Gary Justis

Gary Justis
Bloomington, Illinois, US
April 04
Gary Justis has worked primarily in the area of kinetic sculpture for the last 34 years. He lived and worked in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. He currently resides in Bloomington Illinois, where he teaches and writes stories about his actual experiences. (please take a look at his "Sculpture" link for more info)


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OCTOBER 26, 2008 11:25AM

The Cornet

Rate: 51 Flag
cornet 1

In my town, the high school kids who were over extra-curricularized during the middle 60’s often found themselves poised in developing their amateur careers in music. This included voice, percussion, woodwinds, and in the case of my brother and me, brass instrument playing. My brother had a full sized trumpet that he had studied since the 5th grade. I naturally wanted to do the same, but I wanted a cornet, the instrument my music teacher called the “Sorta-Trumpet.” Both horns were beautiful, golden trophies of craftsmanship…..easily the most attractive objects we owned.

My brother was a superb player. He performed to the delight of scores of church folks, picking the notes with care and gently nudging the sweet qualities of blond sound. I was a bad student, faking my ability to read music into the high school years. All my friends in the various bands we enjoyed were rather accomplished. They were forgiving towards me in a knowing, affectionate way, owing to my ability to play by ear, with some skill, after I had heard the notes read once. My brother would deliver his obligatory barrage of shaming and insults, then play my assigned passages, coaching me to persist in my stumbling efforts. From my bullying, but dutiful brother, I came to know how music, acquired by any and all means could liberate the mind, and take us to a fonder realm.

George, my best friend, played the tenor saxophone. We held our precious instruments in high regard.


These were very expensive horns. The commitment of many hours of labor in the summer months could produce no more than a first payment in most cases, with our parents reluctantly taking up the slack, and repeating a silent oath to see us kids through to greatness in the musical arts. The musical instrument, in any shape and form was sacred,…… we were shocked when George found someone had poured buckshot into the bell of his Sax.

A bully might pour the pellets into the bell, leave it at that, and get his yucks with the admiring tribes of barbarian jock-strap types. That would have been simple, but the shit-head shook up the horn a little, making the minute balls move into smaller areas of the instrument. It took a musical instrument repairman several hours to extract all the tiny lead spheres. We persuaded ourselves to laugh about it, but I felt a bit of consternation and suspicion from George. It didn’t seem to ease his mind when I told him I could not have done anything so stupid.

We collided during a Marching Band concert, and when I looked at the large dent left on the rim of my coronet, my disbelief and hurt was ignored by George, leaving us with one more thing in a long series of unresolved best-friend issues. We both still clung to the good feelings of friendship established over the short years of grade school, with shared stories of our feats and competing heroics binding us together. It was still a somewhat dubious connection, our contending fictions demanding an audience,……… and a firm reckoning.

There were moments of bliss in our friendship during the remaining years in high school. In May of our senior year, I found a neatly signed and sealed envelope from George, tucked into my coronet case, I stuffed it into the case compartment, and tried to forget it was there. I was afraid to open it on the chance I would find a note whose content would, in a sense, demand and demonstrate steps toward taking responsibility for actions committed in the name of fun, or for impressing older kids. George had an advanced understanding of the nature of friendship, but he also possessed an offbeat sense of humor, sometimes morphing into absurdity. His intellect scared me a little.

During a particularly important day in May of our senior year, we found ourselves at a music conference. George and I hung together; the whole point of the conference was to advance our music skills in playing with large groups from other schools. Of course we knew the point was to get as many girls’ phone numbers as possible.

Later that morning I ripped my pants through the crotch. It was one of those rendings that fills the day with sorrow. I had no replacement pants, and nothing to hide the gaping, underwear-revealing fissure that would set the tone in securing my moniker as “Ultra-Geek”, or as my brother so eloquently labeled me, “Turd-brain beyond all reason.”

George assessed my sorry situation, and then ripped his pants, down the crotch, from front to back.

“Now we can both be embarrassed!”

“What the fuck?.....why did you do that?” I felt a riddling shock wave roll up the middle of my back.

“Friends do this kind of thing for each other.”

