So this big REALLY big kid comes up to me and asks if I know about masers. I'm thinking he means lasers, but before I say anything he goes on to explain that lasers use coherent light waves, but masers use microwave radiation.
That was my introduction to Sam Rhodes and how he picked me as the one to approach to make a new friend I don't know. . . but he knew.
It was September 1966, the first day of school at S. S. Conner Elementary School in Dallas. Sam was the new kid in Mrs. Hopkins's 5B class. He had just moved up from San Antonio. He was 9, a year younger than his classmates, but both his intellect and his sheer physical magnitude belied his relative youth.
On the first day of class at public schools in Dallas, in those days anyway, the teachers handed out "census cards" to the students. We had to fill out our names, addresses, phone numbers, parents' or guardians' names and employers, etc., get parental signatures, and return the cards the following day. And there was a space for listing the child's chums (yes, "chums"). By the time I got home that afternoon, I knew Sam would be at the top of my chums list.
I have never been a particularly social person. As a kid, I had a well-established routine wherein I got up, went to school, came home, did my homework, ate, practiced my violin, maybe watched TV, took a bath, and went to bed. When Sam came into my life, that changed.
The phone call was immutable. Dial 328-6938. Mrs. Rhodes would answer. "Hello. Is this the Rhodes residence?" "Yes." "May I speak to Sam?" And we would arrange to get together usually at his house at 8550 Bretshire, sometimes at mine on Mercer. On my first visit to Sam's, after I had called my mom to pick me up, we were playing in his backyard when we heard the sound of screeching brakes from somewhere in the neighborhood. "Your mom's here!" chirped Sam. And I knew we were going to get along fine.
One could say of Sam's family what is probably true of most families: it was simultaneously typical and unique. What is safe to say is that no one in a million years would expect a kid from that family to turn out the way Sam did!
Sam's father, Buford Rhodes, was a pretty typical good-old-boy Dallas businessman (I hate stereotyping and generalizing, but there you have it). A CPA, belonged to the Salesmanship Club, loved to watch his Dallas Cowboys while lounging in his recliner, liked hunting, fishing, bowling, barbecuing, having a little bourbon before his steak-and-potatoes dinner. Sam's mom, Sammie, was a housewife and a wonderful cook. She smoked a lot (Sam delighted in making fun of her "cancer sticks" and "coffin nails"). She was a sweet lady and was always kind to me.
Sam had two older sisters. Martha, nine years older than Sam and I, was not around much, as she had recently married and lived with her new husband, Jerry, a police officer and Vietnam vet. Jo Beth, about four years older, was in junior high when Sam and I met: she was around all the time.
Sam's attitudes towards his two sisters were so different that even I was uncomfortable. He idolized Martha but was constantly openly hostile to Jo Beth. Jo Beth's "problem" was that she was a normal junior-high school girl a student who made Bs and Cs, was on the drill team, was interested in boys and hair and makeup and pop music. Sam couldn't stand that! It seemed the only thing Sam admitted admiring about Jo Beth was her recipe for "soupy potatoes."
Sam and I liked classical music. I was already immersed in it: my father was a top professional violinist and a public-school music teacher, and I was a pretty advanced violin student, having taken private lessons since first grade (my two older brothers were also budding young violinists). Sam had taken some piano lessons back in San Antonio he liked to play "Born Free" on his family's upright piano and was valiantly attempting to conquer the first few measures of Debussy's "Clair de lune" as well. He knew and was proud of the fact that he shared a birthday with Ludwig van Beethoven. It was clear that he was attracted to the classical-music pursuits of my family. Little did I know where that would lead. . . .
Other than Sam and his Clair de lune, there was no classical music in the Rhodes household. None. No, wait I think they had a recording of Handel's Messiah that came out at Christmas and Easter. Sam's parents liked easy listening: Tony Bennett, Lawrence Welk, Dean Martin that kind of stuff. And a little bit of country. I think they were Roger Miller fans.
So what was a typical visit to Sam's like? We talked about all kinds of things, but I think space was the biggest topic. Rockets. Planets and constellations. Astronauts. I remember being at Sam's house in January 1967 on the day of the Apollo I launch-pad fire that killed three astronauts, and how sad we felt.
