harbor stopped at Wake Island in the Pacific, they found more than a thousand of these civilian contractors building landing strips, channels for submarines, and seaplane bases. International law made it illegal for these men to resist enemy attack, and by doing so those civilians became ‘guerillas,’ and were marched, along with uniformed US soldiers to an open area lined with Japanese machine guns, where they were to be cut down. While a last minute pardon spared their lives, most ended up POWs instead, and the US decided to assemble Naval Construction Battalions as a result. They became known as the Seabees.
I believe a lot of Howard’s personality, though much of it may have been instilled in him by family and environment, was hammered into shape when he joined the Navy. He was a Seabee, which I learned today is actually a homonym (or specifically a heterograph) for C.B., which stands for Construction Battalion. Their motto is “Can Do,” and that pretty much sums up so much of the man I knew for 30 years of my life, though it could certainly be used to describe what’s been termed ‘The Greatest Generation,’ in general. His ‘Can Do’ attitude, love of tinkering could easily have been perpetuated by his time in construction for the Navy. Just looking around at the items that surrounded him. Grandma’s weathered song book, held together at the spine with duct tape. A cookie jar whose lid handle had broken of, fixed with Nike golf ball, slathered in red paint to better match the decorative fruit that adorned the outside of the jar below it. Pops and I spoke about it yesterday, my father mentioning that often Howard had to work with whatever was available during those construction projects in the Pacific.
“Wasn’t like there was a hardware store around,” he chuckled.
Howard and I didn’t talk a lot about the war during the interview, as I was there primarily for musical details about his life, and I got the feeling that he wasn’t prepared to talk in detail about his experience. While rifling through old pictures and memorabilia in his music room in Freeport, he came across an old plaque, a picture of him as just a skinny kid.
“You know where this picture was made? In Chicago, NIneteen forty-three. Ya know, a lot of these old pictures I should just pitch. Don’t even know who they are. Handed down.”
A member of the 109th NCB, Company B, Group 3, Howard enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 and attended basic training in Camp Peary, Virginia. From there he went to Camp Endicott, Rhode Island before heading to Port Hueneme, California for final training before deploying to Pearl Harbor in December 1943.
He would accompany his comrades to the Marshall and Mariana Islands shortly thereafter, by way of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The glitter that sparked in his eye at recalling the sight of San Francisco smoldered for a few seconds.
“That Golden Gate Bridge you can see for miles and miles out, coming in. What a beautiful sight.”
The Marshall and Mariana Islands represented the perimeter of the Japanese empire, a relevant stronghold for the Japanese Navy, and were considered strategic landing points in order to complete a large scale operation.
“This here’s what the island looked like. We tore it up before we landed,” he offered, thumbing through pictures. Here’s some of the Japanese war planes we tore up. Here’s where I lived for a few days.” He chuckled and extended a picture of a tiny hole, just a few feet long, barricaded with sandbags, a younger, softer version of himself standing next to two other men.
The palm tree guitar made the journey as well, and Howard spent his free time sharing it with friends, and learning to play it himself. He also had a small record player with him.
“All the guys borrowed the record player, but I just had one record. Yeah, and it was Rosemary Clooney, remember her? And uh, used to know the song, played it a bit from time to time.”
Not long after the construction began to rebuild the runway they’d destroyed, they found themselves under attack from the Japanese, who were trying to reclaim the land. Howard turned to address my grandmother, who was leaning in the doorway.
“You remember Cuffle?”
She nodded and smiled, and laugh in her throat.
“When that air raid was goin’ on we was under a bulldozer blade. We were buildin’ back the airport, the air-strip we’d bombed. And there was a bulldozer right there at the end of the landing strip. And when they were bombin’ us, Cuffle and I crawled under this blade, this bulldozer blade that was cuffed around, ya know?” He cupped his fingers under to show me. “Cuffle had my guitar. And he was there layin’ on his back singin,’ “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Bombs fallin’ around everywhere, and this black guy, we didn’t know he was there. He was down, way down to the other end of the bulldozer, and he said, “Man, why don’t you shut your mouth! You oughta be prayin’ instead ‘a singin.’” I never will forget that. A few minutes after that the guitar went, burned up.”
The omen had struck again.
The record player burned up too. Howard smiled at the memory tucked under the blade of that bulldozer, Grandma Bonnie shaking her head and sighing in frustration at the carelessness of two young men, not appreciating the danger of that moment. I asked simple questions, understanding that it might be a subject that was off-limits, and Howard addressed things as clearly as he could.
“What was that like to be an Arkansas boy out on the water like that?” Howard stopped and started, a car that kept jerking forward and stalling out.
“Oh, man. You know, you, your brain isn’t really developed yet. You don’t know what uh…hey don’t think for a minute… Many a time, many a time I thought about what chances I took, uh…”
He grew silent for a solid half-minute, suddenly welcomed the distraction of another picture.
“Here I am on the end. We were jungle training in Hawaii, just before we went over to get in the shootin’ match. Well, I don’t see any more music pictures in this bunch.”
I pushed one more time.
“What else do you remember from that experience?” I stirred.
“I remember getting out,” he said. When I got home from the service I went home to visit my mom and dad down to Arkansas and my older brother was livin’ there. And I was tellin’ him about one time I was sittin’ on the beach, somewhere, some island, I can’t remember, and a fish crawled outta the water and went up a tree. He said, ‘Howard, weren’t you over there a little too long?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Now don’t tell me that a fish crawled out, swum outta the water and went up a tree.’ So I said, ‘It certainly did.’ ‘I don’t believe a damn bit of that,’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s the truth.’ So, three or four years later I went to Arkansas, we was sittin’ there watchin’ television one night and he said, ‘ya know, what I seen the other night, on TV? You remember when I told you you was a damn liar ‘bout fish climbin’ a tree?’ he said. ‘Well I finally seen one.’ Always tried to catch a flyin’ fish, just t’see what it look like, but we never could. We used to make nets, throw up, when we was ‘board the ship.”
Howard kept in touch with several war buddies over the years, including Howard ‘Chris’ Christianson, with whom he shared the honor of being one of the last two surviving members of 109-B-3 as of May 2016.
We moved on after that, the omen he didn’t succumb to still hanging above our heads, surrounded by the instruments he loved so much. Howard cast one last glance over his shoulder.
“My sister, she told me later. ‘Howard had visions of playing on the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, with all the stars, ya know. But I lost my guitar. And never got another one ‘til WWII, and I lost it in a air raid. So, I don’t know.”
Dessie was right about those visions, and while the Grand Ole Opry would never come to fruition, he came quite close, and Howard would meet a whole host of famous characters on his musical journey.