Archived Story

John Eby: Paying it forward 38 years later

Published 10:08pm Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We had a blast hosting two members of Mark Prils’ incredible Maasmechelen Concert Band from the Academie Muziek Theater and Dans in Belgium Aug. 7-10. Staying with us were cellist Piet Lipkens, 29, and clarinetist Anne Smeets, 16.

ebyA former bugler, Piet only learned to play cello five years ago — about as long as he’s worked for a nursing home.

Dowagiac hosted 58 musicians ages 12-61 visiting as part of a Michigan-Ohio tour which took them north on Lake Michigan to Frankfort and over to Cleveland and Dayton.

Though I happened to play saxophone, patented in Belgium June 28, 1846, by Adolphe Sax, most people don’t realize what motivated me and why I felt uniquely qualified beyond the sheer spreading of international goodwill.

When I was Anne’s age — and her other dad, ironically, is named John — I not only played in the 1973 Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Band, but we toured Belgium, as well as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

I have fond memories of it all, especially Brugge, where by canal we glided at night past artfully-lit medieval cathedrals.

I tried out during summer camp with no expectation of being accepted — more than 300 applied — but on Oct. 9, 1972, John Lennon’s birthday — came the packet, including a contract, a pledge and uniform information. We went everywhere in gray pants and blue shirts, like a herd of Smurfs.

Oct. 15 rehearsals began in the Twin Lake dining hall where I would spend eight months of Sundays. David Walden, clarinet, flew in from Pennsylvania for practices.

June 10 kicked into high gear as we rehearsed non-stop until our June 18 Detroit departure from Metropolitan Airport to Schipol Airport near Amsterdam. I still recall how green Ireland appeared flying over it.

“This outstanding group of talented students was selected last summer on the basis of character as well as musical ability from Blue Lake’s 1972 campers to represent America’s youth at its best,” the Daily News reported. “The band will stay with families in each community. Besides presenting concerts of American concert band music and usual sightseeing, they will also visit the Rathus or Town Hall and be received by the Burgermeister or Lord Mayor in each place, and become acquainted with European families and their way of life,” which, in the case of a children’s choir, helping themselves to cigarettes from a big bowl after they sang their welcome.

When I say “we,” I mean Connie Wray, trumpet, of Burmax Park, and me. But “we” should also include Patricia Johnson, clarinet player from Lakeview, for our paths would cross again when the late Pat Maxey came to Dowagiac to teach middle school science to my children.

Let me quote one other faded clipping: “It is the first time that students from the local high school have ever participated in such a tour. There are 84 members in the band accompanied by a staff of 13. They were due to arrive in Amsterdam on Monday. They will visit at least four cities in the Netherlands, two in Germany, two in Belgium and one in Denmark before returning to Muskegon on July 19,” Berenice Vanderburg wrote.

I knew I had arrived when I was chronicled in Down Town!

Our departure concerts Saturday night, June 16, and Sunday afternoon, June 17, were not only the debut of Whitehall percussionist Robert Clark as our director, but the first program of the premier summer series in the revitalized Howmet Playhouse.

Our itinerary included: June 20-23, Lelystad, the Netherlands; June 25-28, Ahrensburg, Germany; June 30-July 1, Brugge; July 2-4, Wondelgem, Belgium; July 6-8, Epen, the Netherlands; July 10-11, Bremen, Germany; July 13-15, Holstebro, Denmark; and July 17-18, Beilen, the Netherlands.

I still have a Spider-Man comic book in Dutch.

Coming home, the pilot had a heart attack or something, so our plane was diverted to Montreal and my homecoming was delayed by an unscheduled night in Canada.

Do I remember P&J’s? Pat and Jim Pierson’s was my first stop after deprived of fast food for weeks. I consumed an entire sausage pizza by myself.

It was hot when we left and in the 50s by our layover in Maine, where lobsters bobbed in airport tanks and I bought a Boston Red Sox yearbook.

It was heady stuff at 15, quaffing my first beer in Belgium. Mrs. Pauwels was so kind. Maybe I looked homesick, but on July 4 she insisted I call my parents and wish them a happy Independence Day.

In those days, just being an American in Europe got you treated like a rock star.

We treated Howard Federspill, Farmington baritone, like our own rock star because he had hitchhiked to Woodstock.

So many life lessons, though perhaps not ones Blue Lake intended. I know Belgium is on the North Sea because our tour bus deposited us and our sack lunches at a topless beach for a picnic.

I know there really are red lights in those districts after getting lost in Amsterdam’s with counselor Steve Dewey of Troy leading the way with his untrusty guidebook.

