Joe’s grandpa had polio. He wrote a song about it. Joe, that is, not his grandpa. Joe’s Grandpa died two years after the song was written. He was named Joe, too, and he said the only bad thing about polio was not wanting to walk around so much. Since grandpa didn’t have one small leg like Joe had learned about, Joe never gave Grandpa Joe much credit for battling the condition until he was grown-up. Children like seeing the good fight against the visually deformed. Scar has been a great antagonist, no matter the species or setting, and walking with a cane would have given Grandpa Joe the gravitas Joe could have seen as heroic through teenage eyes.
A year after Grandpa Joe died, some people got on the TV and sighed and cried a little, and told about their fears of the things that stopped disease. Grandpa Joe rolled in his grave. Joe put that in the song, not the original but the rewrite.
I learned about Grandpa Joe as I learned the chords to Joe’s song. Joe didn’t really talk about his Grandpa other than singing the song. I didn’t ask any questions, just played the chords, and Joe seemed to appreciate that.
We had “Grandpa Joe” and few other songs, but we needed a drummer. He sang the words we wrote and played bass, I played guitar and thought highly of myself, and though we played plenty of gigs around town, nobody was beating the drum for us.
Our first attempt to make it big was to get girlfriends that would keep us steady and on beat. That was my idea, though looking back, Joe liked it more. Joe started dating She-who-must-not-be-named, though I first called her She-who-must-be-obeyed, and I hitched up with She’s friend Gina. It didn’t start a groundswell, as all our songs were self-promoting ballads to show our girlfriends we were more sensitive than the other guys we had assumed they’d preserved for reincarnation. We hadn’t yet learned that you can’t get people beating the doors down for you when you prop yourself up with skeletons that may or may not be in their closets. So it goes with young lovers in these throes. I now know my guitar isn’t an extension of my anatomy, just a tool to make me smile.
Nobody was talking about Autism when I learned to play Grandpa Joe’s song. At least they weren’t talking about it in that fearful, let’s-get-polio-instead way. I heard a kid repeat a Spongebob episode over and over, but I figured kids are in need of hobbies anyway. People do things obsessively, at least the ones that are great at something.
Two weeks ago, at Gina’s suggestion, we headed downtown in search of our drummer. She told Gina that a bunch of musicians were gathering in the afternoon. “Maybe you’ll find your drummer.” Gina was a gentle leader, never pushing us through the fire. Joe was skeptical, but I think he was just scared of running into the past.
Joe wore shorts since summer was here for the day. He wore boots since all the bassists he knew wore boots with shorts. My boat shoes weren’t socially buoyant now that everybody was wearing them, so as Joe stomped, I sank into 2nd Street. Everyone else must have been too alive to recognize their false pride.
Basketball jerseys spelled out “Block Shots.” Ten bearded men walked with giant syringes lettered “don’t shoot up MY kid.” A line of kids held a banner reading “don’t poke on ME” over a coiled snake and parted the crowd. Two women had “Natural Resistance” painted on their chests. A man without a top drank a craft beer alongside them.
Music and a breeze brought some fresh air to the scene, but I’m sure Joe felt like She was personally attacking him. A line of trucks offered plenty of beats, but we both scuffed rather than risk stepping in line. A tri-fold hat topped a recorder player that combated with the English accented singer of the indie band behind him. Each truck billowed down the street with booted and boat shoed accompaniment. The movement had better music that most movies, but fears were listed like fair trade groceries. A fifth truck towed us along with its bare pulse. A single drummer wore a “League of Anti Vaccination” t-shirt in the cab and played “rented a tent, a tent, a tent. Rented a tent. Rented a tent. Rented a, Rented a tent.” The men walking besides the truck chanted a convoluted attack on needles, clouds, or minnows. We fell in stride as the drummer changed “rented a tent” to “doom doom wash, doom doom wash, doom wash wash,” at the lead’s hand signal. I raised my eyebrows to meet Joe’s eyes. Here was our vehicle.
“This is awful,” Joe said. The parade had hit a dead end.
“Yeah, sorry to put you through this. I don’t think Gina knew.”
“I know. I’m sure She did though,” Joe said as he nodded to a truck blocked in by five others. I recognized his glare more than the back of the head he indicated.
“You want to get out of here?”
“Might as well find our drummer, or else we just came down here to support the cause.”
“Do you really want to pick up somebody that spews this crap?”
“Let’s just talk to the guy who was beating the drum. We don’t need to join in the chant. We just need somebody to pick up the sticks. I’ll sing the songs. He won’t sing along. He’ll just bang the drum dutifully. He’ll listen, but he won’t think. Connor, you’ll have solos. People will finally beat the drum for us,” Joe said, eyes never shifting.
Before we took our eyes off Joe’s siren, our target walked over with his sticks still in hand.
“Nice, sound, man,” Joe said, stepping in front of the gangly lumberjack.
“Thanks, just a kick and a tub, but it was fun,” he smiled and said.
“Where’d you get the shirt?” I asked without moving.
“Oh, some guy just gave it to me. I came down to check out the parade, but I got sucked into it, too.”
“You play a lot?” Joe asked.
“All the time, but I don’t have too many friends to join me. Everybody’s having kids and leaving it behind. You guys play?”
Joe stepped forward again to say, “Yeah, you should come by and play sometime.”
The three of us turned away from the dead end to get some coffee. Our new drummer, Tom, even bought ours.
After making plans to play the next day, Joe and I left, walking back up 3rd Street. A few people had assembled an anti-anti vaccination rally. I laughed, but stopped when I saw Joe glare.
She was yelling at the new protestors. The drummer for this cause stood up and shielded the rest of the protesters from the infective.
“Maybe that should be our guy,” I said.
“Not him. We don’t need an ally, just someone to step in line.”