Charles Davis blew into a harmonica, the tune floating out of his room and down the hallway at the Western Nebraska Veterans home. Unaware, as he played, that he’d soon have another instrument to make music with.
Davis was born in Ohio on Dec. 9, 1928.
“I’m pretty much an old fart,” Davis said. “People tell me I don’t look it. I certainly don’t know how to act it. I think it’s just as well.”
When he was young, his family moved to New York.
“When I was little and we lived in Rochester, there was a theater called the State Theater,” said Davis. “They had an amateur contest once a week. The prize was $5.”
Adjusted for inflation, that $5 prize would be worth nearly a hundred today.
“I always won,” said Davis. “It was just one of those things.”
While he was in school, the district that he attended arranged for students to have access to musical instruments.
“I got a trombone,” said Davis.
He continued to play the instrument after his family moved to Columbus, Ohio.
When he was 17, Davis enlisted in the Air Force.
“I figured it would be an experience,” Davis said.
As an Air Force musician, Davis played across the country and around the world. His first assignment was at Mitchel Field in Long Island, New York.
“I did more parades down Broadway than you can shake a stick at,” Davis said.
From there, he went to Korea, the Philippines, California, and Roswell, New Mexico.
“I don’t remember all the bases anymore,” Davis said, before laughing and adding, “I guess it’s only natural I lose my memory — or my mind — probably both.”
After 20years, Davis retired from the Air Force and moved on to playing trombone for the Omaha Symphony. Eventually though, he stopped playing trombone all together.
“It’s been years,” said Davis.
He couldn’t recall exactly why he had stopped.
“I miss it,” he lamented.
At least he still had his harmonica, a beautiful Hohner that still shined the way it did when his father gave it to him as a teenager.
“I take it out occasionally and play for the people here,” said Davis. “They seem to like it or they let on like they do. I guess they can’t get up and leave because there’s no place to go.”
Occasionally, he’ll make his way to the piano at the Veterans Home and put on a show.
“I know the keys, but I don’t know what key I’m playing in or anything,” said Davis. “I don’t get into the technical end of it. If I know a tune and the melody, I’ll play it. Otherwise, I just make it up as I go. It’s handy.”
Despite his ability to compose on the fly, Davis said his musical prowess isn’t earth shattering.
“I’m sure as hell not going to set the world on fire,” Davis laughed.
It was about that time that the administrator of the Western Nebraska Veterans Home, Kevin Collins, walked into Davis’ room carrying a large, hard case.
“Is that my horn?” Davis asked.
“I’m going to take it this weekend and get it all cleaned up for you, but I wanted you to see it,” Collins said.
Collins had shared Davis’ desire for a trombone with colleagues who work in veteran services. Staff at Box Butte County Veteran Services managed to track down a trombone that was for sale.
After explaining to the seller who the instrument was for, he made the decision to donate it to Davis’ cause.
Davis’ face lit up as Collins handed him part of the instrument.
“That’s dandy!” Davis said, examining the trombone. “Olds is a good brand.”
Collins handed him a couple mouth pieces. Earlier, Davis had explained that he’s particular about that part of the instrument.
“I always used a Bach 6.5A mouth piece when I was in the military,” Davis said.
When he had been stationed on Long Island, he’d often make trips to the factory where the mouth pieces were made.
“That was a long time ago,” said Davis. “It’s funny that I can remember all these things and sometimes I can’t remember my own name. Oh well.”
The pieces that came with the instrument weren’t the right size - Collins said he’d try to track down a 6.5A - but they’d work in the mean time. Davis blew into one.
“It’s going to be hard to play because I don’t have any teeth,” Davis said.
“We’re working on that too,” Collins said.
He packed the instrument back up and promised to have it back to Davis by Monday.
“That’ll be a blast,” Davis said. “I'll blow the place out.”