Inevitably, we'd walk down to the shopping center at Lakeland and Ferguson. There were three required stops: Myatt's, Mott's, and Safeway. Sam's mission was to buy candy. I remember one time he went through the checkout line separately for each item to avoid being charged sales tax. That was Sam for you! Sometimes we'd go into the little cul-de-sac in front of his house and toss a football around. He didn't seem to mind that I was terrible at it. One time, he pulled out a slingshot, and we fired numerous rounds of sycamore balls at the birds on the telephone wire over his street. Not to worry I don't think any of them came within three feet of a bird. (Later on, neither of us would dream of doing such a thing, even for fun, but remember: we were, like, 10 years old.) Another time he made gunpowder by pouring sulfur, saltpeter, and powdered charcoal into a coffee can in the middle of the alley, which he proceeded to throw a lighted match into to cause an explosion.
On weekends we'd venture out to our favorite Dallas haunts: the Melody Shop record store in NorthPark Mall (my mom would drop us there while she went shopping) and the main public library downtown (we'd ride the bus), from which we could check out classical records for 10 cents a week.
We both loved science and math. We enjoyed reading Scientific American magazine, particularly Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column. We both read Gardner's two books of Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions; from the second one we learned the card game "Eleusis" (described as "one of the few games that call for inductive reasoning") and played it incessantly (until we got tired of it).
Sam liked "stuff." That slingshot and that gunpowder I mentioned. Leather thongs. A goatskin flask. A giant magnet. Jackknives. Mechanical pencils. Fountain pens and quill pens with silver ink (he had a blotter on his desk I always thought that was neat). Geodes. Minerals like obsidian, quartz, calcite he was definitely into gemstones.
Sam was fond of going into the woods, so we'd always find some undeveloped areas to wander around in. There was something special about trees for Sam. At age 10, and years before the term was invented, Sam was a tree-hugger!
One time at an evening open house at Conner, Sam bought a goldfish for 10 cents. With the help of my mom, I gave it its name: Cetus, which my mom told me was Latin for "whale." (As I look it up now, it seems the actual Latin word for whale is "balaena," though Cetus, a sea-monster in Greek mythology, is the name of a constellation that in English is colloquially called "the whale." At any rate, Sam's fish was Cetus.)
I learned some of Sam's quirks: he liked the weather cold and his food hot (as in spicy hot). Well, they seemed like quirks to me. He probably thought of me as the quirky one.
Sam loved words. As did I. . . but there were some subtle differences in the attraction. I won the spelling bee at either the class or school level every year I entered. I played Scrabble to win. I liked long words, technical words, words with unusual spellings. Words like phthisis and phenolphthalein and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Sam, not so much. He was a good speller, but not great. He liked beautiful words, exotic words, words that evoked images. Sam's words were chalcedony and lambent and eldritch and warlock and shanti. And he always preferred British spellings if there was a choice. "Gray color"? How crude!! "Grey colour": ah, much better. And he was fond of saying "ah."
From the time I knew him, Sam was a reader and writer at a level so far beyond that of his peers as to virtually defy belief. There was an awards ceremony at the end of 7th grade; Sam won the Library Award for having read 54 books that year. I think the 2nd-place person had read 15. He read just about anything and everything. When I first knew him he liked books about rockets and robots a lot, and within a year or two he was also much involved with fantasy novels. He told me about and got me hooked on some author that none of the other kids had heard of but who (Sam assured me) was popular on college campuses. The guy's name was J. R. R. Tolkien, who had written something called The Hobbit and some books called The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to Sam, I fell in love with those books in 1968, and that has never changed. Sam and I were drawn into Tolkien's world as only preadolescent kids can be. Sam, of course, learned the entire runic alphabet and wrote his own poems using runes. He fancied himself as Gandalf. I took on the persona of Pippin. Sam used the kiln in the art room at Conner to make clay pendants with the G and P runes for us to wear, hung around our necks with leather cords.
Writing? Sam won the citizenship essay contest at Conner every year. I don't think he was more patriotic than the other kids probably quite the contrary. But when he was assigned to write about something, he just did it better than anybody else.
Sam was also a highly talented visual artist. While still in elementary school, he began producing beautiful works, both representational and abstract, in pastels, watercolor, pencil, oils, and tempera paints.