He meant it. And he wore the rent proudly. Unlike him, I shifted my focus on finding places to hide my shame. As I thought about it later, his act was supremely brave. It was an act that one sees once or twice in a lifetime.

Later in the month, we graduated.

The cheerless waste in the times of my middle years in college were exacerbated by continual poverty, with a need to always have a girlfriend to buoy my self esteem. I was a smartass, which insured that I could inject a high degree of loathing into any fraternal organization.

I was never asked to join anything: “Too weird, … “geeky perhaps”, “sort of smart with strange ideas.” The assessments would eke out with every Neanderthal revelation sent my way through shouts and taunts, as I passed by groups of brutish, simian specimens of over caffeinated, campus louts.

With poverty came a kind of soft-scamming. I would borrow in good faith, promising to replace for value “to the dollar” any thing given to me, with art work. This was played out quickly, leaving a trail of former friends and lovers. It was hard work being a colorful Jerk.

Demands for paying expenses were weighty, and I began to sell some of my possessions. I remember a month in 1974 when I visited the Wichita Pawn and Loan 12 times. They guys were wary of me at first, but three trades into my transactions, they began to jump up and meet me at the door. They knew I was good for one more shotgun with case, a vintage radio, or an old musical instrument. I hated myself after each exchange, especially after I had sold my high school ring. The weight of the loss was not especially strong until I overheard the pawnbroker casually talking about how he would “knock out that goddamn stone before he quit for the night.”

There was a certain freeing feeling with my de-acquisitions; the shotguns from my high school years were a strong source of anxiety as long as they remained in my crappy apartment. I never kept any shells. Things had been so desperate for me through the years of my study, that I didn’t trust myself around guns. In the fever of my 20 something drunken rages, the kind that made most of my friends excuse themselves in distracted retreats, there were mortal boundaries I no longer feared. This was a strangely surreal, but desperate state.

I pawned my cornet, and I tried to temper the desolation, by convincing myself I had not played it since high school.

The great light of redemption came with my acceptance to Grad School in Chicago. In 1979, the year I graduated with a Master’s the scene was changing. Opportunities could abound for those who worked hard, with a mind for bringing ideas to full fruition. I found a channel for the energy I had sorely misused in the early days.

For some artists, the building of a career that garners attention and admiration from peer and critics may never happen. In the case of my efforts and production, the accolades came… waves. Like most addictive drugs, the adoration from sources that hold your curiosity, such as ultra-rich folks, are strong, affecting and fleeting. Much like the intense interest a wide-eyed interviewer shows……. until the job is done.

It was easy to see the toll taken by a lifestyle of constant stimulation. I wanted to leave the city of Chicago…I took a job in Bloomington. Not too far for a jaunt or two every few weeks. The year was 2000.

My mother was very happy to see us in a smaller urban community. I began to re-discover the joy of family, and the unusual lack of stress in having my responsibilities shifted to a slower culture.

Over the next few years I happily visited Mom and Dad, having fewer miles to drive, and equipped with a whole range of common subjects to share when we were together.

Mom would ask me often, for many years:

“Gare, do you still have that horn you used to play? I thought those horns were the most beautiful things! Do you still play?”

I would tactfully change the focus of the conversation.

“ Oh, it’s in a good place. May I have more chicken and noodles?”

Most of the days in Bloomington were fairer than a majority of the days we had spent in Chicago. It really was like a dream, and someone had told me earlier about existence being a plethora of realities, with our consciousness choosing the course of least suffering. I often felt my life in this beautiful “Garden City” was a dream, and I did not want to wake up.

The best antique shop in the state of Illinois is in Bloomington. Asahel Gridley Antiques is the destination of dealers, collectors and curious shoppers across the region. I visited the store one day and I found an old brass cornet, very close to the one I had owned many years before. I thought I might take up the practice of playing, even though my lip was softer than crap, and I had no inclination to play, other than a need to make an activity around which I could form conversation. I bought it for eighty-five dollars.

The horn had a conventional mouthpiece, the one that came standard on a “student cornet” like this one. I looked into the box underneath the worn velvet flocking. The material had been smashed flat with years of use and exposure to moisture and what I assumed to be creative, teenage abuse.

