The Deen Castronovo Chronicles: Part 5, in which we learn that “Truancy Loves Company”

I had, by that time, become the undisputed Queen of All Truancy at our school. It wasn’t my fault. It started the first week of the school year when some misguided Social Studies teacher tried to put the Fear of God into us as we reviewed the Rules & Regulations portion of the syllabus. I remember a severe glare and disapproving tone as she warned us, “…and it doesn’t matter if those absences are excused or not—if you have eleven absences in a single semester, you WILL receive an incomplete.” Clearly, we were meant to hear ominous organ chords from the wings as the soundtrack to her dire words. Oooo! The dreaded incomplete—run for your lives!

But that’s not how I received the message. Instead what I heard was, “You can have up to ten absences in this and every class before any meaningful consequence will kick in. Even taking music classes out of the equation, this means you can enjoy at least forty unauthorized field trips over the course of each semester. And, if you fail to utilize them, you will have squandered the last golden opportunity of your senior year. Now get out there and enjoy life!” I left that Social Studies class whistling Zippity-Do-Dah while imaginary woodland creatures danced in choreographed Disney precision all around. It was, indeed, a hap-hap-happy day!

Not that I was irresponsible about my frequent absences. I kept careful track of them on a calendar I maintained for that very purpose. I wrote all my own excuse notes to save my mother the bother of having to concern herself with my alarming attendance record—because I’m thoughtful like that. And I never missed a test or a critical assignment. I had my standards. I’d always find out what was happening in class before I’d make a decision about skipping. If something was due, I’d be there. If I was instead told something like, “Mr. Manual intends lecture on the early twentieth century existential playwrights,” my response would be something like, “Really? That’s awesome. Tell you what, let’s bring this handful of nails to class with us and take turns driving them into each other’s skulls with this here ball-peen hammer while he lectures. Because that’s the only way I’m going to feel even better about spending an irreplaceable hour of my life listening to Manual drone on about the early twentieth century existential playwrights.”  Next thing you know I’d be out the door.

And, no, for the record, none of this interfered in any way with my GPA or my ability to graduate on time. Of course, I had the sort of mind that could fasten

Kristy

Yes, despite a bad attitude and tragic 1980’s hair, I graduated.

on a literary plot in much the same way a pit-bull can fasten on a geriatric chihuahua, with or without Mr. Manuel’s illuminating comments. It’s a curse really. I envision a day when I’ll be in the old folks’ home, unable to remember my own children’s names, but I’ll still be able to recite a synopsis of the plot (wait—there was a plot?) to No Exit. You want to talk Jean Paul Sartre? How about Eugene Ionesco or Harold Pinter? Bring it. (Of course, your mileage may vary. Obligatory disclaimer: Kids, don’t try this at home).

Looking back, even with these many years of hindsight, I have no regrets about my high school attendance record. Well, except for one. I do regret what a terrible influence I was on every kid I ever pressured into cutting class with me. Truancy, in case you were never a practitioner of the art, loves company, and I was hanging out with straight-laced band kids—clearly the wrong crowd if I was looking for co-conspirators. My fellow seniors would flat turn me down, always with some high-pitched, whiny excuse about having to complete graduation requirements—wimps. I got good traction with the juniors for a while, including my four saxophone boys, but by spring I’d worn out my welcome there as well. Times were getting desperate, so I found my sights slipping ever lower, ever younger. Perhaps you can see where this is heading….

Van Halen. Meh.

So there they stood, two skinny little clarinet players who had endured the misfortune of being in my marching band squad at the beginning of the school year. The only reason these boys were even candidates as co-pilots for that day’s illicit excursion was that they had been trained from virtually the moment they entered high school to follow my instructions without question. Marching band was long over for the year, but if I said, “Jump,” they’d still do it automatically—a novelty that has failed to repeat itself at any time in my life since. These days you can guess what I get if I try to tell a man Jump—I  get, “Van Halen—I love that song!” Then it’s a twenty minute dissertation comparing the relative charms of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar—while my will to live slowly gurgles down the drain. So, yeah.

Under the circumstances there was no need for verbal abuse. I simply said, “Ima go to Mickey D’s—drive thru—big soda—you’re coming with.” They looked at each other, shrugged, and started marching out the door in perfectly measured twenty-two-and-a-half inch steps, per their Marching Band training.  And as they departed, who did I see standing there in the conversation’s slipstream? That’s right, our friend Deen.

