Author: Cornish, Rick

Missing the making of it

A while back my wife, Lynn, posted on the Message Board that “Rick is feeling better”. I’d had two solid days without joint and muscle pain attacks (the first time in six weeks) and we both figured we were over the hump. And there was an out-pouring of many of my friends, and we were so appreciative of that.

Well, whatever this mystery malady is that has stumbled upon this old body isn’t quite as predictable as we’d assumed and hoped. After two good days I was back in the thick of it and it’s been on and off….mostly on….since then. Absolutely impossible to know how things will be one day to the next. The good news is that I’m seeing a very knowledgeable rheumatologist up here in Sonora and she’s conducted more sophisticated, targeted blood and urine testing. And the even better news is that she’s even more convinced than my GP that the central nervous system attack is the result of a reaction to a heavy-duty statin I’d been taking. The reason THAT’S good news is that, if she’s right, whatever it is that’s got hold of me is eventually going to let go…..which is a lot more than can be said for some of the other possibilities.

So….bottom line for those of you who’ve been asking after my health, no, not well yet, but hopeful. But let me admit that I have two reasons for sharing this update with you all. The second was something Lynn asked me last afternoon. Quite out of thin air she queried, ‘when’s the last time your fiddle was out of its case?” I thought……”Hm, guess it would have to have been the Thursday of Grass Valley, our Welcome columnists’ jam.” We just looked at each other and then it hit us. A little over a month. When every joint in your forearms, wrists, hands and fingers ache or are very, very stiff all of the time, making music isn’t something you even think about. Until last afternoon. And, boy, has that gotten me into some introspection. I lay awake for an hour this morning before getting up just thinking about the glue that making music has been in my life. Needless to say I’ve never gone this long without playing a musical instrument….certainly haven’t gone this long, or anything near it, without playing my fiddle. And that’s been well over twenty years. I tried to remember what things were like BEFORE music. Yes, there was a time. I’ll share the beginning with you. It’s a short story I posted here nine years ago…..


Thank you Howard B. Stark
September 2003

As I look back over my sixty-plus years it’s plain to see that music has been a potent catalyst in my life. It’s brought me together with people I’d never have known, it’s taken me places I’d never have visited and it’s given my soul a voice it might never have had. I’ve played, I’ve sung, I’ve performed and I’ve found solace in my music for nearly half a century. And none of this would ever have happened had it not been for Barbara. Or Howard B. Stark. Let me explain.
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 than 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 [employed?] 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 [AS I RECALL, THE ENDS WERE PAINTED RED, WHICH I ALWAYS THOUGHT SIMULATED THE GLOWING ASH AT THE LIT END]. 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 that was saved all year long just for the summer help. I worked hard for close to three months and made enough money to pay off my motorcycle and, by the end of summer, managed to save up enough money to buy my girlfriend a special birthday present—a gold chain costing the incredible sum of $65. SIXTY-FIVE DOLLARS!

When I arrived to work at the candy cigarette factory on the 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 into a harness and lowered into the huge chamber by rope. Next, my colleagues up top lowered a bare light bulb swinging from an extension chord to light up the silo. And there I dangled, like a Christmas tree ornament, chipping away at the hardened sugar stuck to the sides of the tank with a common garden shovel. Nothing high tech here. The air was thick with a fine, sweet dust, suffocating, and the temperature inside the silo was well over one hundred degrees. Buck and the boys pulled me out once, for lunch (no twenty minute morning or afternoon breaks at Howard B. Stark). I spent a very long day in sugar hell, 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 sweet and sweltering silo 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 peeking 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 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 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:  7/18/2011

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