THE BUGLE BOY AND ALBERT
THE BUGLE BOY AND ALBERT
This is the story of a man marked by an experience from his past. The scene that haunts him, whose meaning he was to grasp only decades later, happened on Governors Island in New York immediately after World War IV.
New York City and the five boroughs had been depopulated in a matter of minutes. He didn’t know the fate of the rest of the United States or the world. From his point of view, he alone survived. He awoke to the water smashing him against the sea wall. His legs burned from the night’s exertion or a neurological weapon. The island, like he, remained intact as if protected by a bubble. His survival is inexplicable, but it is exclusive. During the next several days and nights, sounds frighten him. He searches for life, for food, for water. Eventually he discovers the severity of his solitude.
One morning, he awakens to the sound of a bugle. The player is frustrated, unable to get the melodies right. Streams and clusters of jammed notes break up the rhythm. Gradually, angry frustration turns into elegant improvisation. He finds a bike on the rocks at low tide, repairs it and searches. He rides in the direction of the sound, but he always hears it behind him. After days circling the island, he begins to think it originates inside himself: he must be hallucinating his own memories.
He finds himself back in his eleventh year with a saxophone hung from his neck. His attempts to play Mary Had A Little Lamb, De Camp Town Races, and On Top Of Old Smokey end in frustration. His solution: to scream through the horn as loudly as possible. Only in these moments did he feel free. Once he broke from the melody, he found the freedom to explore. But no one encouraged this. The school band specified what to play and how to play it, when to play and for how long. Playing from sheet music seemed unnatural. As he reconciled with this memory, and took pleasure in the entertainment provided by his own psyche, he found peace again and slept, often dreaming to the sounds of a bugle in the distance, familiar then shattered, but elegantly restored into beautiful improvisations. He didn’t remember playing this well when he was young, but that’s what dreams were for. This is his story.
The next day I was awakened at daybreak by a persistent jabbing to my shoulder. A funny little voice referred to me as Fresh Fish.
“Please teach me The Reveille.”
I leaped up as if I had been struck by lightning. I rubbed my eyes hard. I stared. And I saw an extraordinary little fellow staring back at me very seriously. Remember I was on an island surrounded by impenetrably contaminated water. No humans could have survived the devastation. While it was true that I had survived, and I could not explain this, I had searched every corner of the island and found no signs of another. But there in front of me was this little boy, no older than twelve in a funny outfit, jabbing at me with a bugle.
“Hey, Fresh Fish,” he said again, “Teach me The Reveille.”
I opened my eyes wide and scanned my surroundings. He was the only person around. This little fellow seemed to be neither lost nor dying of exhaustion, neurological damage, hunger or thirst, nor did he seem scared of death. Nothing in his appearance suggested he was stranded on an island, a sole survivor of a calamity. But in the face of an overpowering mystery, you don’t dare disobey. Absurd as it seemed, a thousand miles from all inhabited regions and in danger of death I took up the bugle. I told the little fellow that I didn’t know how to play.
“That doesn’t matter. Just teach me how to play it.”
So I put the bugle to my lips and tried to make a sound. I remembered playing The Reveille on the saxophone when I was a boy of his age, and even then I wasn’t very good at it, but, still, I didn’t know how to translate that to the bugle. So I let out a few notes. “There you go,” I said. “The Reveille. Now, who, may I ask are you?”
“That’s not The Reveille,” he snatched back his bugle. “It goes like this.” He began to play The Reveille, but at about the sixth note he lost his place, and in his frustration he blasted a flurry of seemingly random notes that flowed from his mouth. I jumped back several feet from the blast. He continued on like this for a moment seeming to find his own path in the random notes, concocting, in the end, what I thought to be a wonderfully lyrical composition of his own making. Once he finished this flurry, he pulled the bugle from his lips in frustration. “It goes like this,” he said again, and this time he hummed the short melody of The Reveille, perfectly in tune.
“Please teach it to me.”
“I can’t play the bugle, but it sounds as though you have the hang of it in your head, now you just have to say it through the horn. Can’t you hum it into the bugle?”
“You sound like Albert.”