Now, unlike these two defenseless clarinet players, Deen had certainly not been trained—in Marching Band or elsewhere—to take my subtle suggestions as orders (as he proved every time I tried to get him to ride in his folks’ car with me and John on Jazz Band trips). In fact, I have no memory of Deen from Marching Band at all. He must have weaseled out of it somehow because if I had ever seen Deen Castronovo in a marching band uniform, complete with spats, arm braids, and one of those tall hats upholstered in powder blue teddy-bear fur, the image would have been indelibly burned into my memory. That image—that would have been tattoo-worthy if you want to know the truth, so, having no such tattoo, I’m confident that it never happened. Besides, can you imagine being the squad leader tasked with teaching Deen Castronovo to march? It’d be something like trying to teach your house cat to fetch a stick, and really, isn’t there enough futility in the world already?

But on the other hand, I had just completed an apprenticeship learning all about voice inflection and projection at the feet of the master—Deen’s very own dad. Hadn’t I studied under both of the senior Castronovos in their own family car on all those trips to Jazz Band competitions? If you couldn’t learn something about controlling other people through the mere power of the human voice under those circumstances then you would have had to have been in a coma. Looking at Deen, I remembered all the lines I had ever heard barked at his brother Vince by their parents. I was thinking if I could reproduce them accurately enough, swapping the word “Deen” for “Vince,” I might finally realize some tiny measure of success in running Deen.

“DEEN!” I barked, doing my best to channel his dad. “Get in the car. Let’s GO!”

Now to his credit, Deen paused for a moment, trying to decide if he should listen to me or to his own better judgment. Ultimately, however, he was powerless to resist the tone of parental authority that I’d conjured up from my study of his mom and dad. He turned and followed the two skinny clarinet players out the door.

And for what happened next, I have no one to blame but myself.

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The Deen Castronovo Chronicles: Part 4, in which we learn “How Craig Talked Kristy Off of the Ledge”

“Neil Peart is a god!”

Oh my God. It wasn’t September anymore. It was March now. March. Are you fucking kidding me—was this torture never going to end?

I could feel it snap—something small but vital within me that had been stretched taut for months. It finally let go with an audible twang.

It might have been my self control.

“That’s it,” I said, leaning down to untie my right shoe and grab it off my foot. I had it fully cocked and loaded before Craig noticed I was about to let it fly in Deen’s direction. He immediately wagged his finger in my face. “No-no!” he barked.

“CastroNo-no,” I growled back, leaning to find a better sightline around the cymbals that intervened between my weapon and the side of Deen’s head.

“Put down the shoe, Kristy!” Craig ordered.

Deeno Castronovo 1980

Deen Castronovo – high school!

Deen was in motion over there behind the drums. Playing or not, Deen was always in motion. Getting a bead on him was going to take some patience and skill, but that was okay. I had time on my side. “Unless you want to be a collateral casualty, Craig, you’d better back up right now.”

Craig didn’t budge. “It’s already too late,” he said, shaking his head. “If you hit him now, he won’t have any idea why you’re doing it. At this point he won’t even remember what he did wrong.” It was the sort of advice taken straight from the pages of a puppy training manual—yet it still rang true.

I finally looked at Craig. “But, Craig—”

“Kristy,” he said, holding my shoulders and looking me dead in the eye, “Be the bigger man.”

I dropped the shoe on the floor and sat with my head in my hands. “Craig,” I said, “We are so fucked.”

“I know we are,” he said, patting my back with the patience of a kindergarten teacher. “But it’s gonna be okay.”

I glanced over to the left at Glenn. A grinchy little smile was just leaving his face. It was rapidly replaced by an expression of profound disappointment—in Craig—for having stopped a scene that, if it had played out fully, would have certainly been the highlight of his day.

The Deen Castronovo Chronicles: Part 3, in which we learn “How to Submit to the Religious Authority of Rush”

I guess I really shouldn’t have worried so much about Deen’s long term survival in Jazz Band. As the year progressed, it became clear that most of the apex predators in the band had overcome their initial impulse to take him down like an unsuspecting zebra at a waterhole. He could be a pain in the ass, but he was our pain in the ass, and he became more and more lovable the better we got to know him. Why fight it? Attacking Deen would have been like declaring war on Canada; it would be just plain mean, and really, what would have been the point anyway?

