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09 Apr 2020

Pandemic Stories: The Only Person I Can Interview In-Person Is My Husband—So He Told Me the Story About How His Clarinet Saved His Life

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Ted Pethes as the drum major of the Fort Leonard Wood band. Ted Pethes as the drum major of the Fort Leonard Wood band.

Ted Pethes is a lifelong musician who is about to turn 92.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are pausing to reflect on the twists and turns of their lives—and looking back at his long and lucky life, Ted readily admits that most of it might never have happened without his clarinet.

There’s one more thing you should know about Ted: He’s my husband. He’s the only person I can really interview in person right now—and he’s got an amazing story to tell.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Ted was an only child. His musically talented mother played the piano and even the concertina; his father, an engineer, was a wannabe musician father who struggled with the violin, battling tone-deafness.

Ted grew up in a huge extended family of hardworking Polish, German and French-Canadian immigrants who often played and sang music at family gatherings. When he was given a clarinet early in life, they all soon realized that he was the true talent on the family tree. His grandfather—something of a celebrity who played Polish polkas on the clarinet on live radio, today’s equivalent of being a serious rock star—was his first teacher.

He went on to study with symphony musicians and freelanced with the NBC staff orchestra, extending his skills to include the flute, oboe and sax—both tenor and alto. But his true delight was sneaking, underage, into the smoky nights at the jazz clubs in the Black sections of Chicago.

“I would carry my sax in a case, and when they came to throw me out and then saw it, they would invite me up to play,” Ted said. “I was often the only white face in the club. I learned improvisation from those great guys.”

While in college, he was suddenly drafted to join the military for World War II. The day he was to report, he boondoggled away the day before finally dragging himself into the Army office around 4 p.m.

“Beat it!” a recruiter snapped at him. It was the day they stopped the draft.

However, in 1950, the strange experience of the “Korean conflict” began—and guess who came up first on the list for recruitment? Ted showed up at the Army recruitment office and was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

“Don’t take anything with you,” they admonished him. “No clothes, no nothing.”

Well … he did not want to leave his precious instruments behind, but he knew they’d be confiscated if he smuggled them in and they were discovered. His clarinet, however, could be disassembled into four pieces and squeezed into a little case. Sure enough, any of the Army higher-ups who glanced at him thought he was carrying a “ditty bag”—a case for personal toiletries—and ignored it.

Fort Leonard Wood was a former training base which was rapidly being reopened. “Local farmers had been given permission to use it for grain storage,” Ted remembered, “and they were still sweeping chaff out of the barracks when we arrived.”

In the chaos, Ted asked where the general could be found, and was pointed to his office. With his clarinet bag under his arm, he shuffled in and announced himself to the sergeant.

“Get the fuck out, grunt!” the sergeant bellowed.

But the general, hearing the commotion, stuck his head out of his office. Ted bravely suggested the need for a band at the base so the newbies could learn to march to music. The general thought.

“Dismissed!” he barked.

After a few days of basic training, Ted was summoned back into the general’s office. After some reflection, the general had decided a band was a good idea.

“I know a bunch of great musicians here from Chicago,” Ted said he told the general. “I can practically find all you need.”

The Army gets what it wants, and soon after Fort Leonard Wood received shipments of band uniforms, instruments and sheet music. Ted played his clarinet, but eventually was re-assigned to be the drum major—complete with a shiny whistle for communicating to the musicians, and a giant baton to establish the beat.

The march tempo, 120 steps per minute, was faithfully kept by the gigantic bass drummer they nicknamed Punjab. They rehearsed in a special hall that was part of their barracks, but played outdoors, with the music soon memorized for training sessions as greenhorn recruits stumbled past. The band also learned concert music for the camp’s entertainment on Saturdays.

The musicians came from all walks of life. “The band was built from auditions with the infantry, and they were accepted only if they were professional-caliber musicians,” Ted said. “We had some strong players—some from the symphonies, some from dance bands. Some were instructors! We didn’t teach anybody to play. They were all trained before they got there.”

“Regular Army,” or RAs, determined what would be played at the daily rehearsals. “Some were of questionable musical ability,” Ted lamented, “but they had the job, so they literally called the tunes. … We played for everything, including the graduating recruits and their families, who would first be treated to speeches from the general. Then, when they called ‘pass and review!’ that was my signal. When I blew my whistle four times and stepped off, everyone did, together. We were on our way.

“The relatives were sitting with tears in their eyes. … It was a touching moment for them, watching their sons now marching snappily in front of them, because they might be seeing their sons, or husbands, for the last time. They were being sent to Korea, to ‘defeat the enemy.’ This was the end of their training. They were now real soldiers.”

Ted, however, was never sent to Korea.

“My tour of duty kept me in the camp for my whole two years. The entire band stayed there,” he said. “We must have played for graduations every month or so. We were a unit, a training unit for the new recruits, so it was easier for the Army to keep us there than to constantly find new musicians.

“Fort Leonard Wood was the 6th Armored Division. Fort Leonard Wood became famous when a newscaster’s son was killed there in a training exercise. He was firing a bazooka when a live round fell at his feet and exploded. … It was a little rocket.”

After that, his celebrity father closed every nightly newscast by saluting “all the boys at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.”

“Accidents did happen in training. We used live rounds,” Ted said.

Word of mouth would sometimes seep back to the band members from the front lines about friends who had lost their lives. Many of the band members struggled with what is now called survivor’s guilt—but Ted was always grateful for that clarinet, which very well may have saved his life.

Ted returned to the university after his discharge, and went on to have a successful, wildly varied career—and his lucky ebony clarinet traveled everywhere with him. He has lived in the Coachella Valley since 1990. He played with our local symphony for many years, and regularly appeared with dance bands, jazz combos, show orchestras and even klezmer groups. At one point, we played together in the same band; that's how we met. We married in 2004.

Ted recently had to give up playing music, due to two cancer surgeries that altered his embouchure. That means his clarinet waits, for sale, at a shop in Palm Springs—and for a new home with someone who will hopefully honor its service and its history.

Who knows? Maybe the clarinet will save its next owner’s life, too.

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