“Who’s Albert?” I asked, anticipating a father or someone he might be traveling with. While he asked me a fair amount of questions, he never seemed to hear the ones I had asked him. This I learned to be his habit.
He put the bugle to his lips and began to play The Reveille. But again, after losing the melody at the sixth note or so, he let out a torrent of notes that still made me jump back. Though not The Reveille by any stretch, I was moved by the melodic sounds he produced. When he finished, he pulled the bugle away from his lips and repeated, “I can’t do it, so you have to teach me.”
“Why do you need to play The Reveille?” I asked him. “You’re playing just fine without it. Besides, since I’m already awake and called to arms, there is no one to alert.”
“But it’s not The Reveille. Can you teach me To The Color?”
“I don’t know that one either. Plus, I told you I don’t play the bugle. Once, a long time ago, when I was your age, I played the saxophone. But that’s a long time ago.”
Without seeming to hear or to care, he said again, “It goes like this,” and raised the bugle toward his lips, but this time he hummed the melody, perfectly in tune as if he were playing it on the bugle. “Please teach it to me.”
“But you don’t need any of those bugle calls. There are no troops here to command, no flag to raise, no schedule to adhere to. As far as I can see, it’s only you and me, and for my sake, I don’t need the bugle calls to remind me when to wake up, to eat and to sleep.”
“But I need to know them,” he insisted. “My commanding officer requires it.”
Here I saw my opportunity to get him to stop hounding me, and I took it. “As your commanding officer, I am commanding that you no longer need to learn the bugle calls. No, your new orders are to play what you feel, let your lungs play the songs they like. You just follow along with your lips and head.”
I was anticipating another blast out of frustration and defiance, but instead he lifted the bugle to his lips and played a lovely melody of his own making. When he finished his song, he gave me a stern look and asked, “How was that, sir?”
“Fine,” I said, “Just fine. You’re getting the hang of it. Now keep practicing that.”
“You sound like Albert,” he said, again failing to inform me of who Albert was.
He slumped down on a nearby rock and pulled what appeared to be a pipe from his inside jacket pocket, which I thought strange for a boy of twelve. “Commander, sir,” he said. “Do you have any tobacco?”
It took me a long time to understand where he came from. While he had no trouble asking me a series of questions, he was in the habit of never answering mine. Whoever he was, I was simply glad to have a companion. It was only through passing remarks, bits of questions that he would ask me, and other information I could gather, that I put together his history.
His overcoat, jacket and trousers were of a coarse lightly toned material. His overcoat was single breasted and had a cape reaching down to the elbows, and it had a row of brass buttons on the breast, the cape and the coat tails. The jacket, which came to his hips, had a standing collar, and what appeared to be an inside breast pocket. It was here that he kept his pipe. Another row of brass buttons ran down the front and the sleeves. There were white braids on the collar and the sleeves. His shoes were coarse looking with broad toes and heels and leather thongs. The trousers were plain without stripes and had two pockets. He also had a Forage or fatigue cap that was a clumsy looking affair, made of a dark thick cloth that looked quite heavy. It had a large overhanging crown with a welt, a chinstrap with a brass button on each side and a leather visor. But the most striking part of his outfit was the leather cravat, what looked to me like a dog collar, which elevated his chin in what seemed to be an uncomfortable manner. It looked to be made of dark shoe leather about two and a half inches high, and it fastened at the back of the neck with a leather thong. It seemed quite uncomfortable. Add to this ensemble the fact that all of the garments seemed to be men’s sizes, voluminously ill-fitting for a boy of his age. Of all of it, the great coat, trousers and jacket seemed to fit him slightly better, but underneath you could see the gathering of extra material from his shirt and undergarments. His shoes, in particular, were oversized, and if it weren’t for the doubled pairs of thick wool socks, surely he would have lost them long ago.