Neither Sam nor I was very popular at school with the other students, but we considered ourselves above them, so we didn't care. With teachers, it varied. We both detested Mrs. Hopkins (5th-grade homeroom), who was mean and almost anti-intellectual. She frequently called Sam "Baby Sam" for reasons still unclear, and he was really hurt by that. Other teachers like Miss Smith (6th-grade math) and Mr. Smith (7th-grade science), who essentially told both of us to shut up and stop showing off, also earned our contempt. Then there was Mrs. Renger, 7th-grade homeroom, who was young (26) and pretty. I liked her as a teacher, but Sam really liked her. By that point Sam (11 in the fall; turned 12 in December) was developing a real ability to charm the ladies. Mrs. Renger was clearly flattered by Sam and didn't hide the fact that she just liked him better. Over the next few years, this would become a familiar feeling for me. (Update: During an online chat in 2022, Mrs. Renger assured me that she had liked Sam and me equally!)
I remember when Lindsey, Martha's daughter and Sam's first niece, was born, in the spring of our 5th-grade year. After Lindsey's birth, Martha, Jerry, and Lindsey came often to the Rhodes house on Bretshire. It was fascinating and fun for Sam and me, as neither of us had to that point been around babies much. Sam was clearly a loving and doting uncle.
In 7th grade, Sam and I actually let another classmate into our "sanctum": Jim King, who had moved down from Illinois. His father was an engineer, and Jim was a whiz at math and science, so he met with our approval. During that year, the three of us formed a club, for which I supplied the name DISRUPT (for "Decent, Intelligent Slide Rule Users Put Together"). Jim lived in Dallas for only that year before his family moved again, to Austin. . . . As soon as we began 8th grade, Sam and I began corresponding by mail with Jim in Austin. Jim and I are STILL(!!) in touch. But Sam wrote Jim a letter in 1970 in which he apologized for his earlier lack of timely correspondence, closing with the fateful words: "I promise to write promptly from now on." That was the last letter Jim ever got from Sam!
As for music. . . . Sam continued to play piano for fun; he had decent fundamental skills but nothing really special. In 6th grade, he had the chance to play in the Conner band, so he took up . . . trombone! Again: not bad in fact, pretty good by elementary-school standards. And he got a violin, took a few lessons from my dad, and did again OK.
So in the fall of 1969, Sam and I started junior high at W. H. Gaston. From the first days of 8th grade, Sam started the relationship that would change his life: he took up bassoon.
Sam was a raw beginner that fall. But something clicked. I remember his playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" out of First Division Band Method, Book One, about a week after starting on the instrument. He was playing it about triple speed, with perfect intonation, faultless rhythm, clean, consistent tonguing.
There was a lady in Dallas, Jan Nicholson, who had taught strings at Conner but who was actually a very fine professional oboist (she had studied with Ralph Gomberg, principal oboist of the Boston Symphony). Sam signed up for bassoon lessons with her. By the time 8th grade was over, Sam had made all-city band and won a medal for making a I at the city solo-and-ensemble contest.
In the summer after 8th grade, Sam joined me at a music camp I had already attended the previous summer: Big "D" Music Camp at SMU. Sam astounded everyone by getting first chair in the band. In 9th grade, Sam would be principal bassoon in region orchestra.
During Sam's junior high years, his family began experiencing domestic difficulties. His parents underwent a trial separation, and Sam moved with his mom to a house on Midlake Drive in another neighborhood a couple of miles north. He then lived very close to Hill, our "rival" junior high, but got permission to continue attending Gaston.
Martha's second child, Shawn, was born that year. I remember him as a baby but rarely saw him after his infancy.
After 9th grade, and happily through with Gaston (Sam and I both hated junior high), we went to another music camp together: Baylor University Summer Music Camp in Waco. Again, Sam was the top bassoonist, and we were playing some fairly major works.
Also that summer (1971), Jo Beth got married to Tony at the Lutheran church Sam's family attended. Sam and I were appointed as ushers. We both considered it a great honor and took our responsibilities very seriously!
For 10th grade, Sam and I both enrolled at Skyline High School, which had opened only a year earlier. Skyline offered a magnet-school curriculum, and we eagerly entered the music cluster.
Skyline was a new, exciting, fulfilling experience. The music program curriculum was very good, and Sam would work with a composition teacher and band director, Howard Dunn, he came to idolize. But even more meaningful was the group of musical friends Sam and I fell in with: Kyle Gann, Marcus McDaniel, Bill Swafford, Charles Harkins, et al. Several of these people would go on to conservatories and Kyle, in particular, has had a very notable career as a composer, critic, author, and music professor.
Around this time, Sam introduced me to a composer I had only vaguely heard of before: Gustav Mahler. Mahler immediately became my favorite composer, and he still is.
