THE TRUMPETER

                                                                                                                                         By  

                                                                                                                  Dorothy Jean Hurley Osborn

I never thought to ask him why he was called "Cat." It probably would have made a great story, but he didn’t tell it in my hearing. The name on his birth certificate was "Clinton Parker," but the nickname somehow suited him better. He was married to my "Aunt" Faye, who wasn’t really my aunt. Her father was my mother’s brother Hiram, the firstborn of Mama’s six siblings, and Mama was twenty years younger than he. Actually "Aunt Faye" was only four years my mother’s junior, and since her children were actually older than I, it seemed inappropriate for me to call her by her given name. It never occurred to any of us that logic would then have had us call Cat "Uncle." But he wasn’t like an uncle; he was different.

Cat lived in Minden during the work week. His home was the white frame boarding house on Main Street run by Miss Minnie and Miss Sallie Parham, across the street from the Confederate Memorial. Then on the weekend he drove the seventy-five miles north to Stamps, Arkansas, where he, like almost all of the railroad workers, had lived until the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway shops had moved and transplanted a large part of that community. Jobs were not plentiful in those days, and Cat followed his livelihood, but Aunt Faye refused to move. She rarely ever even visited Minden, preferring instead to remain where she had established her reputation as a first-rate band director and piano teacher. She and the children---- Junior Boy (Clinton, Jr.) and Roy Dwight----all lived together with her parents in the big old house where she had grown up. Cat seemed to have made his peace with that decision and he never complained about her excuses for not coming with him, but I could tell that Mama and Daddy thought it was not right.

But then Cat put on a good face about everything. Happy, smiling, and outgoing, he always had a cheery word for everyone. In fact, he had many words for everyone—he was a real talker. And his words came fast, but it was easy listening, and it was fun to watch his face. He rarely required a response; "um-huh" was enough to keep him going on a long story. When he finished that one, he usually segued into another, and it was always entertaining. He enjoyed it as much as his audience did. He would walk by our house on his way to Miss Minnie and Miss Sallie’s after the four o’clock whistle blew, ending the work day and releasing him from the L&A boiler shop. And if Daddy was sitting on the porch in his rocker, Cat stopped in for a while. His greeting to me was always, "How are you, Little Lady?"

He was a jaunty guy with a spring in his step, and he walked briskly and with purpose, never casually. He always appeared to have a plan in mind, if only to find somebody to talk with. Somewhat ruddy, he had a pleasant freckled face with a generous mouth, blue eyes, and sandy, even light reddish hair, what there was of it. He was rarely without a hat, most of the time a boater with a broad black band. Sometimes in very cold weather he would wear a brown fedora, but he preferred the straw hat, and it seemed more appropriate for his personality; usually as he talked, he would push the hat to the back of his head, rarely removing it entirely. He kept his eyes on his audience, and he often stood, cross-legged, leaning against a post or column as he told his jokes and laughed, an ever-present cigarette in his tobacco-stained, and rather stubby fingers. Everybody liked Cat.

I never knew exactly what a boilermaker did, but it sounded like a strange life for a man who in former years was a musician with a circus band—a trumpeter with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey. I wondered how he could leave such an exciting life to take a job with a railroad, but the implication was that family responsibilities had a lot to do with it. That didn’t mean, however, that he had given up his music. He lived it, for his stories were peppered with references to his musical life and circus experiences, and he usually illustrated his yarns by singing at least a few bars in a firm and clear voice. Sometimes it would be the trumpet part, but he often included others, for he seemed to know all the parts and gave a pretty good imitation of each. I remember being impressed with his rapid-fire repetition of all those syllables and sounds he made without benefit of the written notes. And his face glowed as he recalled memories of his past.

Back in Stamps there had been an organized railway band, with Cat as a faithful member. When the shops moved, Dwight Blake, the conductor, also came to Minden, along with his wife, Molly. I’m not sure what Mr. Blake’s history was, but clearly he too had been involved with that circus band, for it was evident that the relationship between him and Cat went way back. I always suspected that there was another side to Cat which we kids did not see. He was known at the shops as a hard worker. He was powerfully built and strong. Underneath the exterior of fun and humor, there was determination and will. Occasionally when he came to our house, he and Daddy would move off the porch and into Daddy’s "office" to discuss matters at work, and the conversation would be long and serious. These were the days when workers were struggling to gain a foothold for labor unions, and feelings ran high. Though Cat and Daddy belonged to different trade unions, they were united in support for the American Federation of Labor, and Daddy’s position as an officer of his group added authority to his view of the work situation. A strike at the railroad was a serious event, and things got tense when a picket line was challenged by a local agitator. Once at the house Cat pulled some brass knuckles out of his pocket, and it was clear that he knew how to use them. My impression was that if provoked on a picket line by some "scab," he could be tough. And it was rumored that he had a quick temper, but that was not the man that I knew and liked.

The pace was slower than usual on Friday nights in summer time in our small town. The main road entering town from Shreveport split just before you got to the business district, and the property between the two lanes was given over to city parks. In addition to a wading pool, swings, and slides for kids to play on, there was a large round gazebo used for band concerts, and each Friday night at 7:00 p.m., June through August, musicians of varying ages and experience would come together to present a concert. Mr. Blake would bring music scores and conduct whatever group showed up. The audience came from all around; some in houses near the park sat on their front porches, others walked to the park, but most drove their cars and parked around the perimeter. All ages came, from babies to grandparents. Kids and dogs chased each other until they were exhausted. Teenagers flirted and tried to find shadowy areas away from the bright lights. But most people sat on the park benches or in their cars to listen and to talk. "Pro," as Cat liked to call him, always made certain that some mainstays were available for his band, and Cat was at the top of his list. We could always tell when he was there, for inevitably he would be featured in some way. When he picked up his trumpet, he looked like a professional. His fingers were nimble and deft on the keys, and his manner told you he was good. His performance shone. During intermission he traded stories with the other Friday night musicians. Everyone had a good time, but Cat seemed to blossom on these nights.

Otherwise summers didn’t make much difference in Cat’s schedule. He just delayed the first leg of his weekly trip till Saturday morning, and once more he assumed his identity as Faye’s husband, father of Junior Boy, the trumpeter who even auditioned for Harry James, and Roy Dwight, the drummer. Then on Sunday night he returned to Minden to another of his lives.