(N.B. This is not so much of a story about an actual gig as it is an example of the colorful characters you get to meet when you live the life of a wandering musician. In this case, the specific character is Carter Albrecht who was tragically killed in Dallas. You can read about his story here.)
After the war, my grandfather took various jobs piloting planes around the Great Lakes. He and my grandmother managed to scrape enough money together to put him through aeronautical mechanics school where they literally taught him how to build a plane from the ground up. At some point, he needed a new job. When a rich, old Lutheran lady bought a Cessna to fly medical supplies from Monrovia into the jungle, my grandfather packed up his wife and two sons, and moved ninety miles into the Liberian jungle. The Cessna was packed into crates and driven into the village of Zaw Zaw. Grandpa Knecht took the pieces out of the boxes, put the plane together, and maintained it for three years flying necessary medical supplies into the jungle. My father spent almost three years of his elementary school life in the “bush”. He was never interested in hanging around the other missionary kids because they didn’t know anything about the jungle. My grandparents let him run around with the natives.
So, I grew up hearing stories of the African jungle from my father. At some point, my father had mentioned that the Africans ran around the jungle barefoot. One day, I found a book in my grandparents’ house that contained a picture of the foot of a Liberian bushman. (Apparently, if you take a picture of the bottom of their foot it only steals the sole and not the soul). It was an inspirational photograph. The thick, leathery substance engulfing the bottom of the Liberian’s foot inspired a covetousness in me, and I was determined to acquire a similar indurate cutaneous innervation. So, I took off my shoes and walked on the hot asphalt during the hot Tampa summers. Spurred on by my determination to acquire Liberian feet, I pressed my burning flesh into the hot street. The end result was something like the callus that a hippie gets on the side of his foot from Birkenstock. My callus covered only my heel and the balls of my feet. Because of my incredibly high arches, the center of my feet have never touched the earth and remain soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom. The balls of my feet and my heel, however, became insensitive to sharp rocks and even flame.
When I went to graduate school at Southern Methodist University, a group of musicians set up a little watchtower on the side entrance of the school between the Meadows School of the Arts and the Perkins Theological Seminary. Donna Mayer-Martin, the local medievalist, had stretched a tightrope between the two buildings so that the ghosts of Hildegaard and William Blake could talk to each other while balancing between God and Art. I learned how to roll a cigarette and use the words of a conversation in such a way that the smoke went up to the rope and tickled Dostoyevky’s ghost’s nose . I ended my speeches with a flourish by extinguishing the cherry of the cigarette on a heel made tough from my Liberian foot fetish. Carter and Matt immediately befriended me. They were undergraduate piano majors who were easily impressed by a graduate student who knew how to put a smoke out on his bare heel. We would meet up during the evening practice hours and smoke on the steps to discuss “the ten thousand things”.
Carter was tall, good looking, and he wielded his cleverness and wit with the unassuming air of a master. Girls would walk up to Carter while we were smoking on the steps and flirtatiously say, “Um, Carter, what are you doing?” Carter would simply and unaffectedly respond, “We’re smoking. In a few minutes, we are going to take a break and practice for a while, but we’ll get back here on the steps soon to do what we came to school to do. We’re paying all this money after all.”
Despite the fact that physical education was not amongst the subjects of the trivium or the quadrivium, the Southern Methodists felt it was a necessary component of being liberally arted. Thus, every undergraduate was required to take a physical fitness class of some sort. The most popular course for music majors was Tai Chi. Students would practice their forms in front of the school. The beauty of their movements was contrasted with the awkwardness of Rodîn’s statue Eve in Despair which rested by the front door. Carter was considering the Tai Chi course. Yoga, however, was also popular amongst the music majors. Confronted with the choice of Westernized Tai Chi and Westernized Yoga, Carter attempted to balance his sense of Western integrity with the Oriental philosophy most closely fitting the needs of a performing musician. So Carter brought the problem of Zen and the Art of Registering for an Oriental Physical Education Class to Matt’s feet on a night when I was absent. When I arrived on Sunday, the click of cigarette lighters signaled the beginning of the story.
“Kurt, you know how I was thinking of choosing Yoga or Tai Chi?” queried Carter.
“Sure. Did you ever decide?”
“I was trying to decide on Friday, and Matt says…”
Matt jumped in through the smoke and said, “So, I said to Carter, ‘The only thing I know about Yoga is a body purification technique that some yogis practice. You make a gallon of warm saltwater. You guzzle the whole thing down as quickly as possible, throw up, and then your body is cleansed from impurities.’”
“You didn’t actually try this?!” I gasped incredulously.
“Well…” Carter said, “it was Saturday…and there was nothing to do…so, I got some water going on the stove and put some salt in it.”
“You drank an entire gallon of warm, saltwater?”
“Drank the whole pot.”
“Did it work? Did you puke it up?”
“As soon as I finished the last drop, I immediately ran to the bushes outside of my apartment and hurled like I never have in my entire life. I vomited for almost thirty minutes straight until I was dry heaving and couldn’t stop. As soon as I regained control of my body, I went into the house and had two hours of the worst diarrhea I have ever experienced. I was literally peeing out my ass for two solid hours.”
“Yup. By the end of the process, three whole hours had gone by and I passed out in my bed at seven o’clock in the evening.”
“I can’t believe that you actually drank an entire gallon of saltwater.”
“You haven’t heard the weirdest part. I woke up the next morning, this morning, at 6AM. I felt completely light and airy. I was at one with the universe. The sun was shining, the air felt great, and I walked outside. There were birds chirping, and I knew that I was a part of all things. I was at one with the universe. I felt like Ghandi.”
Truly astonished, I said, “Really?! Well, what did you do?”
“What do you think I did?” Carter responded. “I had a cigarette and a cup of coffee as soon as possible. I hated feeling like that! I guess I’m signing up for Tai Chi.”
I started laughing, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught Jesus chuckling as he dropped a banana peel on the tight-rope for Alan Watts.