TL;DR – That time I met a guy who lost an eye during the D-Day Invasion of 1944
Years ago, I played clarinet in a community band. Players ranged in age from 18 to 88, and our ranks included doctors, dentists, roofers, reporters, accountants, painters, retired folks, and even me, a coffeehouse owner.
It was fun to mix and mingle with people from such a wide range of ages and belief systems, and I made a lot of interesting friends in that community band, one of whom brought history to life for me in an unexpected way.
It happened as our band rehearsed a new piece of music for which the second clarinetists had 110 measures of rest. That meant we had to sit and mentally count, “1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4,” and so forth, all the way up to “110-2-3-4,” before we could start playing again.
On one hand counting to 110 this way is pretty easy, but on the other hand, counting out such a lengthy rest can be a unique form of mental torture. Until you know the music, it’s pretty easy to space out and lose your place.
A clarinetist named Tom sat to my left. I didn’t know his exact age, but he was no spring chicken, so when he asked if I’d do the counting for us and gesture with my horn to let him know when to come in, I said sure.
Everything was going fine and the band sounded pretty good for a first time through a new tune. However, every time I swung my clarinet out to let Tom know it was time to play, he’d just sit there.
Over and over Tom missed my cues. It got to the point where the conductor finally had to ask, “What’s going on in the clarinet section? Can’t you guys count?”
“I’m not the one counting,” Tom shrugged. “This young lady is counting for us both.”
“But Tom,” I said, miffed that he’d thrown me under the bus. “You’re the one who keeps missing my cues!”
“Really? You gave cues? I keep waiting, but haven’t seen a thing.” Suddenly Tom giggled. “Wait a minute. Do you suppose this has something to do with my glass eye?”
Up until that moment, none of us knew that Tom’s right eye was fake. We decided to swap chairs and sure enough, from that point on, he and I made our cue every time.
After rehearsal, as we swabbed our horns, I asked Tom how he lost his eye. “Oh, I was in the Army during WWII. When we landed at Normandy, I got hit in the eye. I was pretty lucky, really. You wouldn’t know about that, of course. You weren’t even born.”
What?!? This sweet and humble man sitting next to me every week at band practice had stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-day? He was so casual about it that I about fell off my chair. If we hadn’t struggled with that musical cue, I never would have known about Tom’s connection to this pivotal moment in history.
It’s been many years since that incident, and I’ve long since lost track of Tom, but every year on June 6th I remember the man who sat beside me in the clarinet section and the tremendous sacrifice he made for our country.