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  • November 1st, 2019

FROM SIN TO SYMPHONY

By Joel M. Vance

“And we’re building a wall on the border of New Mexico and we’re building a wall in Colorado, we’re building a beautiful wall, a big one that really works that you can’t get over, you can get under and we’re building a wall in Texas. We’re not building wall in Kansas but they get the benefit of the walls we just mentioned,”

 

Thus spake the beautiful border barrier obsessed president of the United States, Donald J Trump, indicating, one might say, a significant lack of geographical knowledge of the makeup of states west of Manhattan, New York. But this is a person who once, at a luncheon with African leaders praised the health care system in Nambia. There is no such place as Nambia, as opposed to Colorado which does exist and which, in the immortal word of Gomer Pyle “Surprise! Surprise!” does not border Mexico.

 

Colorado Governor Jared Polis reacted to the news that the federal government is building a border wall in his state, saying, “Well, this is awkward. Colorado doesn’t border Mexico. Good thing Colorado now offers free full day kindergarten so our kids can learn basic geography.”

 

The reaction to Trump’s goofy gaffe was immediate. Most of the reaction, predictably, came from Democrats and late-night talk show hosts who, instead of being appalled by the gut level ignorance of the nation’s leader, mostly just shook their heads in resignation, cognizant of the fact that the Donald is as dumb as a bucket of rocks. Every now and then some pundit posits that Trump really is canny beneath that veneer of stupidity, and is playing a gotcha game against his perceived enemies.

 

But given the weight of evidence, Donnie is no Gomer Pyle, a lovable but dimwitted buffoon— he is what he seems a dangerous ignoramus who is fully capable of using his apparently endless stupidity to bring the nation to the brink of irretrievable disaster.

 

One astonished citizen tweeted “Now this. I wake up to discover Trump wants to build a border wall with Colorado. If it was grandpa we would have taken his keys away.” Another dumbfounded person reacted by suggesting that instead of taking grandpa’s keys away (and, for the record, Trump is a grandpa) Trump should have the nuclear codes removed from his possession. After all, he has at various times, indicated he could and would wipe countries like North Korea and Iran from the world map, presumably by nuking them.

 

Sensible people do not give crazy people dangerous toys to play with, but far too many non-sensible people entrusted Donald Trump with toys that not only are dangerous but have the potential to obliterate the planet. Far better to give him a complete set of Tinker Toys and retire him to one of the upper floors of Trump Tower (assuming it doesn’t go bankrupt) to build little Tinker Toy walls to his heart’s content.

 

At the moment Trump uttered his chuckle worthy Colorado blooper, I was in Colorado, perched at 8500 feet above sea level in Woodland Park on the eve of traveling back to my home in Missouri far below. “Holy buckets, Batman!” I cried. “How are we ever going to flee this alien land with a beautiful border wall between us and the flat lands below?” I asked no one who cared.

 

It was not feasible to bore beneath the unyielding granite of Pike’s Peak, nor to scale the unknowable height of the Great Wall of Colorado. We could only glimpse the glory of Kansas through the narrow aperture between the towering metal slats of Trump’s beautiful monument.

 

So there we were, trapped amid the Rockies, not knowing if we were on the true blue Ammurican side of the fence or on the alien side, amid rapists, drug smugglers, and other people who don’t look like Donald Trump’s multimillionaire political donors. It was a conundrum which cast a pall upon what had, until that moment of geographical barrier revelation, been a memorable vacation. In fact, there had been a bit of geographical synchronicity between our home state of Missouri, and our perch high in the mountains of that alien,  soon to be walled in nation.

 

But we had places to go and things to do before we tried to escape the confines of Trump’s mythical barricade.  Scott Joplin generally is called the King of Ragtime, a form of music that flourished in the late 1800s until it morphed into New Orleans style jazz and ultimately fell out of favor until it was rediscovered and re-popularized in the late 1900s— especially used as background music in the wonderful Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie, “The Sting.” Joplin’s second most famous rag, “The Entertainer” was the prime theme behind the movie and it was the closing piece played by Woodland Park’s ragtime ensemble on the night the town’s Wind Symphony mixed Sin and Symphony.

 

The Maple leaf Rag opened the night’s music. It commemorates an establishment in Sedalia Missouri which the history books generously describe as a gentlemen’s club and bar where Scott Joplin, composer of the ragtime melody, first of that genre to sell 1 million sheet music copies, played piano in 1894.  Whether the Maple leaf Club also functioned as a brothel is somewhat obscured by the historians— Sedalia certainly would prefer to call it a gentlemen’s club rather than a whorehouse. Ragtime performer and historian Jan Douglas says “ragtime made a sudden transition from whorehouse to the parlor” when describing the huge popular impact Joplin and his music had, not only at the turn of the 20th century, but after the 1974 movie, featuring Joplin’s rags.