Deen Castronovo IIIThat said, the unwelcome hooting and hollering about Neil Peart and Rush (which never, never abated) could still bring back replays of The Vision to my imagination. At the beginning of the year, it had featured just Glenn and Craig and their kind around that imaginary campfire. But as the school year passed, God forgive me, it started playing out with me as an enthusiastic participant too. I could see myself there, as in life, sitting between Glenn and Craig alongside the fire, full from finishing off the final scraps of Deen. I’d turn to Glenn on the left. “Glenn, have you got an antacid—you know, a Rolaids or Tums or something—because I really overdid it; I haven’t been this stuffed since last Thanksgiving.”

Glenn belched a deep and resonant “No” in reply, the sound of an overfed bullfrog.

I’d turn to the right. “Craig,” I’d ask. “How about it?”

Not to be outdone, Craig would belch the entire alphabet (don’t get too excited; the entire alphabet to a saxophone player consists of A-G) while shaking his head no. It was starting to look like I was going to have to pass on the s’mores.

But cannibalistic daydreams aside, something would have to be done about Deen’s elective, Rush-fueled Tourette’s Syndrome. But what?

Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? Neil Peart is a god? Fine. Let us pray.

Oh most holy and beneficent Neil Peart, look with mercy upon your reluctant servants here in Salem, and grant us peace from the percussive noise of your constant praise. Lead us not into temptation to kill your disciple Deen as the most fit and meet sacrifice to honor your deity. Deliver us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of a Rush tour—to someplace other than Oregon. We ask these blessings in your holy name. Amen.

There you go, Deen. Neil Peart is a god? Acknowledged. Signed and sealed. Can we please, please move on now?

In a word? No.

The Deen Castronovo Chronicles: Part 2, in which we learn “How to Pronounce the Word ‘Vince’ ”

By midway through the school year, I had already taken most of my fellow saxophone players for a test drive and had settled on John, who remained a big part of my life for several years, right up until he took an unnecessarily narrow view of my plan to marry his college roommate. During that school year, however, all such controversy was still in the future, and we happily spent more time together than conjoined twins. It went without saying that we always rode together to the many competitions that the Jazz Band attended.

The problem was that, when we hit the road, between the sheer number of teenaged bodies and all of our associated musical equipment, our group just barely exceeded the capacity of a district school bus. Instead of budgeting for the expense of a second bus (that would go mostly vacant), our director would put out the call for volunteer parents to chaperone the event and, conveniently, transport a few extra kids in their cars. This is what led to John’s and my eventual discovery of the Castronovo Family. They never failed to cheerfully perform these duties, showing up on the assigned mornings in their big boat of a car. And it wasn’t just Mom or Dad Castronovo—it was both, always, as far as I can remember. And not just that, but for some inexplicable reason, it was also Deen’s brother Vince. Why was Vince there? He wasn’t in band. Did he need a keeper—is that what obligated him to attend band trips? If there was a reason for his presence, it’s entirely lost to me now.

John and I, quite randomly, climbed into the back of their car one morning in lieu of taking the bus—been there, done that—we were past ready for a change of scenery. Dad Castronovo was in the driver’s seat, Mom on the passenger side, and Vince was corked between the two of them in the middle of the front seat.

Deen and Vince all grown up! With their mom! If their dad had also been in this picture, I would have blown it up, framed it, and hung it over the fireplace.

“VINCE! Put on your seatbelt!” Mr. Castronovo virtually screamed, snapping John and me to immediate attention in the backseat. “Close the door! Let’s GO!” The volume, in that enclosed space, left our ears ringing.

The conversation continued up front, with Mom hollering directions to Dad, Dad hollering back through the open channel of Vince’s ears, and Vince doing a certain amount of his own utility infield yelling just to be heard. And none of this was in the least bit angry, it was just life writ large and Italian in Castronovo Land.

John and I, both having descended from countless generations of tepid Scandinavians, had never heard anything like it. We sat in the back seat like spectators at Whimbledon, our heads swiveling in unison to catch the action bouncing loudly from player to player up front, spellbound and delighted.

Before we even got to the interstate, Johnny turned to me there in the backseat and, with great solemnity said, “Pinky swear—swear we will never again take any vehicle to a band competition except this one.” If he hadn’t suggested it, I would have—so the pact was made.

That day we were going to Portland, about an hour’s drive up the interstate, and during that time the Castronovo Family’s capacity for taking mundane conversation to competitive volumes never wavered. John and I let the whole performance wash over us like theatre, savoring every line of dialog, every nuanced scene.