While his uniform was particularly unusual, this was not the most unusual thing about him. Something else struck me as peculiar. He was purely gray. By this I don’t mean simply his uniform. I mean his entire being. All of the color had been sucked out of him. And not only that. Once I hit upon this fact, I soon noticed that the entire island was also in black and white. All color had been removed and everything took on only shades of gray. While this was jarring in itself, it wasn’t until I looked at my own hands that I truly got a shock. I, too, was in grayscale. There was no color in me, neither what remained of my clothing nor my flesh. I asked the boy if he noticed this, but, of course, he was in no position to entertain a question from me. Instead he was sucking on his dry pipe humming to himself some bugle call or another. Though this came as a shock, with time I became accustomed to this circumstance.
I gathered from his appearance, his concerns, and his behavior that he was a ‘bugle boy’ from the civil war era stationed on Governors Island. There had been a School of Music Practice there between the years of 1836-1878. He and his fellow enlisted boys of the ages of twelve to fifteen learned to play the bugle, the fife and the drums for military life and war skirmishes. There were so many things I wanted to learn from him, but all he kept asking me was to teach him to play new songs on his bugle…and if I had any tobacco. His outfit was a civil war ‘bugle boy’ issue. (All of this I confirm only now, in the safety of the library I sit in decades later and tens of thousands of miles away. This is neither the time nor the place for the story of my survival, but I can assure you it was successful). He kept his appearance neat such that his clothes didn’t show the wear one would expect from a few hundred years. But he kept both himself and his bugle clean and polished daily. As I was now his commanding officer, he frequently asked if his appearance was satisfactory, and I assured him it was, considering the careless wreck I had found myself in. Over time, his discipline began to wear off on me, and I began to take better care of my own appearance. At first I didn’t care since I had no one to impress. But as I saw the pride he put into keeping himself and his bugle in order, I began to take pride in my own sanitation. Besides, what kind of commanding officer sets an example by not following his own standards? Though the boy needed no role models for his own discipline.
One day, after his insisting that I teach him to play the bugle calls, I firmly suggested, knowing that this would get him off my back, “If you can get me a saxophone, then I will teach you all of the bugle calls you need to know. I don’t know how to play the bugle, and I’m not about to learn.” He finally backed off. With this I had found some breathing space. I had put the impossible task to him. If he wanted to learn the bugle calls, then he would have to make a saxophone appear out of thin air. Of all of the buildings I had rummaged through hoping to find even a bit of food or water, I found nothing. Not even a curtain ring. There was not a single utensil, decoration or remnant of any kind to suggest that these homes were once inhabited. It seemed more like I was filling the empty shell of a movie set, one that the designer took great care to make the homes, the landscape and the entire island authentic to serve as a backdrop for the scene I was now playing in. So I felt fairly secure that my request for a saxophone would be impossible, and therefore I had discovered a way to get him to stop insisting I teach him songs.
Some days he would take me on tours. This day he took me to the South Battery, a building I had rummaged through before. This, he said, was the building he lived in. He took me inside and showed me around. The South Battery was the very same building, built just prior to the War of 1812, which housed the School of Music Practice through the Civil War era. As he led me, he indicated what everything was. “Here,” he said, “are the bunks. This one is mine, and here is where we keep our uniforms, and here our instruments and here is where we eat.” As he said all of this, I didn’t let on that nothing was where he said it was nor did it correspond to what he was saying. In fact, the building had been converted in the late 1920s and ‘30s into a ballroom and officers’ club by the army and used as such by the Coast Guard up to 1996. So where his practice room once stood now stood the remains of a bar and a lounge. Yet he saw his past as clearly as if it still remained.
As I followed him, I used my own imagination to try to see what he was seeing, since, as I had come to believe, it was likely historically accurate even if no longer visible. I had come to know him as a trustworthy source and as the spirit of a boy who had lived here many years ago. His tour of the School of Music Practice included many details that I would verify later. As he walked me down the hallway he pointed out tin washbasins that hung from hooks on the wall.
Each boy was to take one and pump water to fill a basin, place it on a bench and wash and finally dry himself on a roller towel. When it was warm out, he told me, this took place outside. Next we entered a room on the first floor that he called his sleeping quarters. He described everything it contained to me as if I were a new recruit.
