Author: Cornish, Rick

Summer of '63
’ve just read a couple Hooked on Bluegrass stories that came during the night, both about “first instruments”. Got me to thinking about mine.

The summer of my fifteenth year was a season of firsts for me: my first real job, a summer gig at a candy factory, my first “set of wheels”, a 305 Honda Superhawk, and my first true love, Barbara, with hair the color of spun gold, eyes bluer the sky and braces that could light up a room. By the end of summer those three firsts would ultimately combine to lead to two others….my first broken heart and my first musical instrument, which I quickly used to sing about my first broken heart.

The Howard B. Stark Candy Wafer Company, headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, didn’t make candy wafers in its tiny Oakland plant; it made candy cigarettes. Great long mint candy strings, stretching over thirty feet on a conveyor belt and then chopped into cigarette-sized pieces and painted at the ends to simulate filters. My job that summer was to clean off the caked on sugar that was encrusted on virtually everything in the plant. This was the special job saved all year long just for the summer help. I worked hard that summer, but I made enough money to pay off my motorcycle and, by the end of summer, I’d managed to save up enough money to buy my girlfriend a special birthday present—a gold chain costing the incredible sum of $65.

When I arrived to work at candy cigarette factory on my last day before school started I learned that my foreman, Buck, had saved the best for last. I would be cleaning out the giant stainless steel silo where the sugar was stored. Emptied just for the occasion, the storage tank was three stories high. Stripped to the waist, I was strapped me into a harness and lowered into the silo by rope. There I dangled like a Christmas tree ornament, chipping away at the hardened sugar stuck to the sides of the tank with a shovel. The air was thick with sugar, suffocating, and the temperature inside the silo was well over a hundred degrees. Buck and the boys pulled me out once, for lunch (no twenty minute breaks at Howard B. Stark). I spent a very long day in the sugar tank, but my spirits were high. I’d be returning to high school the following Monday. And that afternoon I’d be presenting my sweet Barbara with her gold necklace, which I’d picked up from the jeweler just the night before. If they wanted to dangle me, let ‘em. I’d be out of there by five to see Barbara, and I wouldn’t be back.

The ride back to Hayward from Oakland on my motorcycle was exhilarating….after being confined in the silo-oven all day, the freedom of the road and the cool rushing air felt wonderful. I went straight to Barbara’s house (she lived in a posh, gated neighborhood—Woodland Estates—where the well-to-do families lived), hurried up the brick steps and rang the doorbell. Barbara’s mother answered. “Yeeees?” It was more a statement than a question. She looked horrified. Repulsed. “Barbara’s not home.” She closed the door. As I walked back down the brick steps I turned just in time to see Barbara and two of her girlfriends peaking out of a big picture window. And I saw my reflection. I looked like a human-sized glazed gingerbread man. The powdered sugar in which I’d floated all day had had stuck to my sweaty body and then, on the motorcycle ride home, the cool air had hardened the sugar. I was completely white and sort of shimmery all over. I just hadn’t realized it in the excitement of rushing to Barbara to give her gold chain.

I got on my motorcycle and rode around for a while. I could feel the caked on sugar coating now, and I could still see Barbara peering out of the window, an expression on her face not unlike her mother’s. Then I rode to the jewelry store and returned the gold chain. Sixty-five bucks. Walking back to my Superhawk I passed a storefront—Sherman and Clay Music—and there in the display window was a four-stringed baritone ukulele. Sixty-five bucks. I walked right in and bought that uke. To this day I don’t know why. I’d never played a musical instrument, never even thought about playing one. That night I sat up late and learned a G chord and then a C chord and then a D chord from the little instruction book that came with the baritone. And I learned my first tune….Goodnight Irene. Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in the town, sometimes I take a great notion, to jump in the river and drown.
Posted:  10/23/2003

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