Beautiful music is not always audible

10 Oct 2020

Well Rod, 42 years ago today, 10 Oct, 1978, Columbus Day, I enlisted in the KY Army National Guard. The all important Pay Entry Base Date (PEBD). There was not a space in basic training immediately, so I went to my first drill weekend in civilian clothes. Not knowing anything about what awaited me, I wore my best 3 piece suit that my mom had made me in Robin egg blue. I had enlisted in the 202 KYARNG band under the civilian acquired skills program (CASP) and had the rank of PFC (E3). To my surprise (and relief), I was accepted without an audition based on some letters of recommendation and I guess some smooth talking by the recruiter! I drove my parents car to Frankfort, KY with my trumpet and a borrowed overnight bag and stepped off into the unknown. I had taken the decision to put off college to do this..was it the right thing to do? I didn’t know..looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do! I can’t remember if I introduced myself or someone approached me. In any case, I found a seat in the trumpet section, no where near first chair that I had occupied most of my highschool years. I’m sure to the commander, I was an unknown quantity…and when I played, I was on audition to my peers. Evidently I passed. I found out that the next day we had a concert in Frenchburg, KY and that day was the only rehearsal! I can’t remember any of the songs, but music is music around the world and I found my way.

The next day, I packed away the 3 piece suit and wore jeans to try to fit in with the drab green fatigues (long before the camouflage BDU days!). Problem was that the next day, everyone was in dress uniforms as we loaded our équipement and instruments on the truck and we got on the bus. I really wanted to be in a uniform like everyone else..but I still had more than a month to go before basic training! I know now that you were probably driving the bus for this trip Rod, but I honestly say I don’t remember. Somehow, I finished that first weekend drill and was already looking forward to the next drill! These men (and a few women) were good musicians ! Many had been in the fulltime military (Army, Navy, Airforce) as musicians and were now band instructors in highschool. It was a bit intimidating but also evoked some pride! I could hold my own playing trumpet, and singing too!

I decided I needed to keep up my daily practice routine until I went to basic. Beginning of November, I got a check in the mail..I was getting paid for playing the trumpet! I went back to drill in November and I don’t remember anything except that I had a date for Basic training that I could tell people..26 November 1978, the day after Thanksgiving..what is now called Black Friday by the shoppers! It was anything but black for me! I was full of anticipation! First thing I had ever done anything really on my own. First time I had flown on a jet plane. My mother drove me to Lexington Bluegrass field and from there I flew to Saint Louis and then took a bus to Fort Leonard Wood, MO along with all of the other recruits. We all arrived at the reception station, on what I know now was a long training holiday weekend..seemed like we were there forever waiting for “real” basic training to start!

This was 1978…you might remember a blizzard came through the Midwest that year? Well, I ended up doing basic training in that mess! The drill sergeant found out some how I was a bandsman and the next thing I knew, he gave me an old bugle and told me to play it! I had never played a bugle before in my life! Not wanting to disappoint, I figured it out somehow and soon was playing revile in the cold, snow, dark mornings! Looking back, not sure what the drill Sergeant’s motivation was..a challenge? A joke? No matter his motivation, I took it as a challenge, kept my playing chops in shape and had my own little fun time in an otherwise dark, cold winter! I found out later that I was in a pilot course for mixed men and women in the same platoon. We did all of the physical work together, had to keep up with the men..and that was just fine for me! I was soon given a purple “jock” arm band and I wore it with pride! No problem doing push-ups and I could beat any of the men doing setups! I had ran track and cross country in high school, so no problem to do the runs or forced marches. I maxed all of the Army Physical Fitness Training (APFT) tests. I was in good shape going in to basic and since I had been in band, I knew how to march, I could stay in step. I had shot a shotgun at home on the farm, I had played softball so I qualified shooting and grenade throwing relatively easily.

I remember going home for Christmas at about the 1/2 mark and I knew I was different. I was more confident. I went back to basic and did all of the rest of the frozen field exercises with a new-found confidence. I graduated sometime in February and got on that plane headed back to Ky. Many of my platoon members were going into advanced individual training (AIT) and truth be known, I was jealous. I really thought about going to fulltime Army.

When I got back home, I started working at Kroger’s as a bagger and soon bought my first new to me used car. I had a confidence that could not be taken away, and I think my parents knew it! They were proud, but I’m sure a little anxious too! I packed my pressed fatigues, spit shined boots and the overnight bag I bought at the Post exchange (PX) in Fort Leonard Wood and took off on the Friday evening before the drill headed for Frankfort. I showed up early in the morning, dressed in my uniform, trumpet in hand, ready to “fall in” and to belong to my unit! And I did belong! I remember talking to you at some point Rodney..talking about joining the Army full time..and you told me that there was a reason why most of those who used to be full time are now part time..you recommended to me that I get my degree, have fun in the 202 band and college, then think about Going fulltime. You were a staff sergeant, I was a PFC..you gave me good advice Sergeant Miller ..and I never forgot it!

Little did I know that after a little over 3 years of being comrades and fellow bandsmen, we would fall in love, I would go to Officer candidate school, we would get out of the band and we would be married! We both stayed in the Guard/ Army Reserves long enough to retire! And this month Rod, I got my first retirement check! You used to say, if it pays the electric bill, it’s better than nothing! You were right..it’s about enough to pay the electric bill, and yes, I’m grateful for it. As I just turned 60, My first retirement stream of income. Strange but true!

Looking back over my military career, I learned so much..and it has helped me in my professional life. As you know; I never did go to be a fulltime Army soldier Rodney, if you hadn’t told me that, who knows what my life would have been like…certainly not what I enjoyed with you.

I love you Rodney, I will always love you. I’m grateful for the time we had together here on this earth. I wouldn’t wish you back and in pain like you were at the end of your life. I sure do miss you though. I am continuing to learn, adjust and live one day at a time. You remain just behind my eyes!

Rodney Miller, 1982, Camp Shelby, MS, tuba tooter in the KYARNG 202 Band.
1982, SP4 Sarah Tollner on trumpet and SSG Rodney Miller with his camouflaged tuba at annual training, Camp Shelby, MS.
May 1984, about a year after we were married, we stood outside the state capital building in Frankfort, KY, the day of my commissioning as a 2LT. You gave me my first salute and as customary, I gave you a silver dollar.
My space is reserved right beside your
Marker at Camp Nelson National cemetery I just outside Nicholasville, KY. Back to our beginnings.

I saw you in a dream a couple of nights ago..Rodney. You and I were dressed up and walked arm and arm onto a dance floor someplace. You were so handsome, we were smiling lovingly into each other eyes…just like old times..until I awoke. Sweet memories.

I look forward to our reunion Rodney…we’ll make beautiful music together again. I just know it. Until then, as engraved on your marker, you remain just behind my eyes.

Love,

Sarah