And where was Deen during all of this? On the bus. Deen, evidently, was far less enchanted than Johnny and I were with the idea of spending another hour in a car with his family. His loss, as far as I was concerned.

Our destination that day was, I believe, a jazz festival staged at Mount Hood Community College. We’d be playing competitively, collecting our trophies and accolades (and, about this, we had no doubts), and then listening to a concert by a guest band. Tower of Power was going to show us kids what playing power brass was all about. It should come as no surprise that our own trumpet and trombone players had already determined that they would remain stoically unimpressed.

Glenn, John, Andre

Glenn, Johnny, Andre

The concert performance was the last portion of what turned out to be a long day. I remember sitting next to John in the audience as Tower of Power was wrapping up their big number. “Hey, Johnny…” I whispered to him.

“Yeah?” he said.

“It’s getting late and people are getting tired. It’s possible—probable even?—that it’s going to be a very quiet ride home.”

I could see John consider this grim possibility. “Yes,” he sighed, disappointed by the idea. “I bet you’re right.”

“Well, here’s the thing—I’ve been thinking. You know, I don’t think it would be that hard to get Vince into just a little bit of trouble—nothing over the top—just enough to irritate his folks enough to keep the ride home interesting.”

Johnny stroked his chin in an amazingly professorial gesture for a 16-year-old boy. “Tell me more…” he said, clearly interested.

And at this point in the story, I’m going to have to take the Fifth. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of incriminating myself, it’s just that, after so many years, details have become hazy. What I do remember is, in the time we spent in the parking lot waiting for the older Castronovos to round up Vince (who seemed to have wandered away temporarily, for some odd reason—how strange!), I stepped onto our school bus, which would be leaving in a few minutes. Deen was installed there with most of the rest of the band, happily unconcerned about any fabricated family drama that may or may not have been playing out in the parking lot. “Hey, Deen,” I said. “We’re about to leave with your folks. What do you say? You wanna come with?”

“No, I’m good,” he said, disappointing me. I figured the addition of yet another Castronovo to that car would add a whole new operatic dimension of drama and pageantry to the ride home. But no.

Fine, Deen, I thought. Break my heart.

So, instead I said, “Hey Deen—this ‘Neil Peart’ I’ve been hearing about. Is he any good? What do you think?”

“OH MY GOD. NEIL PEART IS A GOD!!! RUSH IS AWESOME!!!” and on and on and on. I backed off the bus while Deen’s litany was still in progress, happily collecting filthy glares from the three other saxophone players who would have to endure the noise until it finally played itself out—those glares were my consolation prizes.

Johnny lives in Nevada now, happily married, and fighting the good fight. I still hear from him at rare, telepathically random intervals. So I know for a fact that if anyone mentions Deen’s name in the course of conversation, John will lapse automatically into his impersonation of Deen’s Dad. It’s not difficult; it consists of pronouncing just a single word expelled from the throat as if powered by the force of a self-inflicted Heimlich maneuver:

“VINCE!”

The Deen Castronovo Chronicles: Part 1, in which we learn that “Neil Peart is a God”

Deen Castronovo is the drummer for Journey. You don’t have to take my word for it; go ahead and google him. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The first time I saw Deen Castronovo was on his very first day of high school in Salem, Oregon, second period Jazz Band to be precise. And the very first thing I ever heard come out of his mouth was an enthusiastic and wholly unsolicited proclamation: “Neil Peart is a god!” Just one problem with that: Who the hell was Neil Peart?

“Neil Peart?” I repeated, turning to Craig, lead tenor sax player on my right.

“Neil Peart,” Craig agreed, somewhat less than helpfully.

So I turned to Glenn, lead alto sax player on my left. “Neil Peart?” I asked.

“Rush,” he said without elaboration.

Back to Craig: “Rush?”

“Neil Peart is the drummer for Rush, Kristy.” Now we were getting somewhere.

“Rush the band,” I said to Glenn on my left. “Right…”

“Well, I guess you could call them that,” Glenn sniffed.

Craig and Glenn

Craig and Glenn in California. I sat this trip out. Otherwise, I would have been right between them. Same jammies and everything.

Back to Craig. “Rush? No?” Craig shrugged.

“Glenn, no?”

“No,” said Glenn, who then pronounced two distinct words that seemed to pain him, “Heavy. Metal.”

Back to Craig. “Heavy metal,” I nodded, shaking my head.

“Well, I wouldn’t call them metal,” said Craig.