“There are six iron double bedsteads, and this single bed in the corner next to the window overlooking the parade grounds is for the corporal. You will sleep here. As you can see, the doubles are folded to allow for more room during the daytime. The bedsacks, which are stuffed with straw, are rolled up during the day, and all of the blankets are folded properly on top. You’ll notice there are no pillows. We use our jackets. This wide shelf running around the room above the beds is for storing knapsacks, shoes, drums, fifes and other things and the hooks below are for hanging our overcoats. This is where the coal fire burns, but because the weather is nice, it’s not necessary today. That’s the corporal’s chair. Use it when you like, and the wooden benches are for the boys.
“Behind the door you’ll see a water pail and a tin cup. You can see a few books lying around and candles for reading at night and checkers and checkerboards that we made ourselves.”
None of this, remember, was visible to me. The rooms were empty and neglected. Even the shapes and sizes of them were not as he described. But I took him at his word, knowing that if I stopped to question him, the tour would end abruptly.
“This is the mess hall. The entire company of boys can sit at these long tables and benches at one time. We each get a thin plate, a large stone china bowl, an iron spoon, knife and fork, and there is some salt and pepper at the table. For breakfast we have a small cold piece of boiled salt pork, a piece of bread and a large bowl of black coffee. Grease in a dish is a substitute for butter. For dinner we have a bowl of rice soup containing desiccated vegetables, a small piece of boiled beef and the usual piece of bread. Three times a week there is bean soup served with boiled salt pork or bacon and at rare intervals, one or two boiled potatoes. And then for supper we have stewed dried apples, black coffee (sweetened, no milk) and a slice of bread about four ounces. At the sutler’s store you can buy pies, crackers, cheese, cake and ginger pop.”
His description, though paltry by normal dining standards, sounded gourmet to me, as I hadn’t eaten since I had arrived. I told him my worries about food and asked if there wasn’t any of this left on the island somewhere, a cache of food. Of course, he didn’t answer my question, but I did notice his recognition of my concern. Otherwise unfazed, he continued with his tour.
Next he showed me into a grand open room that he called the music schoolroom. He called it a tiny room, too small for full attendance and pointed around at pine benches, a blackboard, desks and chairs for two teachers and shelves, none of which I could see. Inside one of the desks he pointed, with a wince, to where the teacher kept his rattan. As with everything else he described in the School of Music Practice, nothing was where he said it was supposed to be. Next he said he wanted to show me one last thing. He took me to the basement where they had kept all of the instruments for the new recruits. We entered the room, and it looked to me like a room that had once been used to store potatoes or grow mushrooms. It was only a small room, large enough for him to enter with ease, but I had to crouch so as not to hit my head on the ceiling. As we both entered, he pointed into the corner and said, “There it is. Take it.” Like everything else, I had the feeling that he expected me to pick up something that had been there hundreds of years ago, and I would have to push my imagination to the far outreaches just to entertain him and to hear him tell his story in his own way. But I wasn’t about to reach into the past and grab for something that no longer existed.
So I asked, “What is it?”
And as he never directly answered my questions, he just pointed with a firmer finger into the corner. Not wanting to upset him, I moved toward the corner and grabbed in the direction he pointed. To my surprise, there was something there. This was the first object that he had indicated that was actually present. So I grabbed for it, and it seemed familiar. I opened it, and, indeed, there was a familiar smell, the smell of musty wood, velvet, brass and saliva. Sure enough, I was now in the possession of a saxophone. I had so many questions, first of which – if I were to play his game across time – how did a saxophone arrive here when the Belgian, Adolphe Sax, hadn’t even invented the saxophone until 1841? The School of Music Practice was strictly for buglers, fifers and drummers. As a matter of fact, the saxophone never made it into military engagement. It wasn’t until several years, decades, after its invention that it even made it into ceremonial military bands after being rejected by orchestras around the world. It simply didn’t make sense to me how this bugle boy could know of the existence of not only this saxophone but of the saxophone in general, and it made even less sense that it would be here, in this place, the only tangible thing I had yet to find on the island. Here was a physical reminder that once another life form lived within these abandoned homes.