I saw a soiled, white envelope. I pulled it out and held it to the light. On the face of the envelope it read:

GARY (supreme asshole).

“This is very odd.” I thought. It was a view into another reality. I opened the envelope. The note was written in pencil. It read:

“You fucker! I am trying to decide whether or not to dump your ass. My dad said you’re not worth the trouble as a ‘sometimes friend.’ You know about Dad. He knows people’s secrets. He had you figured out when we were in 4th grade. It took me eight years to turn him around; then you pull this stunt. You know me. I would never, ever, in a million years do that to you. My horn don’t play the same, and I blame you and your pansy-ass shit. What’re you gonna do now, you fucker?

PS tell your mom and dad hi for me, but don’t tell them what an asshole you are Wanna see a movie this week? Mom said she’d drive us to the Orpheum.



When I tried to stop my hands from shaking, I realized I had been holding my breath. There was the washy, soft-focus delirium flooding the room where the coronet case lay open, giving up collections of scruffy, chambered ghosts. I felt a little faint.

I lifted the coronet and looked at the dent in the bell, remembering a collision, the ensuing indifference and loathing. There was a piece of sheet music. I pulled it out, spread it open and read some pencil scratchings in the margins:

“Good one G, how about that buckshot? Heh, heh! Mitch.”

In all that I could have imagined in those times, I could not envision an instrument moving through a period of thirty plus years and six hundred miles to find me in a medium sized, midwestern city. I picked up the coronet and put the mouthpiece to my lips. There was a small, metallic rustling. It seemed to be near the valves, but it was hard to tell. I shook it.

When I turned it with the bell down, a couple of leaden balls fell to the floor. They hit with a “spat!” then rolled away, making a creasing sound until they rested against the edge of my shoe.

I knew in those seconds, the care with which George sought the bitter edge of my attention was not brought into proper light, until our two realms had intersected. It finally happened in the fog of middle-life. He was the best friend of the most worthy collaborators; I felt myself saturated with shrewdness, tempered by the kindness of his far off camaraderie. I guess the return-prank was the only way he could find to thoughtfully sustain our friendship. It hadn’t occurred to him I wouldn’t get it for another 30 years.


A few months later I was visiting Mom in Kansas. We were out driving one afternoon when she turned on the radio. The station was broadcasting a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo. We listened. It was fine. Mom looked my way and asked,

“Honey, do you still have your horn? Do you ever play it?”

“Yeah Mom,……I finally found it, and it sounds so very fine…….”


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Gary, this is OUTSTANDING!

Finding the cornet years later is really one of those stories that is just too impossible NOT to be true.

I was a cornet player, myself. I was the only "good" player (and I was really quite good) in the section that played cornet instead of trumpet. That earned me a certain amount of criticism from all my trumpet playing friends, but as long as I could play as well or better than them, it was OK.

You're also correct about the sacrifice involved in playing an expensive musical instrument. It's not just money, either, it's also the years of practice, when the family would much prefer to listen to the stereo or TV than a bad or mediocre attempt of an adolescent trying to play a loud horn. There's a special pace in heaven...

Thanks for a trip down memory lane, and an incredible story to boot!

(BTW, I can't believe someone would poor pellets d0wn your bell. I would have lost it.)
This is big league in every way. A piece way beyond the daily news cycle. I'll be returning to this story again. Redemption.

Somewhere Bix Biederbecke is playing in celebration of a piece that is not only supremely well crafted --but emotionally moving as well
Gary, just to echo Steve's and Roger's comments above, this is an amazing story. What are the odds of your cornet showing including the old note?-one in a billion?? I would also add that this is such a multi-faceted story that touches on so many topics that it reads like a fascinating novel. This is the kind of story that stays in my memory, thanks for posting it!
Thank you all so much! this was an event that needed to come out. I can still remember that shock of finding the instrument.......or it found me.
I often wonder how many young, hopeful musicians learned on that horn. Perhaps it was the link to my dear friend that brought it back. I had been thinking about him a great deal prior to our move.
Gary, I'm so impressed with your multi-talents. Redemption is sweet, irony is mysterious. So much to reflect on and identify about life and friendship. My favorite little phrase: "blonde sound."
Gary, that's an amazing story. That makes my week.