In 10th grade, Sam made the finals of the high-school wind division of the Dallas Symphonic Festival, a highly competitive contest whose winners over time in various divisions included people such as Lynn Harrell, Ralph Kirshbaum, David Golub, Sally O'Reilly, and John Cerminaro. Sam made All-State Youth Orchestra that year; he would make all-state orchestra and/or band each of his subsequent high-school years as well.
After 10th grade, we went together to Sewanee Summer Music Center, an outstanding 5-week program in Tennessee with a large Oberlin presence on the faculty (including Kenneth Moore, with whom Sam would study bassoon) and among the students. Sam and I were roommates in the dorm. Although each of us thrived there, I could tell our friendship was being tested. More than a few times, I felt he was getting annoyed with me. Somehow I was getting the message that I was not as cool and mature as his new friends.
We started 11th grade together at Skyline, but Sam's parents' relationship had deteriorated to the point that they finalized their divorce that year. Midway through 11th grade, Sam moved with his mother to an apartment in the far north part of Dallas, in the Richardson school district, and he enrolled at Richardson High School.
Sam and I continued to visit frequently, and often there would be get-togethers with the old Skyline bunch, with Kyle, Marcus, and Bill, as well. Yet during this period I began gradually to get the sense that Sam's and my status as "best friends" was ebbing. He talked with much admiration of his Richardson friends, and sometimes I felt like I was just the old sidekick or even a clinger-on.
When we returned for our second summer at Sewanee, I assumed Sam and I would be settling into our room together, but I arrived to find that Sam had already picked out a roommate, a hotshot cellist he had just met. I was disappointed and angry that he didn't even ask or tell me. (And I ended up spending the summer with a different roommate, one who caused me great misery for reasons I won't go into here.) Sam and I remained cordial but little more than that. Sam did study that summer with another bassoon teacher, Artemus Edwards, whom he greatly respected. . . . My parents drove up from Dallas to pick me up, and Sam rode all the way back with us. Things between Sam and me seemed fine at that point, but unfortunately Sam seemed to be getting on my dad's nerves. Ironically, considering the fact that Sam's life and career as a classical musician essentially got its impetus from my dad's influence, my dad's frequent remarks to me that he disapproved of Sam, and of my friendship with him, created a rift between my dad and me.
During our senior year of high school, we visited occasionally. Our mutual friend Kyle had graduated and was enrolled at Oberlin; Marcus was at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Sam applied to Oberlin and was accepted to attend the following fall. I, meanwhile, had left the music cluster at Skyline in favor of the math cluster; I was accepted to MIT, where my intention was to study some math and science but major in music.
So fall 1974 arrived, and we went our separate ways. Sam began studying with his old Sewanee teacher, Kenneth Moore, at Oberlin, and I was off to Boston. We did write letters once in a while.
During the winter of our sophomore year, I got a surprise call in my dorm room. Sam was coming to visit Boston! I offered my room for him to sleep in I'd take the couch in the floor lounge down the hall. He accepted. He also had friends at Harvard-Radcliffe he wanted to see, and that was fine with me. We had some good times, but I was annoyed that throughout his stay in my room, he smoked cigarettes, cigars, and a pipe. (I ruefully remembered how, years earlier, he used to tease and torment his mother about her smoking.)
That was my last year at MIT; I transferred to the University of Houston for my third year of college. Sam was still at Oberlin, but certain things were not going well for him. Sam's father, who had never approved of Sam's going into music, was newly remarried and now refused to continue supporting Sam's education; while his mother, who had moved back to San Antonio and taken a clerical job, tried to support him but was running out of funds. At this same time, Sam's beloved maternal grandmother, "Mamaw" Redford (whom I had known well), passed away.
As I would learn in a letter he wrote me some time later, Sam's life began to unravel at that point. He became depressed and started suffering increasingly frequent migraine headaches. The clinic prescribed all kinds of remedies, none of which worked, and Sam was forced to drop almost all his classes in an effort to alleviate stress. Finally he made the difficult decision to leave Oberlin for a year and transfer to the University of New Mexico, which was less expensive and offered him plenty of financial aid. There he studied with his other old Sewanee teacher, Artemus Edwards. Meanwhile he was guided to a biofeedback clinic in Albuquerque, and finally his migraines began to subside. After a year in New Mexico, he did manage to return to Oberlin and finish his degree, though it ultimately would take a total of seven years.
