There was an odd piece of furniture in my childhood home. Well, it wasn’t really furniture, but it was a substantial slab of wood (to a 6 year-old) and hammered onto that wood was a hard rubber pad, about 1/4 of an inch thick. The wood measured maybe 6″ square, and a couple of inches high. It made its way through various rooms of the house where I grew up: on the kitchen table, the living room floor, or a dining room chair — wherever Dad left it after practicing. Here’s a hint: drumsticks were never far from the object. Dad called it a drum pad.

And he could drum! Mom and Dad both played in their high school marching band, Mom with her saxophone, Dad with snare drums. I never saw or heard Mom play, and never heard what might have become of her sax. But I remember Dad’s drum exercises! He didn’t have an actual drum, but that pad was a fixture in the house for many years. Besides the high school band, Dad had also played in “The Union-Endicott Colonial Fife and Drum Corps,” a group that became almost legendary in our hometown. [It continues to this day, some 70 years later, now using the name “The Continental Ancient Fife and Drum Corps.”] As a young father now, Dad drummed the corps’ rhythms, sticks on rubber, at lightning speed, holding on to his youth even as his own kids grew toward the age for music lessons.

It was inevitable that I would adopt the drum as my first attempt at “playing an instrument,” in second grade. After all these years, the memories of those days are few, but imaginary snapshots remain. I recall my lessons taught on the stage of the school auditorium. I stood at the drum and practiced the most elementary of rhythms: the drum roll. I can hear the teacher’s hint at how the roll was to work: “Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy…” And I translated that into a very slow tap-tap with the right hand, tap-tap with the left. It didn’t sound at all to me like Dad’s pad.

Another snapshot: carrying a full-sized snare drum home, strapped to a second-grader’s body, drum bouncing against me with every step, and words of warning to any classmate who had the idea that it would be fun to slam a hand or stone on the drum head as I walked the four blocks home. No mere pad for me! I got to borrow a real drum for my practice sessions, a few minutes each day (supposedly), relegated to the cellar of the house where the noise of Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy wouldn’t drive the rest of the family crazy.

Last snapshot from the album: I was in the basement with the drum when the music teacher called my Mom. He was surrendering. I remember her telling me after their brief conversation (was she standing at the top of the cellar stairs?) that my teacher had said, rather bluntly, that I had no sense of rhythm, and that perhaps in a few years, I might develop one. In the meantime, I should take the drum back to school, and think about another instrument.

This probably came as no shock to Dad. He had tried to mentor me through flams and para-diddles and flam-para-diddles. But it was hopeless. (I learned later that perhaps the drum roll might have moved beyond Mama/Daddy if I had let the stick hit on Ma and bounce on -ma, hit on Dad and bounce on -dy, and stopped trying to play like a mechanical monkey. Too late.]

Dad’s sense of rhythm skipped one generation (me), and my own kids never considered taking up the sticks/pad thing. Later in life, my wife Joan and I saw a drum for sale at Colonial Williamsburg, and we thought it would be a great present for my Dad; probably the first “real” drum in his possession since high school. I suspect it turned out to be not quite as real as we thought. He never owned up to this, not wanting to hurt our feelings, but I’ll bet he tried playing it, and punctured the drum head (since the thing was more decorative than “real,”). When we last saw the drum many years back, it was upside down, decorating the front hallway of their home.

All this comes back to me now that my 12 year-old grandson is taking drum lessons, and has played in his middle school band. Apparently he does have a sense of rhythm, does practice, and has some of my Dad’s musical genes. I told Ryan that I wish my Dad were around to see this happen. He’d beam at the thought of a great-grandson doing the flam-para-diddle thing. A new generation.

This essay has taken so long to write that while I typed, it occurred to me that my grandson’s drumming comes from another source, much closer gene-wise. My son-in-law was a drummer! That explains a lot. Genes from both sides of the family.

All that’s left now is practice, practice, practice. Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy. Etc. Etc. Etc.

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