It was exciting riding in boats that looked like the ones the Beatles took under the bridges in Amsterdam.

There were obligatory standing ovations whenever we finished “Stars and Stripes Forever” except in that gymnasium in Ahrensburg where we thought we were playing the German national anthem and instead it was something associated with Hitler.

Dead silence.

We could hear crickets.

We played garden parties, we played a bar with chicken wire across the stage like in “The Blues Brothers” and, in Bremen, we played in one of Europe’s acoustically finest concert halls.

I consumed eel, whizzed down the Autobahn, attended a rock festival where George Baker Selection, if you remember their lone U.S. hit, Little Green Bag, performed, saw Anne Frank’s hiding place, the famous art museum in Amsterdam and the place where the Beatles honed their chops in Germany.

Machine guns were trained on us the whole time we saw the sights at the barrier between East and West Germany.

We visited a castle in Denmark and rode bicycles into a congested urban traffic circle.

I had a host father who could have been Howard Cosell’s stunt double and one couple who spoke no English.

Lots of pointing.

One brother was a disc jockey, his room lined all the way around with shelf after shelf of records. Golden Earring hit here with “Radar Love,” but in the Netherlands they were as big as the Beatles.

One of my hosts had cassettes of then-unreleased Fab Four rarities I fell asleep to at night in their flat up all those flights of stairs. We ate chicken noodle soup, except the noodles were pancakes cut in thin strips.

Eberhard, my little German brother who all but worshipped me, offered me warm Coca Cola from the cupboard, so I was glad when Anne asked for ice in her soft drink. She left us some yummy Belgian chocolates.

Piet, who presented us with an art book, was amazed by the size of gas-guzzling American SUVs, since he calculated fuel costs $7 a gallon there.

He seemed fascinated by baseball, so we played catch, then ordered a Little Caesars pizza so he could see how Mike Ilitch could afford the Tigers, and I told about the improbable time I ate lunch with him in Detroit.

Piet never drank anything but water, but then I was still at work when he checked out the Wounded Minnow. I was trying to think of a Belgian brew.

He named Stella Artois.

He also learned from hanging out with my wife what kind of movie a “chick flick” is. They worked a Planters Peanuts jigsaw puzzle as they talked.

I played them the scratchy old record our band made, with Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” Wagner’s “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral,” Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Strauss’s “Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and Renee Dunnette’s saxophone solo to “Introduction and Samba,” which as a senior I performed with the Union High School band.

Sue took them to Lake Michigan and Walmart on Monday.

She served them lots of fresh produce from brother-in-law Bill’s garden, including zucchini bread.

Tuesday was my turn.

We went to Woodwind and Brasswind, the giant music store, by way of the Old Rugged Cross Church in Pokagon and Tommy James’ boyhood home in Niles. They hadn’t heard of the Shondells, but I assured them they outsold the Beatles in 1968 despite “Hey Jude.”

The helpful salesman rolled his eyes when I introduced my guests. Guess other Jack hosts already had the same idea.

Piet seated himself at a cello in a rehearsal room and gave me a clinic and impromptu concert.

Anne disappeared into another room and tested clarinets.

On our way back for their afternoon rehearsal, I stopped by The Timbers so Piet could tour the year-old facility. I think he thought I was abusing my literary license telling him about colorful “casino” carpeting, but he came away impressed.

The woman we encountered in the dining room very patiently answered his many questions, which I appreciated because this curious fellow peppered me with inquiries about newspapering.

I was apologetic that they know more of America than we know of Belgium, flipping on CNN to show him the dearth of foreign news.

That’s how we learned London was burning, followed by Time magazine’s Aug. 22 cover story, “The end of Europe” — “Its economic union is unraveling and the continent’s once dependable trading partner the U.S. is too feeble to save the day or the euro.”

Except for brief forays into Mexico and Canada, I haven’t left the country since, but I can always strike up my band of memories of that Magical Mystery bus tour from the summer of ’73.

Anniversary: the first Web page, 20. Physicist Tim Berners-Lee published it in the Swiss Alps in August 1991.

88.9 degrees: Oklahoma’s average temperature in July was the highest for any state in U.S. history.

Quips, quotes and qulunkers: “The Boston Tea Party occurred because colonists opposed England’s tea tax, which protected, in part, profit for the East India Co., then one of the world’s largest companies. The colonists opposed the British government’s support for corporate greed. By opposing a repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest, today’s Tea Party ignores history.

— Howard K. Watkins, Fresno, Calif., In a letter to Time

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