“No?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Really, they’re more of a progressive band than a metal band. Like Yes.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“Yes,” Craig confirmed.

Back to Glenn: “Yes?”

“No,” Glenn replied, and repeated “Metal,” with a look that suggested he could taste the uncomfortable substance itself on his tongue instead of just the word.

Back to Craig: “Glenn says metal, Craig. Metal.”

“No. Any group with that many tie-dyed, Birkenstock-wearing peaceniks in its fan base cannot be classified as metal.” Craig repeated his original diagnosis: “Progressive.”

“Progressive,” I informed Glenn, nodding.

“No, metal,” he stubbornly maintained.

Turning to the right: “Craig, Glenn still says metal,” I advised.

“Well, it is entirely possible,” Craig conceded as he leaned past me to apologize in Glenn’s direction, “—that your friend Glenn is full of shit and doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”

From there, Rush’s autopsy was in full in swing between Glenn and Craig. Nothing more for me to do but to push my chair back six inches to avoid the static charge that I knew would build up as their differing opinions clashed up against each other.

The conversation then leap-frogged to the left over John to Andre (anchoring the far end of the sax section) who, having heard the words “progressive” and “Yes” in a single sentence knew that he could leverage the discussion into a lecture about Brian Eno, maybe even King Crimson, if he put even a little effort into it.

Nothing more for John to do but to push his chair back six inches to avoid the crossfire down on his end of the row.

I waved across Glenn’s back to John. John waved back across Glenn at me. Jazz Band was going to be fun!

And just when John and I thought it was safe to pull our chairs back up and rejoin the row, it happened again: “Neil Peart is a god!” from somewhere back behind us in the realm of the rhythm section.

“Who is that kid?” I asked no one in particular.

“Deen Castronovo,” Glenn and Craig answered in the perfect unison for which they considered themselves famous.

“Castro no-no?” I asked.

“No,” said Craig, “—vo. Novo.”

“No. Vo,” I repeated. “Castro. Novo. Got it.”

I turned ninety degrees to my right to finally get a good look at the source of all this Rush-fueled adulation coming from behind the drums. Although Deen the youngest kid in the room, he was a big kid—maybe even bigger than Glenn—with wild, black, corkscrewing hair all the way down to here, a portion of which hung partway down his face, giving him the appearance of an adolescent sheepdog—or maybe something created by the Jim Henson Studios for the Muppet Show. In other words, he was as cute as he possibly could be. It was the sort of cute, however, that you wouldn’t want to find yourself getting too attached to—it was instead the sort of doomed cuteness you’d find on a sheepdog on death row in a dog pound. Deen hadn’t realized yet that he had entered a church when he entered the band room, one dedicated to the sanctity of Jazz by Glenn, Craig, and the rest of the hardcore jazzbos scattered across the room. Neil Peart most assuredly was not their god, and if Deen continued to commit the casual sacrilege of declaring him so, he would probably be killed and eaten before the end of the school year.

The next day? Same thing.

And the next…

And the next…

“Neil Peart is a god!” Lather, rinse, repeat.

I sat directly in the path of the telepathic vibes that traveled between Craig and Glenn every time it happened. I think that’s why I started having The Vision. In it, I could see both Glenn and Craig, along with a couple of the other Jazzbos, seated languidly around a campfire. Having already eaten Deen, they were talking about making s’mores as they picked their teeth with the splintered remains of his drumsticks, the delicious aroma of oven-roasted drummer still scenting the air. The belching contest would commence shortly.

Deen Castronovo

That’s Deen on the right. Look at that sweet little face!

Deen, Deen, Deen, I would say to myself as he continued to crow about Neil Peart. What exactly are you thinking?

Of course, there were only two possible answers to that question. One was that he was doing it on purpose, toying with my boys, trying to get under their skin. And, if that were the case, I would completely endorse his goal and maybe even partner with him in its pursuit. I was uniquely qualified and situated, I felt, to continue to poke Glenn between the eyes with a sharp stick if that’s what we were trying to do. And why not? You only live once.

But, as the school year progressed, I could see that Deen was completely without any guile or hidden agenda whatsoever. That meant he was tempting fate only because he had no idea he was doing it. He was just being innocently enthusiastic about his heroes in an entirely appealing if ultimately fatal way. He didn’t need a partner; he needed a protector.

And for that, I was not qualified. I knew right from that first day that it was going to be interesting to see how Deen survived that school year.