The case wore its age, as did the sax, but remarkably, it played well. Even the pads had been cared for. I should have expected this coming from a boy who kept his clothes pressed and his own instrument polished and cleaned for daily use. It seemed as though since he was the only boy remaining, he took the responsibility of caring for all matters that concerned the School of Music Practice, so this saxophone became his responsibility.
I asked him over and over again, where this instrument came from, who had left it, when it had arrived, why he had taken so long to show it to me and all of the other pressing questions I needed answers to, but he refused to answer my questions. Instead, he simply put his bugle to his lips and said, “Now teach me the bugle calls.”
We spent the afternoon trying to reacquaint me with the instrument. Since he knew the melody of the bugle calls so well, he could teach them to me, however ironic that may sound. Then I would fumble my way around the sax trying to find the notes. Miraculously I remembered the basic fingering. The C-scale came back quite naturally. Luckily this was all I needed to find all of the bugle calls. They consist of only three notes, C-G-E, in two octaves in various arrangements. It took me some time to find the melodies. It had been thirty years since I had even seen a saxophone much less had one under my fingertips and in my mouth. How he had managed to care for the reeds was still a mystery to me, but everything was in good playing order with the exception of the low Bb, which was my problem not its. Over time, my embouchure would fix this. So I would play the bugle call on the sax, then I would ask him to tell me where the corresponding notes were on his bugle, and he would try to play them in the same order. Each time, he would make his way to the fifth or sixth, or even seventh note, and then he would get distracted, lose interest, or, for whatever reason, go off on a tear into a new self-made melody. At these times I would simply sit back and listen. It was so beautiful, the complex rhythms he could play on his instrument, the intricate and unpredictable turns he would make and the shifts from upper to lower register at the most unlikely but the perfectly harmonic moments. I was so impressed that when he completed one of these cycles, I would ask him to teach me how to play it. Instead, as was his nature, he would ignore my request and insist more strongly that I teach him to play The Retreat.
He hummed The Retreat, and I played it, and then I asked him to play it for me. As he had done occasionally with some of the other bugle calls, he mistook it for another call, but, even so, lost the rhythm shortly into it and proceeded as he had before. Thinking little of it, this time I laughed at his mistake, finding the consequences of mixing the messages of The Charge with The Retreat to be comical but with severe consequences if executed in the field. He did not find this as funny as I did. It was one of the rare times where I saw him show emotion. I tried to explain the joke, but he only insisted more strongly that we try it again. This increased my curiosity about his past.
One day I had asked him how long he had been on the island. “What did you do once you left? What happened to you?” Of course I was making many assumptions. The first was that he was not a real person standing in front of me. Clearly, no boy could live for hundreds of years. At the same time as I was assuming he was a ghost, I was also assuming he was not a product of my imagination. As he told me more and more about his past, the island and his life, I knew that there was no way that I could have known these facts about the civil war or life in the 1800s. Later, many years later, when I finally left the island by a makeshift vessel and made my way to this country where libraries still exist, I verified all that he had told me. Though I didn’t find any indication of who he was exactly, I found many firsthand accounts of bugle boys who served on Governors Island and could piece together the authenticity of what he had told me. I learned more about his life after I had finally left.