Someday, we'll have to hear you play.
Gary this was as noted above OUTSTANDING.

I love the photos.

I'm glad the cornet found you.
Beautiful as a Miles Davis solo, Gary. By the way, Satchmo was once asked by an ignorant interviewer if he might have been a better player had he learned to read. Louie cast him a baleful glance and said "If you ain't got it, you ain't gonna get it." Gary, you got it.
Yes, amazing story, awesome photos. So very revealing - so honest of you to expose the soft scammer, the Jerk, the desolate geek. I'm glad you've found your peace.
My God, Gary, you're an amazing writer. Each of these recent pieces brings a tear to my eye.
Wonderful story.

I particularly liked the part about the dent in the instrument. It reminded me of something that happened to my guitar. I have a rather expensive handmade flamenco guitar. One day I noticed a very slight scratch on the face of the guitar, no doubt unintentionally inflicted by one of my fingernails while I was playing.

When I told my guitar teacher how bummed I was by the scratch, he replied "it's not a scratch. It's a scar. There is a difference."

Inanimate objects are scratched. Living beings are scarred. As an extension of the musician, the instrument is part of a living being, and as such records the relationship between itself and the musician. So remember -- it's not a dent; it's a scar.
Ho, hum. Outstanding as usual, Gary. But what else is new? We've come to expect each of your pieces to be masterpieces and this is no exception. I just hope you can live with the standard you've set because we're starting to take this kind of thing for granted and don't even think of passing off something mediocre on us or there will be rioting in the streets...
Gary, this is such a cool story! I loved the part about how your friend ripped his pants, too, so you could be embarrassed together. That is so band geek!
That you found your cornet after all those years is incredible. You have such a subtle and eloquent way of writing that makes your stories so compelling. Thank you.
It's such an honor to be in the company of all of you.
All of you work so hard in bringing your ideas to light;
new ideas, taking shape in images and words, the best nurturing.
Gary, this is pure magic.

I played flute and piccolo in Jr High and High school. My first year at college I continued to play. Then my flute was stolen out of a locker in the music department. My insurance company reimbursed me, and with the money I went to a local pawn shop and bought a silver flute, actually much nicer than the nickel one that had been stolen - at a fraction of the real value and only part of the insurance money.

I've always wondered about both flutes - where did mine end up? What could be the story of the beautiful Artley flute I still have that so unceremoniously ended up in a pawn shop in west Dayton Ohio?

I so love it that your cornet came back to you with your friend's note........
Gary - this is one of the best, if not the best, stories I have read on OS, and I happily include anything I've ever written in the list under this stellar essay that shines like the mellow brass of a cornet under the dimming lights of an auditorium full of us folks, we who sit waiting for the first clear notes to take us away from ourselves and into reverie.
gary - beautiful story. You bring back so many memories of those early band-geek and poor student years and share so much of yourself in such a viscerally elegant way.

You also make me feel about a thousand times better (vs. annoyed) at having driven two hours and dropped a couple of hundred bucks on a used trumpet for my son last week. Only to have him wake us up the next morning at 6 a.m. with not-so-beautiful brass sounds. (He's just learning and already sounds better)

thank you for sharing the power of music and the power of karma

Love this story. I remember how excited you were to find your old cornet. Reading this is a blessing.

I'm glad all of you are coming by I am thrilled with the election looming and all.
Artfish, the idea of a flute of silver is really enticing. I can almost hear the sweet notes.
Sandra......your comment is the most uplifting set of images I've had in a very long time....thank you....

lpsrocks, I am very glad you feel better about your child's playing.
If he heard me, he would feel like a master.
Umbrellakinesis, the world does turn in ever-smaller circles. In a way, it is delightful.
Gary, I feel like I just read a great short memoir. This was absolutely a fantastic story of friendship, connection, the realness of competition, jealousy and male bonding. You finding your cornet gave me the chills...this is when my skepticism turns to faith. What were the odds? That cornet found its true owner...does George know this story?
This seems perfect for me today. Last night, very late, I found my long lost, first grown up best friend Martha on Facebook. I haven't heard back from her but I learned that Richard, her musician & singer brother is now living not far from me growing blueberries and still writing music, singing & playing his guitar.

