My father never made it out to my performances in high school because he always seemed to work night shift whenever I had a show. This was quite frustrating for me because I wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t a disappointment, not having followed in his footsteps as a star track and football athlete.
Dad (“Big Ken”) was a key component of the football team’s state championship back in his day, so the pressure was on for me, being “Little Kenny” at my father’s alma mater. I was skinny, but athletic.
And I wanted to be a musician.
He needed to see: I was not a disappointment.
I’ll never forget my first football halftime show, freshman year with the marching band, fall of 1981. He was in attendance, watching the game from the stands with his high school buddies. My mother sat with them and overheard his friends talking about the positions their sons played on the team in various sports. What she later told me struck me deep.
“Where’s your boy, Doc?” Mr. Bridgeman asked my father, who was often referred to by his father’s name.
“You’ll see him at halftime,” he replied flatly.
When I was told this, I took that as if he was disappointed with me. But I never said anything. I just made it a point to practice harder than anyone, learning every instrument in the band. Clarinet, sax, flute, trumpet, tuba, baritone, french horn, you name it. I was going to command his respect and anyone with a listening ear.
Other than that first game, for the next three 3 years, he never made it to any other of my performances, even though I know he wanted to go. I never blamed him. He had to work. Sometimes double shifts. To make ends meet. More than anything, I wanted him to see me in the jazz band.
Senior Year, 1985. It was a home basketball game. Mr. Lane, the band director had let me perform a solo during the (keyboard bridge) break of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”. It was another one of those nights. I blew my ass off because I knew the pretty girls would be watching (Hey, I was ugly. I needed SOMETHING to get their attention. LOL). I played especially hard because I had just been rejected by a girl from another school at the concession stand in front of my friends.
When I finished playing, we got a huge round of applause from the audience and my cousin Darrell (R.I.P. “Mr. Senator”) came over and said, “Man, I thought the veins in your head were gonna pop! I KNOW your daddy loved that one!”
I replied, “Man, he had to work nights. He never gets to see me.”
Darrell pointed and asked, “Then who’s that man up there?”
Sure enough, there was my father in the upper level with his friends, looking down and smiling. Chest swelled with pride.
He had seen it! More important, he had HEARD it! After all those years of him hearing me practicing with different instruments in our basement, he caught me on center stage! It didn’t matter who patted me on the back, gave me a hug or a high five. As much as I loved doing it up for the crowd, the only admiration I felt was that from “Big Ken”, FINALLY. That night, I felt like a star!
It’s been 35 years since that night and 20 years since he passed away. But even now, when I wonder if I’m doing him proud in how I live my life…
…I can feel him in the upper level, smiling down at me…