The last assumption embedded in my line of questioning was that he had, in fact, left the island at one time and lived a full life. Though he never told me what happened to him, I began to piece together the puzzle on my own. Daily, whether he was with me or not, I would hear him playing the bugle. In time, under my new directive to play what he felt and not worry about the bugle calls, he became quite proficient. He learned to trust his ear, and he came up with some of the most exciting and moving melodies I have ever heard. Every now and again he would try to play a bugle call, and just like the first time, he would lose himself after the sixth note, and go off on a tear that, though not useful to the military, was quite useful to both my well-being and, as I tried to assure him, to his. This being said, he had never run a bugle call to its completion, and he had mistaken one for another many times. At first this humored me a great deal because there was no need for him to insist on getting the bugle calls right. The bugle calls were built as commands to signal troops on the battlefield when to flank right, flank left, when to advance and when to retreat; and off the battlefield, when to wake up, get dressed, eat, swim, pray, rest, play and sleep. Before the ages of transistor radios, walkie-talkies and cell phones, this was a form of military semiotics that served its purpose in its day. The bugler had an important role. He issued the commands from the General telling the troops when to move. His role was so important that he became one of the most significant targets on the battlefield. The General, of course, was the first target, but a worthy adversary knew that if he took out the bugler, the troops would be left without commands in chaos. At first I suspected that this was the fate of my bugle boy – he had gone into battle and was taken down by enemy fire trying to gain an advantage. But as I researched later, Governors Island had never seen battle. The forts were intimidating enough, so they never needed to fire a single canon in defense. From little bits of things he had said, and from watching him struggle with the bugle calls and proceed into these beautiful lyrical tears, I slowly began to surmise his fate. Though Governors Island never saw battle, troops often staged battles in order to prepare for the real thing if it ever came. So I am guessing – for he never told me in so many words – that what happened one day while they were practicing with live rounds (or maybe it was just one soldier who he owed tobacco to), he was stationed on the battlefield as the lead bugler. When he should have issued the command to retreat to the right and cease firing, he instead issued the partial command to advance to the left and commence firing. Either way, the bugle call he issued was partial, and I can only imagine the sad scene with him playing the opening to the wrong bugle call and finishing with his habitual outburst of frustration which turned into a most beautiful melody. And this he did straight through the fatal bullet that pierced him in the confusion and continued as he lay dying on the ground, another senseless casualty of war.
On another day he asked me to teach him the Mess Call. At this point, I had no idea how many days I had been stranded. The wells on the island had been dry before my arrival. I had no food supply to speak of. My body, skinny now, had begun to feed on itself. My little friend didn’t need to eat or drink and didn’t have a care in the world for these practical matters. I spoke about my worries often, though he never acknowledged my concerns. But on this day he insisted that I teach him the Mess call. Sensing a degree of urgency in his persistence, I ran through it with him. He, of course, failed to get it exactly, but when he was tired of practicing, he invited me to take a walk with him. He led me to one section on the south end of the island that I had explored many times before where he believed stood a garden. I told him that if he were going to continue to point out things from the past that no longer existed and torture me with more descriptions of food, I would no longer listen to him, and his music lessons would end forever. But once again, I had no choice but to follow the direction of his firmly pointing finger. While everything else on the island was black and white, and gloomy from my outlook, there in the direction he pointed stood various objects in color. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen color. My eyes found it vibrant and delicious. A garden full of black and white plants stood before me, but fruits and vegetables in their respective colors hung from them. While my eyes found these delicious, so too did my mouth. I indulged until I felt satiated. My friend pulled an apple himself, but the moment it entered his hand, it returned to black and white. My hands too remained black and white, as did my entire body, but the fruits and vegetables retained their colors when I held them. A water pump that I had pumped repeatedly and futilely every single time I had passed it stood next to the garden. He told me to pump it, and I again told him not to torture me. But this time, water poured from it. It was neither in color nor in black and white. It was perfectly clear and transparent as fresh water should be. At first I was hesitant that it was salt or brackish water, like the water that surrounded the island or that it was rain or ground water contaminated with the chemical and biological agents that had destroyed the world I had once known. But he insisted that I drink it, and, resolving myself to dying either way, I drank it, and it tasted good. Eventually my spirits returned, thanks to my little friend, and my energy returned from the fruits, vegetables and water. Within the upcoming weeks, as we resumed practice of the bugle calls, I soon began to fish, at first simply to see if any fish were alive and then if they could be eaten. Many were contaminated floaters, but as I spoke more dreadfully about my fate, my luck began to change and, quite impossibly, I pulled colorful fresh fish from the waters. I made a fire by primitive means and eventually provided for myself (with his help). As his musical education depended on my survival, he provided for me. My little friend ate simply to share the experience, though he apparently didn’t need to. Every time he took food into his hands, which would retain its natural color in mine, it would return to black and white in his. Eventually, too, I began to notice that, as the days went on, the more I satiated myself with food, I saw the color of my own skin return. I did not notice the same change in him. I worried about him, but he rejected my fears and assured me that my color was good.