You remind me of a quotation from Rev. Jack Boland: “Don’t let the good interfere with the better and don’t let the better interfere with the best. I am not all I could be and I am not all that I want to be, but thank God I am not what I used to be. How many times I have thanked God that I am not what I used to be.”

But then sometimes, I am still a jerk. Loved the photos Gary. Perfect writing!
As a trumpeter and writer (of sorts) I could not have enjoyed this story any more. The first part made me think of (randomly) the great Stephen King book's adaptation on the screen in "Stand By Me", from a time when friends would do anything for friends. I was and am the same way.

I'm glad you found your horn and hope you continue to play. When I come home from a long day's work, I have to play my horn to get my soul satisfied.

I started playing out of my passion for jazz and Miles Davis in particular. Here is a photo of my Blue Miles Davis Martin Committee trumpet (one of so many). This one is my prize, my baby with the warm, mellow tones that only Miles could produce.
I'm still searching for it... I'm not sure if this photo will show up, so if you see only code, I apologize. First attempt on a comment with a photo.
Gary, I wish I could rate this story twice,once for content and once for style.

I still remember auditioning for a community theatre production of "The Fantasticks" about 10-12 years back. The director had essentially threatened me with grievous bodily injury if I didn't show up, as she had me in mind for a particular part. I was handed a sheet of music and the first question out of me was "What do I do with this?", I couldn't read music as a kid and I still can't. But once the accompanist played the piece through I was OK.
Hi Gary:
I love synchronicities and your reaction, "This is very odd.” I thought. It was a view into another reality is how I feel when smaller, less significant, but still lovely sychronicities happen in my life.
This is one of the stories that populate The Small Miracles books. Perhaps (if you like) you could sell it to them. Not that it needs to be sold to be shared properly, as you are doing here on OS. It is such a GREAT story -- thanks for writing it!

Big Thumbs Up!
Unbelievably lovely Gary. You are one of the OS Treasures here, one of my OS Treasures.

My first thought on finishing this piece was that it would make a beautiful short film, nothing added to your story, nothing taken away: family, friends, redemption and the miracle of convergence in time.

The second thought was no, it shouldn't be ruined by making the change from brain to senses.

Then I thought it would be ok to have both.

A favorite for sure Gary, thanks.
More proof that reality is indeed, at times, stranger than fiction. Lovely story. I always envied the brass when I was in band--I wanted to play trumpet but got stuck with clarinet. Y'all got to make all the amazing sounds.
Are you SERIOUS?!?!?!?!
That is CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Holy shit, what an amazing story. I am speechless, that that actually happened - it's as scientific as proof gets that there must be a god. It ain't a Republican but it must be out there.

Two things.
First - that second photo is awesome.
Second - the whole time I was reading this, and I don't even really like them that much, the Beach Boys' tune Sail On Sailor was running through my mind.

Thank you, brutha.
Great story, Gary. What an amazing coincidence. And what are the chance the note would still be there, intact! I can relate to how poor you were during college, too. Not much fun ;) Thanks for this lovely reminiscence -
This is a good time to get to know all of you. The sharing that takes place sort of forms a shared "muse" from which we can all peel off a layer, or two. I hope I can get back to all of you with notes.....I certainly look forward everyday to the goods works from everyone.
A magical, wonderful story well told. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I have a similar story, although much less amazing. A friend and I were at a flea market and saw a framed needlepoint of an old water mill. I commented that we'd had one like it in our living room when I was a child. My friend later went back to get for me as a gift. When he arrived with it he was grinning. "It's not like the one you had. It is the one you had." On the backing paper, in the upper left corner, was my mother's signature. She'd donated it to a school fundraiser years and years before.
I started this last night, finished, well , not finished but got tot he end tonight and have been staring at a blinking cursor for I don't know how long.
Holy cow.
Well done, man.
sometimes things come back to us. I don't know.......I guess there are some coincidences that can be explained away with demonstrations of commonality in communities,......liking the same kinds of things, buying and selling with their varied whims. what I can't understand is why the folks who had the cornet left the note inside the compartment. Maybe they were romantics, and they felt they were merely stewards of the horn, somehow wishing it on it's way. There are many things that are so hard to explain away into the mundane.
This is gorgeous. Just gorgeous.
Nicely done, sir! There is some magic in this old world, and it's funny where we find it.
Yes, post an audio of your playing. This is a great piece and you are a great writer.
I've heard that 'coincidence' is God's (as we may struggle to define) way of remaining anonymous.