 

Almost all of Joplin’s syncopated rags are uplifting, musical tributes to the idea of having a good time. After the Woodland Park group gave a somewhat tentative version of the Maple leaf Rag, it also cautiously approached  “The Cascades” and “The Chrysanthemum” (dedicated to Freddie Alexander, a young woman whom Joplin married in June 1904, and who died September 10 of that same year). It wasn’t until the group’s piano player Bruce Gibbons soloed on “Solace” that the ragtime concert became energized. “Solace” was described as “a Mexican Serenade for piano”. Perhaps that Latino attribution somehow has a connection with Trump’s assumption that Colorado borders Mexico? That far-fetched supposition is as tenuous and goofy as Trump’s Colorado wall itself. But the lovely, meditative piano solo seemed to inspire the ragtime group and they bounced merrily through the remainder of the program, finishing with “The Entertainer.”

 

After the rag timers ran through their occasionally raggedy rendition of eight Joplin rags, the entire Wind Symphony took over to give us three Irish and Scottish musical compositions, and then finished with a rousing version of John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan March (which surely made every veteran of Army Saturday morning massed reviews feel like saluting the grandstand and marching in step.

 

It certainly reminded me of the time at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, when I managed to escape passing in review after being endlessly frozen at parade rest by claiming that, as a newspapermen, it was my duty to photograph and report on the ceremony for our hometown newspaper. As excuses go, it was pretty feeble, but somehow it worked.

 

I did lurk near former President Harry Truman who, as leader of te free world in 1944 made the most momentous decision of any president in our history when he ended World War II by approving the dropping of the atom bomb on two Japanese cities, after which the Japanese quickly surrendered. Mr. Truman was the honored guest at our parade watching, no doubt with considerable pride, the passing in review of the 35th Division, the outfit that he had served in during World War I as a combat artillery officer. I overheard him ask the assembled generals waiting for the parade to begin, “So, what do you want me to do?” I felt like answering, “Harry, you’ve done more for the country than anyone could have expected or asked.” But it wasn’t exactly my place, so I stayed firmly in the background, and as the battalions of weary weekend warriors trudged past the reviewing stand in the hot sun, I reveled in the knowledge that I had pulled off a scam worthy of Beetle Bailey.

 

I cannot in my most fevered imaginative moments conceive of Harry Truman endorsing the building of a wall between us and any of our North American neighbors. But then I can’t imagine Harry Truman, a man of integrity, uncommon intelligence, and down home values, committing any of the idiotic and often downright insane antics of the present imposter in the office where Harry famously said “the buck stops here”, not meaning “the buck stops here in my pocket.”

 

Scott Joplin, himself, was a mixture of Sin and Symphony. Born in Texas in 1868, he lived but 48 years before dying of syphilis in a mental institution. But within that short lifetime he pretty much created the musical form known as ragtime, composed a pair of operas (one of which has been lost to history; the other “Treemonisha” was never performed until long after Joplin’s death in 1917). He also composed a ballet and his 44 ragtime compositions contain many that are the bedrock of all rags created by all other composers. In short, Joplin was the Mozart of ragtime composers.

 

So there we were stuck in the mountains of Colorado faced by an impenetrable though invisible wall between us and home. No way to tunnel beneath, no way to scale its imposing height. Donald Trump, once again emulating the autocrats of history (China, with its famed wall, the Russians post World War II with their Iron Curtain) had barricaded himself and, unwillingly, us.  Ahah! But we had a secret weapon. It’s known as the airplane and, after the ordeal of negotiating the Denver airport which is the modern equivalent of Dante’s tour through the various levels of Hell, we flew right over that Trump mirage to our home practically next door to where Scott Joplin once played the Maple Leaf Rag for sportin’ gentlemen.

 

Four days later a foot of snow closed Interstate 70 access to the Denver airport and the temperature dropped to four below zero.  Descending from the clear clean mountain air high above the Great Plains into the reality of today’s political scene was much like wading barefoot into a cattle feedlot immediately after a heavy rain.  The good news is that we escaped before Colorado became an impenetrable walled enclosure. The even better news is that the legal walls appear to be squeezing tighter on The Orange One, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.

 

“Play that Solace piece again, Mr. Joplin.  It always makes me feel better.”

 

 

 

 

 

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