Every chance he got, he would ask me to teach him something. And every time I got close to teaching him something, he would go off on a tear, and I would find myself wanting to learn from him. I had often asked him how he learned to play the bugle the way he did. But he seemed puzzled. He had no idea he could play the bugle. He was so caught up with not getting the bugle calls that he couldn’t hear his own proficiency on all other aspects of the instrument. Again I had asked him how he learned to play, and again he would not answer my question. He would only insist that I teach him something.
Over time I began to find my answers. He had mentioned someone by the name of Albert such that I thought surely we were not alone. He mentioned Albert many times, and one day I thought he would introduce me to him. Maybe he was his father, his commanding officer, another bugle boy. I didn’t know. Albert, it turned out, had left the saxophone. And he had not left it in the 1840s. He left it some time around 1970. My little friend, one afternoon, started talking about Albert, and I let him speak without asking questions because I was sure this would stop his story telling. I have said that he asked plenty of questions of me but never once answered any of mine. Instead I had come to learn that once I had expressed a curiosity in something, although he seemed disinterested in the moment, it would take him several days, but he would eventually tell me, or rather show me, the answer.
It turned out that Albert was a fantastically talented jazz musician in the 1960s and ‘70s (my friend could not place dates for me because time had stopped for him, but the way he described Albert’s playing cued me in to the style of the ‘60s and ‘70s. This, too, I confirmed later). He had also been stranded on the island for some time and had brought with him his saxophone. Apparently it was dented and broken when he arrived, but my little friend fixed it for him knowing too well that it was the only way that Albert would teach him to play the bugle calls. Albert was proficient at the bugle calls and began teaching my little friend. But Albert, like my friend, had the same tendency: once he had gotten the bugle call, he would improvise the simple melody into the most beautiful and lyrical passages. While my little friend surely came to his own lyrical sensibility as a result of his frustrations as a young military bugler, spending time under the apprenticeship of Albert certainly allowed him to explore it further. It wasn’t until I began to piece this information together that I realized why my bugler friend was still frustrated every time I tried to teach him a bugle call. Once I put two and two together, I tried a new strategy. I would begin with the bugle call, but when I got to the sixth note, though sometimes I would vary it around the fifth or seventh, I would go off into an improvised tear in as lyrical a voice as my inexperienced skills would allow me, for this is how I know that Albert taught him. Soon I could see in his playing, and in his change of spirit, that these were the bugle calls he had wanted to learn. It was not his commanding officer from 1850s that he was trying to impress, nor was it troops he was trying to command. Instead, he was trying to live up to the standards that Albert had taught him for that brief time in 1970. It would take me some time to learn of Albert’s fate. My little friend didn’t give me many clues, but he often said that even before my arrival he would construct passages and improvise off of the bugle calls to the water, shouting them to the river in hopes that Albert would hear them. Even now that I was present on the island with him, in the night when he thought I was asleep, I could hear him playing to the river. It was at these moments that I could truly hear his talent. There was something deep within the boy, something spiritual coming from this spirit, but it didn’t issue from a God or a deity. His own past fabricated the spirituality within him. It came from the people he had encountered and the teachers he had learned from. It came from the fate he had suffered and from the fate that he witnessed others suffer not only during his time in the Civil War but up to the present day as he witnessed now what would be his fourth world war. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he had also witnessed Albert’s suffering in the brief moment he got to know him. He poured all of these memories into his bugle, and they came out as a lyrical incantation to the spirits he had encountered. He himself was a spirit, and he played to the spirit of Albert that he located within the river.
There was only one afternoon, and one afternoon only that I thought I too had seen Albert. We were passing by the old ammunition storage magazine, and I heard what I thought to be the wind blowing from deep within. It sounded more lyrical than usual, and my little friend said, “That’s Albert. He likes to play down there.” So we entered the rooms, one large room in the center surrounded by six rooms in a star formation, mimicking the pattern of the entire fort. In the shadows I thought I could make out a figure, but this could have been my imagination acting overtime after being stimulated so much by stories I had put together myself from the bits my little friend told me. But he did tell me that Albert hadn’t left. Though he lives in the river, he returns to the island to play in the magazine.
