Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘The Saint I Ain’t: Stories from Sycamore Street’

“Drenched in the bawdy and colorful language of a saloon storyteller,” “The Saint I Ain’t: Stories from Sycamore Street” by Air Force veteran and film composer Bobby Johnston, is an inflammatory coming of age elegy chronicled through short stories set in 1970s Rust Belt America. It is an uncompromising work of darkly-humored literary fiction about a young rascal persevering in spite of a stacked deck of abuse, tragic near misses, and losses.

buddy

buddy was the most accurately named dog i’ve ever met.

he lived next door with the hinkleys, but buddy’s heart belonged to all the children of the neighborhood.

he tolerated every bit of love the kids could give: extended hugs by two or three children at a time, funny faces we made with his ears and mouth, and hundreds of kisses a day planted all over his noble head.

buddy was an old retriever with long, reddish-blond fur and gentle brown eyes.

his coat was the same color as the autumn sycamore leaves that fell from the trees on our street. (often we would walk in front of the hinkley’s house, not noticing buddy lying in the fallen leaves until he jumped up to greet us).

buddy must have acquired his big heart and loving temperament from the family that raised him, because the hinkleys were genuinely warm, nurturing people.

one october, when i was in sixth grade, they even hired me to take care of buddy and their fish while they were on a week-long vacation.

this was a rare gesture, to put faith in a boy who was firmly entrenched in a childhood slump.

for this reason, i went about my duties as responsibly as i could.

each morning i fed buddy and the fish, and then let buddy outside. before leaving for school, i put buddy back in. this regimen was repeated in the afternoon.

everything was going well, until i came home late one day to find buddy sleeping at the back door.

i realized i had forgotten to put him inside that morning and felt terrible.

i quietly walked onto the porch to give buddy a hug and apologize, but, when i put my hand on his back he was as hard as stone and quite dead.

i burst into tears and ran next door to find my father, who was already getting a large trash bag ready. he told me that a neighbor had seen buddy lying in the sycamore leaves next to the curb when a UPS truck pulled up and ran him over, never seeing him through the leafy camouflage.

apparently, buddy had dragged himself to the back door, where he later died.

i was devastated, but knew it was my responsibility to call the hinkleys myself, and give them the bad news.

the hinkleys, in their selfless way, didn’t dwell on their own loss.

they only showed concern for my feelings, and whether i was all right.

when they returned, they brought special gifts for me: a baseball bat and a batting helmet.

consolation for the guilty.

the older kids in the neighborhood picked on me by saying i should have also killed the fish, then i would have gotten a new football too.

the younger kids never said so, but i knew they held it against me.

me and mr. t

my mother said she knew i was going to be a musician from the beginning.

when i was 14 months old she came into the living room to find me pulling myself to the top of our old upright piano while standing on the keyboard.

she believed it was an omen.

by the time i was 4 years old i was playing by ear, picking out music from shows i’d seen on television.

i spent hours at that piano, every day for years. i made up original pieces, played television themes, or just let my favorite chords sustain while tilting my ear toward the aging wood.

i actually took lessons for about five years, but was never interested in learning about technique or reading music. my relationship with the piano was about escape rather than mastery.

my debut concert was for my father’s drinking buddies; i performed in the living room while they played cards in the kitchen. the repertoire consisted of originals and t.v. themes like “hill street blues”, “the young and the restless” and “brian’s song.”

each piece ended with encouraging yelps from the kitchen and an occasional quarter or two.

it was the first time i knew my father was proud of me.

my first gig outside the living room was when i was fourteen years old. my band played a dance at the public junior high school.

after the first set i walked into the back hallway and was met by a couple dozen gushing girls.

one girl handed me her gold necklace and asked if i would wear it during the second set.

as i tried to fit it over my suddenly inflated head, the other girls began to ask if i would also wear their necklaces.

when we took the stage for the second set, i must have looked like an eighty-pound tom jones doing his mr. t impression. but i didn’t care.

my oldest friend; music, had suddenly shown me some very new possibilities.

“The Saint I Ain’t” is available for purchase.

Bobby Johnston is a Los Angeles-based film composer, multi-instrumentalist and U.S. Air Force veteran. Johnston scored the award-winning documentaries “City of Gold” and “Bleed Out” (HBO), and his music has been featured extensively on the popular radio program “This American Life.” In an earlier life, Bobby worked as a kindergarten teacher-assistant. “The Saint I Ain’t: Stories from Sycamore Street” is his first book.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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