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This photo of my son (on drums) and nephews transported me back 30 years to the same place where my brothers and I first played music together. Not much has changed... except us.



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It’s a Ponder-filled Life

by Phil Houseal
Dec 21, 2011


I am fascinated by a photo of four young men playing music in a bar.

Why? Because the band members are my son and my nephews, and they are playing in a bar on Main Street in a small town of 1200 in the Midwest. It is the exact same bar where - more than 30 years earlier - I played for the first time with my three brothers - their dads. This was now the next generation, and the photo reminded me of an unsettling visit I had a couple of years ago.

We were visiting my hometown and some of us went into the old place to hear a local kid play piano. But what I noticed was the crowd.

Well-fed, well-bleached Midwesterners. As if such fair-skinned folk needed peroxide to achieve that monochrome look. I went straight to the back of the bar where the band was playing. I knew from my childhood that the emptiest space would be right in front of the band. Just as Baptists avoid the front pews, farmers never sit close to the stage. My brazen approach made some patrons uncomfortable. I had violated their buffer zone. The meme buzzed through the crowd. I did not belong.

Here I sat, in the very same place where the Houseal Brothers first played on a Saturday night in 1976, where teenage girls and proud parents listened approvingly at the first attempt of four brothers aged 14-22 to play in a band, where we were launched as one of the most popular bands in the area, and NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON IN THE BAR KNEW OR CARED WHO I WAS.

I became George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. Sitting there in the bar, with people all around and no one seeing me, I felt as if I had never been born. I did not exist.

I started to walk out, when I spied a familiar figure. Ole - our town’s Otis - was sitting at the bar, slouched over. It was the same stool he occupied three decades earlier, while he listened to me play every Saturday night. He slowly turned toward me, head tilting back as he brought his eyes into focus.

"Who the hell are you?" he roared, the force almost propelling him off the barstool.

"I'm Phil Houseal.”

His expression immediately turned to one of joy.

"Phil Housheal," he repeated, slurring. "You used to play them drums on our bottles and glasses." He smiled inwardly at the memory of me tapping along to the jukebox on patron’s bottles during band breaks. Hey - it was Vegas in a cornfield.

"That's right, Ole," I said with too much enthusiasm, overly grateful that here was one person who remembered me.

He smiled again, squeezing his eyes and grimacing. He blinked, and tried to find me in his focus again.

"You used to play them drums... do you still play?" he managed to ask.

"You bet I do."

This reply satisfied him. He laughed silently, then suddenly stared at me.

"Your hair turned white," he said. "You used to be a.... a... a whippersnapper!"

I shrugged. He charged on.

"You used to play the bottles," he repeated, this time demonstrating with a feeble attempt at playing drums on the bar. He seemed satisfied to remember my one redeeming talent.

I slapped him on the back and headed for the door, relieved that one man’s recognition shattered my premise of anonymity.

On my way out, I saw my young niece sitting in a booth, enjoying her friends. Tomorrow I'll tell her what I wish someone had told me 30 years ago. Enjoy this time in this bar.

But then get out.

Epilogue: Ole died a month later. I’m glad he got to see me one last time.