Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Polka Fight

The scene was unpretentious: the Holiday Inn, Bethlehem, PA. Specifically, the bar. Caz, Flyjuice and I were off on a drum corps weekend in Allentown. The Eastern Regionals. Yes, it's a very big deal to fans of this sport.

Germane? Fer sure. On the Friday afternoon before lid-lifter of a two-night gala, corps fans filled the bar, getting in a little pre-game to prep for the alcohol-free competition to follow. Shop talk ruled. As a writer for Drum Corps World, I was approached by various alumni and faithful, all wanting to know my take on the current season. In my role, I was supposed to be objective. Flyjuice held forth to a clot of faithful. He knew little about drum corps, but with some key phrases (supplied by me), he bullshat his way fluently. Then again, Juice could have broken Fedders sales records in Sitka—he was that artful in building edifices out of pure fiction.

Behind the bar, an earnest, youngish man was on the stick. It was evident that he was not accustomed to a full house on an weekday in midafternoon. Nonetheless, he tried, sliding massive cocktails between benign debaters.

A newcomer wedged himself into the conversation. He identified himself as Frank. Short, fortyish, a bit hydrant-y, with muttonchop sideburns and a hint of pompadour.

"Hey, you guys talkin' about drumming? I'm a drummer," said Frank. "I play with the Stash Yankoski Polkabration." Caveat lector: No, I can't remember the exact name of the band, but this is fairly close.

Most of the faithful turned away to hide giggles. People edged away. I felt sorry for the guy.

I explained, "Well, this kind of drumming is quite a bit different than what you're used to." The others returned to a polemic over whether the Chicago Cavaliers would beat Phantom Regiment that evening.

Frank looked puzzled. "How so?"

I said, "These corps are like high-end marching bands. Drum sections can be thirty strong, with snares, multi-toms, tympani, marimbas ..." I trailed off as Frank's brow terraced.

"Do they ever play polkas?"



Frank asked, "Do you play drums? Gotta trap set?"

Trap set. Oh boy. Why didn't he ask if I drove a Studebaker? Trust me: polka is the slug of the evolutionary drumming-chain. Give me an afternoon, and I can make a polka drummer out of you.

I tried to divert the topic. Nope. Frank held forth on the groupies he had picked up over the years. Mental images of this induced shudders.

Then, he started in on his own band. As luck would have it, the bartender hovered nearby.

Frank orated, "Stash Yankoski is one of the best. Tellya what, HE HAS THE BEST POLKA BAND EAST A YOUNGSTOWN!"


That sound came from the bartender. In actuality, his bar mop being thwacked, with not insubstantial vigor, on the Formica. All conversation stopped.

The kid's eyes turned to evil slits. His look was feral. And the voice that uttered the next six words was a piercing, malevolent hiss: "He ain't no Jolly Joe Timmer."

The Man
Whoa. The silence was thunderous.

The assailants leaned forward, noses scant inches apart. The barkeep parried: "Jolly Joe has his own grove."

I couldn't exactly fathom what freight this last statement carried, but it caused Frank to back down. Head drooping, he shuffled off sulkily.

As a sigh of relief escaped, we wisely decided, in concert, not to laugh. The bartender went about his business, muttering to himself. The corps chat returned, ramping back to its former level in a gradual crescendo.

Flyjuice couldn't resist. "So Jolly Joe is the man?" he asked the barkeep.

"Yes he is. He's got his own radio station, plus a TV show. My folks were on it." His voice was almost pleading. Juice and I nodded in agreement, which seemed to mollify our server a tad.

Eddie Blazonczyk
He went on. "The Chicago bands are good. You got your Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones. They're great. But east of Youngstown? Stash Yankoski? No way. Stanky and the Coal Miners? Not bad. That guy better'd not show his face in here again. Stash Yankoski indeed." He spit out the last words as if they were curses.

In early evening, as we left for the show, we spotted Frank and his bandmates loading up for their gig. A station wagon towed a gaudy trailer. The group wore matching, sad, aquamarine tuxedos the color of a tinkle-infested pool. Cufflinks the size of golf balls. And shirts with enough ruffles to give Jerry Lewis pause. Droopy velour bowties were concealed by hefty jowls.

Frank looked at us furtively. Caz, Juice and I ignored him. "He dissed Jolly Joe," said Flyjuice. We stayed the weekend, never seeing the nervy drummer again.

Jolly Joe Timmer, aged 85, died two weeks ago. But his legend lives on.

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