I recently came across a picture that sent me into full-on hindsight mode. I wasn't in it, but an old friend of mine was. His name is Zach Barnhart, and it was a pic of him and another guy I knew from my lost year at Washington State University, Brian Akesson, playing in the drumline of WSU (pronounced as 'wazoo' by Washingtonians and others in the know) marching band. It got me to thinking about that year of my life, what went wrong with it, and what may have actually gone right in the long run.
I'd always known that I'd wanted to go to college. I was far too smart (and smartassed) for a blue-collar existence in Port Angeles, working in a mill, or somebody's shop, and I knew it. But my grades in high school were never good enough because I just didn't give a fuck about class. I was only interested in hiding from bullies and indifferent teachers. Only my final semester of my senior year did I have grades that actually mirrored what everyone but myself thought was capable of. So I knew that going to the University of Washington (U-Dub) or Wazoo was out of the question. Even the smaller state schools like Central or Eastern Washington were beyond my reach. So I applied for Pell Grants and signed on to get my Associates Degree up at Peninsula College instead. I actually enjoyed studying there, because I was among people that were actually there to study instead of enjoy the social cliques of high school that I had always been denied access to. I sang in choir, played dixieland jazz with my music instructor's band, wrote for the college's newspaper, even managed to find a girlfriend or two - sort of. It was a pretty good time for me, and being turned down for university after earning my Associates degree wasn't a total bummer for me - I just took a third year at PC, knocking out some courses that I'd probably need further down the line, and waited for an opening to come my way.
I'd told people that I'd wanted a degree in Music Education, because the only teachers that ever gave a shit about me (in my opinion) were my music teachers, and I wanted to go into that field if only to be able to reach someone like myself somewhere down the road and help them find their way in the world. In hindsight, I know now that I was fooling myself. I just wanted to play, that was all. But I'd lost that urge I'd had in marching band to practice relentlessly, and what skills I had then eroded away after three years at PC. But after my third year, my prospects were still kind of cloudy. By university standards my grade-point average, just a hair below honor-roll level, weren't great. But Central Washington University in Ellensburg was willing to take me on in the winter semester, which meant a six-month wait which could possibly dampen any enthusiasm I'd had to go. Then during the summer I was accepted at WSU, albeit with no real chance at getting any financial aid, because their entire allotment for the year had already been distributed. And my while my parents were barely scraping along, they made too much money for me to qualify for financial assistance set aside for kids from low-income households. But a hastily arranged bank loan got me on the bus to Pullman, just about as far away from Port Angeles as you could be and still be in the state of Washington. How was I to know that this was about as good as it was going to get?
I'd already been to Pullman, though. After my loan was secured, my dad and I took a weekend road trip to get a lay of the land, so I knew the place reasonably well. But that long bus trip was a nightmare. It almost didn't even start. Already in my seat on the bus waiting to leave the Greyhound terminal in Seattle, I was just beginning to get angry about the bus being delayed when I saw police in bomb-squad gear approach the bus' cargo hold, and pull out my luggage box! I practically had to throw the bus driver aside to ask the cops what was going on - they asked me if I'd put a bomb in my box! A porter got nervous when somehow the little boombox in my box got turned on, and called the cops. I told them there was no bomb in my luggage, that I had no interest in going in getting it to turn it off, and since the batteries were rechargeable, did it matter? Let's get the fuck outta here! This delay made us nearly two hours late into Spokane, where I missed my connection to Pullman, and the last bus of the night got me there after the student dormitories had closed for the night. I wound up having to share the last available hotel room in Pullman with a guy I'd never seen before in my life, a student from Ohio who was similarly unable to get into the dorms.
My educational status was pretty odd there. Since I was a transfer from a community college with an Associates Degree, I was considered a Junior. But others in the university's bureaucracy considered me a Senior because of having three years' worth of transferable college credits. But despite my diligent effort at closing any gaps that I might have had in my portfolio, I still had to take sophomore- and even freshman-level classes! That entire year, if anyone asked me what grade I was, I told them 'all of the above'! And the other percussion students I was dealing with were far more talented than I was. My instructor there, a good man by the name of David Jarvis (he's still there at WSU - go look him up), I think I was pretty much a remedial student by his standards. And in retrospect, I wouldn't blame him for feeling that way. I just wasn't up to it. And as the year went on, I came to the realization that my heart wasn't into it. I've always told people that I ran out of everything while I was there - time, money, energy. I need to add enthusiasm to that as well. I had so much on my plate between classes, rehearsals, a part-time job slinging pizza for the local Domino's, and then I discovered that my dorm (Orton Hall) had a radio station within its innards. And since it wasn't a broadcast station (cable-radio?), it was exempt from FCC regulations. I took to it like a duck to water, managing the station under the oversight of my resident-advisor from my dorm's floor, setting up a schedule, and personally running six hours of programming a week - albeit that was just me playing stuff out of my tape collection and talking shit with my friends.
As a result, my grades suffered, I was placed on 'academic probation', and my managership at the radio station was taken away from me. The station's operation was awarded to another RA, but he couldn't be bothered to do anything - once during a meeting, his girlfriend (who had nothing to do with the station) suggested that I just go to another station, and I basically had to put both of them in their place rather abruptly. I ran the radio station for the remainder of the year, and played the weekly delivery of records (!) that played Dr. Demento and America's Top 40 in addition to my regular shifts. By mid-April of that year, I think that was when I came to the realization that I wouldn't be coming back the next year. I wanted so badly to just quit right there and then, but I had to try to keep up the illusion to my parents that I was trying hard and doing my best when in reality I just didn't give a fuck any more.
I still went to classes, still took notes, still answered questions, but I knew my heart wasn't in it. I'd been a part of the university's Percussion Ensemble and performed in several concerts, but now it all seems a blur to me. I wasn't selected for further concerts after I blew off a concert for an intramural basketball tournament. I'm pretty sure that my fellow drummers in the Ensemble just didn't give a shit about me, that I wasn't in their league. Can't say that I blame them if that's how they felt. I beat my head against the wall of Psychology 101, but the skinny puta grad-student that ran the class failed me despite B-plus work because I couldn't get into the required 'experiments' that all Psych 101 students were required to take part in no matter how hard I tried to get into them. By the end of the year, I was glad to just go away and wash my hands of the entire year. I made a few claims to family that I would go back after a year off to get my head right and my chops up to snuff, but I don't think I was even fooling myself, let alone anyone else. I spent more of those last months just wandering the campus more than anything else. At least that's what I remember, or what I choose to remember.
But where am I now? Okay, my financial situation is the shits, but let's look at things from a professional standpoint. In the fifteen years or so that I've been a professional drummer, I've likely logged more hours onstage than all those other, better drummers in the Percussion Ensemble combined. Sure, the gigs that I've played haven't exactly been glamorous, but I've earned the respect of my peers. I've played all over the West, and it looks like I could be going truly nationwide if the cards fall right for me. Perhaps even....... international. Who knows? What I do know is that for as disappointing a failure as that year was, I still survived, and my dream to play was still there. It just wasn't coming in the way I was thinking it would in 1990 and 1991. It'd come in bars and nightclubs instead of concert halls. It would be loose and limber instead of tight and formal. It would be with the love a wonderful, caring wife in my heart rather than a series of confused, uninterested girlfriends always wondering behind my back what I was up to.
It all boils down to that old chestnut, 'what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger'. Well, I am stronger for that year, regardless of the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Regardless of the pain and disappointment. I am still here, still playing, still doing what I've always wanted to do most in my heart. So in that case....... mission accomplished. Where do I go from here, who knows? At least now I can enjoy the ride.