This was just so wonderful on so many levels, I can't begin to find the words. Our past always comes back to us, not necessarily in the forms that we expect (memories, photos, letters) but sometimes with the ex-temporal crossing of paths with an old friend (even if that friend is inanimate).
what I can't understand is why the folks who had the cornet left the note inside the compartment.
I don't want to ruin the mood of this awesome tale, but the first thought that came my way when I read this part of the story is that your horn had remained, untouched by other musicians, for the entire time - else, why would the bearings still be inside it? It was simply waiting to be returned to your hands.
Myself, regarding the photos, I actually like the first of the last two better because of the silhouette. But they are both excellent shots.

Rated/appreciated and I wish like hell I could have rated it more than once - a fabulous read, my friend.
Beautiful story. Funny how the resonance of relationships follows us no matter time or distance. And I can relate to the side notes of financially dying on the vine as an as yet, un-careered grad student. Though you speak in more comic terms than tragic, your story reminds me of why I loved the novel, A Separate Peace. Thanks for the post, I look forward to more of your writing.
Hello everyone. Bill, I want to think some kids had use of the horn, but It probably stayed closed for all that time. The case latches were slightly corroded. The valves of the horn were stuck. The slides were not even gummy and were frozen. If it had been used, it would have been easy to tell from other traces of that use. the lead shot would not have been there, unless it somehow got stuck on solid shmuse on the slide walls (yuck!) The outside of the case had thick dust, caked on in some places and one side was faded more than the other. I can imagine it sitting on a shelf somewhere, forgotten.
Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

Roger, If I played, it would be a frightful thing. I have no more lip, and it will take years to get it back. I had good tonality at one point, but my articulation was lacking.
Andy, Liz, thanks so much for coming by!
Nanomech, the days as a grad were exciting, but filled with a lot more fear. I'm glad they're over. Thanks.
Amazing story, Gary, but I have come to expect nothing less from you. You are chocked full of talent and sensitivity and I feel privileged to know you. The serendipity or, as you say, synchronicity of the cornet coming back to you is goosebump-creating. I love it! It couldn't have happened to a more well-deserving guy.

rated and loved
Beautiful as always. I played cello in middle school because my father loved the instrument, but I was lazy and never played well. I love all the photos, but the last is my favorite, followed by the first. I hope as you sort through memorabilia, you are taking notes for future stories. We're looking forward to many more trips into the past with you. Paws up.
Loved this story, Gary.
Just beautiful!

amazing. i bow in your general direction.
Hi Gary - I posted on this before but it must have been
lost in the last photo it looks like cornet
and player are creating all that light. Very nice.

What a story.
You had me there for a second when you wrote that the cornet was "similar" to yours. The perfect set-up for the moment of truth, which was hit out of the park by the discovery of the pellets. An instance of a practical joke turned into a searing memento of friendship made more powerful by the passage of time and space. And the closing images were the perfect ending. It looks like you light the room with a high tremulous note.

A great read, like an O. Henry combined with Bradbury. Thank you.
Hey Gary,

You started out on the cornet, and now you are a "primo" keyboard player. Great story. Great composition. And very well-played. Thanks!
You're stories are quite magical. You are a lucky human being to have these! I am lucky to have magic in my life too. It's quite wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if everyone could have a life like this...if they just need to stop, open up, and pay attention... They too could open their eyes and see all of these connections surrounding them and following them though life. I suppose if everyone was so aware of these special little moments in life, they wouldn't be as magical though.