For A Boy With Little, Learning To Love A Castoff Trombone

Jun 21, 2013
Originally published on June 21, 2013 7:57 am

Gilbert Zermeno came from a big family who didn't have much. They lived on the plains of West Texas and got by on the $100 a week that Gilbert's father made working the cotton fields.

So when Gilbert wanted to join the school band in sixth grade, his parents had to get creative, as he explained to his wife, Pat Powers-Zermeno, during a recent visit to StoryCorps in Phoenix.

"I was imagining myself playing the saxophone," he says. One day, he brought home a note from school to show his mom. "The school is bringing in an instrument salesman, and all the kids are going to be there that want to be in band," he told her.

There was a huge dust storm that day, Gilbert recalls, so his mother replied, "There's no way that we can drive in this dust storm, mi hijo [my son]. It's just too dangerous."

Undeterred, Gilbert made a plan. "I took this little statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and I put her on the window. And I said, 'I really want to be in the band. Please make this storm go away.' "

Ten minutes later, Gilbert says, the storm "just stopped. And I went over to Mom. I went, 'No wind.'

"So now, she's in a really tough spot," he laughs.

So they got in the car and drove to school, Gilbert explains. "And there's all these new, shiny instruments. And the parents are just writing checks out. And my mom looks at one of the checks — it's like, 650 bucks. That's six weeks worth of work for my dad.

"So she says, 'Where's the band director? Donde esta el director?' So we went in, and the man said, 'Well, a senior left behind this trombone.' "

It wasn't a saxophone. It wasn't shiny. And it had "a bit of green rust around it," Gilbert says. "And he opens [the case], and the crushed velvet is no longer crushed — it's like, annihilated inside. And I'm just looking at it going, 'That is so pathetic.' "

The director wanted $50 for the old trombone, so Gilbert's mother worked out a payment plan, sending $20 initially, then $5 each week.

"But I was horrible," Gilbert says. "I sat on the toilet in the bathroom, because it was the only room that had a door. And my poor mother had to listen to me play the same thing, over and over again. And she would be turning up the radio as loud as she could," he laughs.

"But I also noticed that, the more I practiced and the better I got, the radio was turned down a little further. And I still have that trombone to this day."

And that's why the couple's daughter plays the trombone today, says Pat, laughing.

"She could have played any instrument she wanted, and I encouraged that," Gilbert insists. "I said, 'No, mi hija [my daughter]. Really, you can play any instrument you want. I could be one of those parents who could write a check out for a saxophone — anything you want.' "

But Gilbert's daughter knew her mind. As Gilbert describes it, she just said, "No, I want to play the trombone."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Oh, it's Friday, which means it's time for StoryCorp, when we travel the country recording interviews between friends and loved ones. Gilbert Zermeno sat down with his wife, Pat Powers-Zermeno, to talk about Gilbert's childhood on the plains of West Texas.

He came from a big family, didn't have much. They got by on the $100 per week that Gilbert's father made working cotton fields. So when Gilbert wanted to join the school band, his parents had to get creative.

GILBERT ZERMENO: I was imagining myself playing a saxophone. And I brought home a note. I showed my mom: The school is bringing in an instrument salesman and all the kids are going to be there that want to be in band. And there was this huge dust storm. She goes there's no way that we can drive in this dust storm, mijo. It's just too dangerous.

So what I did was, I took this little statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and I put her on the window. And I said, I really want to be in the band. Please make this storm go away. Ten minutes later, it just stopped. And I went over to Mom. I went, no wind. So now, she's in a really tough spot. So we get in the car and we drive to the school.

And there's all these new, shiny instruments. And the parents are just writing checks out. And my mom looks at one of the checks, it's like, 650 bucks. That's six weeks' worth of work for my dad. So she says, where's the band director? Donde esta el director? So we went in and the man said, you know, well, a senior left behind this trombone.

It's not a saxophone. It's not shiny. It has a little bit of green rust around it. And he opens it up, and the crushed-velvet is no longer crushed. It's like, annihilated inside. And I'm just looking at it going, that is so pathetic. And my mom says, quanto? How much? The director says $50, and mom worked out a payment plan. She sent $20 initially, and then she sent him $5 every week.

But I was horrible. So I sat on the toilet in the bathroom 'cause it was the only room that had a door. And my poor mother had to listen to me play the same thing, over and over again. And she would be turning up the radio as loud as she could. But I also noticed that the more I practiced and the better I got, the radio was turned down a little further. And I still have that trombone to this day.

PAT POWERS-ZERMENO: And that's why our child plays...

ZERMENO: The trombone. She could have played any instrument she wanted, and I encouraged that. I said, no, mija. Really, you can play any instrument you want. I could be one of those parents who could write a check out for a saxophone, anything you want. She goes, no, I want to play the trombone.

INSKEEP: All right. Gilbert Zermeno with his wife, Pat Powers-Zermeno, at StoryCorp in Phoenix. Their interview will be archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And you can get the podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.