Of this entire tale I cannot distinguish between what my friend told me and what I surmised myself. In fact he said very little to me with the exception of, “Teach me to play the bugle calls.” Everything else could be fabrication on my part, including my companionship with the little bugler. All of it could have been mere delusion to keep me engaged and entertained at the height of my suffering. Either way, it was and remains very real to me, as it should to you.
In my last days on the island, my friend watched me as I made my makeshift escape vessel. I could see that he was both sad to know that I would be leaving but also happy. As with the saxophone and the food, he had of way of – not immediately, but in time – making the things I casually said I needed appear. By assisting in my escape in this way I think he knew that I was supposed to leave. I was leaving in a way that was different from the way Albert had left and from the way his fellow buglers were now gone. I was leaving to never return.
When my craft was complete, I wished him farewell. I too was sad to leave him, but I knew as well as he did that I couldn’t survive with only the friendship of a ghost. It was not time for me to become like him, so we both knew I had to go. He remained, and I left Albert’s saxophone with him. For that’s what Albert wanted: it was his, not mine.
When I finally returned to safety, the harrowing story of which I will not tell at this point, I eventually bought myself a saxophone. The home I live in today is within walking distance to a river, countries away from Governors Island. But in some way all rivers connect even if they have to go underground or through the ocean to do so. At nights I go out and play to the river, playing the bugle calls as commands to my little friend and to Albert, too, as a means of keeping in touch. While my practice space off the river is away from public areas, and I am still not very good – not nearly as good as my little bugler – I know somewhere I’m either bothering someone to no end or making someone feel quite at ease with my playing. I play at night to simulate the disembodied playing of a spirit. My saxophone is a communication device just like my little bugler’s instrument was. Both he and I continue to use it to communicate between us and to anyone else with the desire to listen.
As I write this from the library I mentioned earlier, which is not far from my home, it is only now that I begin to fill in the details of who my little bugler friend could have been. From Augustus Meyer’s account of life on Governors Island I can see now everything that he was pointing out to me in the South Battery and throughout the island. For him, those things are all still there. For me they can only be found in books.
I looked up one other thing, too. I found one Albert matching the descriptions that I gathered from my little bugler. Albert Ayler was a truly spirited and gifted saxophone player who started playing as a child and later more seriously in an army band. He struggled significantly through the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to come up with an individual style that was unique and ground breaking. But, for the most part, while respected by his peers, his music was not widely accepted during his own time. And it was founded on simple melodies of which the bugle calls played a significant role, as did nursery rhymes and the French national anthem. I listen to his music today and think that if there were a way to bring his recordings to my little friend, he would never need another teacher again. But as Albert remains with him on the island, he probably hears these songs and many new compositions on a daily basis. Albert Ayler’s body was found floating in New York harbor at the foot of Congress Pier in Brooklyn on November 25, 1970. He was last seen in New York on November 5 where his girlfriend at the time recalls him throwing his saxophone at a television and leaving with the cryptic words, “My blood needs to be shed to save my mother and brother.” He is suspected to have met his death in the river after, most likely, jumping off of the Staten Island Ferry. Different poetic accounts place his body floating near the Statue of Liberty (different from the one that exists today, as the original was destroyed) with the suggestion that he entered into his death from the Liberty Island Ferry. Other theories have him assassinated as a prominent black figure, coinciding with the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, though he was far more obscure than these political figures. While these seem poetic, embellished, and, at best, unlikely, all accounts suggest that regardless of which vehicle he departed from, or how his body entered the water, he drowned in the river. And this is how his spirit came to remain there. For the brief period of what could have been the twenty days between when he was last seen on November 5 and his body was discovered on November 25, Albert Ayler may just as likely have spent his last days on Governors Island sharing his musical wisdom with a bugle boy from the civil war era.
There are things that actually happened, and there are things that you choose to believe happened in order to motivate you to survive or accomplish extraordinary things. In the end, nothing you believe is actually the case, and the stories we tell of our pasts are always elaborated and therefore fictions. But in small ways they might germinate and allow someone else to come along and pick up a saxophone and continue blowing in the direction of the river.