the dubuque years
A Midwestern town like Dubuque in the 1950s was a pretty idyllic place to grow up. We walked to school, we played in the woods, we rode our bikes to the swimming pool. My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was 8 and I hated them. I shared a bedroom with my older brother and we would go to sleep with the radio on. The radio station in Dubuque, KDTH, played an eclectic mix – Pat Boone, Bill Haley, Elvis, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Frankie Avalon.
I became deeply mesmerized by a guitar instrumental by The Shadows called “Apache”. I begged my parents for a guitar. They eventually relented and rented me a guitar and signed me up for lessons at the town’s sole music store. Their Midwestern ethic cautioned them, “Why actually BUY one if we’re not sure he’ll stick with it”! Within six months or so I could stumble through “Apache” and I was essentially ruined for life.
I was also very intrigued by the double life lived by one of our neighbors. His name was Clarence Zehina. He had a day job but I was fascinated by clandestine activities. Clarence had a country western band – Clarence Zehina and the Barnstormers – easy for me to remember because it was emblazoned on the side of the trailer full of musical gear he pulled behind his woody station wagon.
I found it to be quite thrilling to watch him proudly saunter out his front door, gigantic guitar case in one hand, sporting a homespun version of a Nudie Suit (felt cactus and wagon wheels hand-sewn onto his leisure suit, you’ve gotta love it) pitch the guitar into the back seat and haul out of the driveway. I never heard him play but to me, he was a god.
From day one I wanted to learn songs I could sing along to. This was pre-Beatles and I found my way to the music of the Kingston Trio and other folk groups like the Weavers. I liked the songs, and I found the energy of the Kingston Trio to be infectious, and importantly those tunes were ones I could actually play! I’d get an album like the Trio’s “College Concerts” and buy the songbook and just slog through it. I was never really alone once I started playing the guitar.
Right around this time, some big changes descended on us as a family. My father, then around 40 years old, had long been involved in Democratic Party politics, mostly in Iowa but twice he had served on Senate investigating committees in Washington, DC. During one of those extended stints in Washington, he met and befriended the young senator from Massachusetts, Jack Kennedy. When Kennedy ran for President in 1960, Dad played a role in Iowa and neighboring states.
When Kennedy won that tight race, he offered Dad a position in his administration. After some soul searching, my father accepted the offer and we packed up and moved to DC. (My father’s role was Director a department called The Office of Emergency Planning, which today would be a combination of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.). By the time we moved, I did, in fact, own a guitar – a sweet Gibson LG-2 which I very much wish I still had. When the big moving van was being loaded up, I carried the guitar out to the driver and asked him to keep it in the air-conditioned cab. There was no way it would fit in Dad’s car with the 6 of us and the dog…