In the summer of 1978, following my graduation in Houston and Sam's first year back at Oberlin, I had an extended encounter with Sam that for me was unquestionably the nadir of our relationship and could easily have ended our friendship forever. . . . Sam was in Dallas, staying with his father and Buford's new wife, Cathy. Sam called me and said he and a pianist friend from Oberlin, Tim Hogan, would be driving down to San Antonio to visit Mrs. Rhodes (Tim's family was also in SA). It seemed like a good chance to visit and get reacquainted, so I eagerly accepted. We headed off in Tim's car, and it started: the drugs. Tim (who drove the whole way) and Sam smoked marijuana for the entire trip. And they talked about "dope" for the entire trip. Nothing else (least of all my presence in the back seat) interested or mattered to them. They were constantly on the lookout for cops: if one was spotted, they would put out their joints and light up regular (tobacco) cigarettes to cover up the marijuana smell. We got to Sam's mother's apartment; Tim went off to his family, but Sam continued with his joints and some hashish to boot. Tim came over, and they broke out a bong. I tried occupying myself by looking at some of Sam's records; as I opened the album of a two-disc Deutsche Grammophon recording (Furtwängler, I think), Sam yelped at me to stop: "There's dope in there!" . . . as the little leaves that had been stored in the crease fluttered to the shag carpet. He desperately collected all he could and put them back in the Furtwängler.
After that trip, I felt sorry for Sam but knew I was not in a position to help. He was just going to have to find his own way.
As it turned out, that is pretty much what happened. Sam graduated Oberlin in 1981 and began taking orchestra auditions. He promptly won the principal bassoon job in Tucson. He stayed there a couple of years. Evidently he didn't see eye-to-eye with certain colleagues, so he decided to move on. But clearly the southwestern U.S. agreed with him. He moved to Albuquerque, which would be his home for practically all of the remainder of his life. He began corresponding with me again, via letters and the occasional phone call.
There was a time in the mid-1980s when Sam briefly moved back to Dallas and did some free-lancing. He had a girlfriend who I believe was a nurse (LVN). I met her but do not remember her name nor know what became of her.
Sam returned to Albuquerque. At one point he dropped bassoon altogether and sold his instrument. He did not play at all for two or three years. He took a job selling books at Birdsong Books.
At some point later in the '80s, he did get another bassoon and practiced to get back in shape. One month after his multi-year layoff, he made the finals and was runner-up for a full-time position in the New Mexico Symphony. Over the next few years he became a top free-lance bassoonist, taking principal (first-chair) positions in Orchestra Santa Fe (later renamed Pro Musica Santa Fe), Albuquerque Chamber Orchestra, and the El Paso Symphony. He kept his day job at Birdsong Books and would later work at Page One, Too bookstore.
Sam's mother, who had briefly remarried in the late 1970s but divorced, settled into a home of her own on Rancho Blanco in San Antonio. I had the pleasure of staying with her in 1984 while I looked for an apartment in preparation for my move to SA to begin a position in the San Antonio Symphony. Mrs. Rhodes would later move to Massachusetts, presumably to be close to her grandchildren. I believe she passed away several years ago.
Sam's father and stepmother moved to San Antonio as well. They operated a children's clothing store, Keiko's, in Alamo Heights, where I had a couple of pleasant visits with them. I think they have since moved away, possibly to Missouri. (Update: Buford Rhodes passed away in 2013 in Hannibal, Missouri.)
I saw Sam a couple of times during the '80s and early '90s. In 1990, my then-girlfriend and I passed through Albuquerque on the way to San Antonio from Boulder, Colorado. We met Sam at the bookstore (Birdsong) one evening, and the following day we all drove up to Santa Fe, where he showed us the sights.
In the early '90s, Sam came to San Antonio to visit his father and attended a San Antonio Symphony concert in which I played.
My last time to see Sam was a very pleasant one. As children, we had pledged that if and when either of us married, we would ask the other to serve as best man. I met April in January 1995, and before long wedding plans were in the works for that October. So I called Sam, and he happily agreed to come to San Antonio for the ceremony. We had a very nice visit and a number of long conversations. Sam acknowledged that there were times in the past that he could have treated me better (he brought it up); he seemed genuinely regretful of any hard feelings he had caused. It was easy for me to forgive him.
About a year later, Sam called with the news of his marriage to Katherine Barbosa. We had a brief but pleasant chat at that time.
That was the last time I heard Sam's voice.