The Music of a Man’s Life

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, September – October 1981, vol. 35 no. 5

An interview with Robert (Bob) Fukumoto, Headquarters Chapter, who is 1 of only 4 certified piano technicians on Oahu

The Music Of A Man’s Life

by Ben Tamashiro

He was one of five sons, the only one who had come to acquire a taste for music. “And my parents did not like it at all,” said Bob Fukumoto. “They considered music a pastime for bums. They hid my instruments but I would always find them. They wanted me to become a scholar, like my brothers, but I was instead like a black sheep. I liked music so much that as soon as I’d get up in the morning, I’d start practicing and I would be practicing till late into the night, as late as I could stand it. Every day was like that. I was eleven when it all started.”

Not all heard music is sweet so one can empathize with Bob’s parents who had no ear for music, played

no instruments. Then, to have the one in five come along with a soul filled only with the sound of music; it was, to say the least, most disconcerting. No wonder that they tried their damnest to discourage him from pursuing an end which, to them, could lead to nothing but bumming around as a street minstrel.

But the young boy would not give in to their apprehensions. Uncompromising in his determination, it did not matter that when he went on to McKinley High School, the only piano keyboard in the music classroom was one that was painted on a cardboard. So the “A” note, for instance, was a note he had to carry in his head as he did his assignments. Among that was the writing of little themes with masculine and feminine endings.

“A masculine ending has a definite sound,” said Bob for the edification of this unmusical writer. “Take the Amen in a hymn, for example. When the hymn ends with a ‘straight’ Amen, so to speak, that’s a masculine ending. But when it takes a lilting pitch, and the rythmn holds for a number of beats, that’s a feminine ending.”

It reminded me of the song of hope, about the weary soul who sat down at the organ one day, letting his fingers wander over the keys. Then he “struck one chord of music, Like the sound of a great Amen.” The soul had found its “Lost Chord.”

Confrontation; an uncommon zeal

Bob’s intense preoccupation with anything musical, his constant practicing – it began to drive his parents and the rest of the family (which now included a sister) literally out of their wits. So it was bound to come, sooner or later. In his senior year, the whole thing exploded in a family quarrel. At that, he left the family … no, really, his father kicked him out of the house. Bob found a part-time job as a bell-hop at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel which included the privilege of living in the workers cottage on the hotel grounds.

Was he happy with the turn of events? “Well, I guess I was happy. I was on my own. It gave me a freedom of movement I never had before,” recalled Bob.

In school he had begun to take formal lessons on the banjo. Soon, he had developed a playing technique of his own which combined the elements of the banjo and the ukulele. He was also into guitar and the steel guitar, mandolin, violin and piano. His musical base was expanding.

At this moment he came across a story in the papers about the recent arrival of a Dr. Holt as musical director for Punahou School. And just like that: “One day I went up to Punahou to see Dr. Holt. He interviewed me and accepted me as a private student. We used the school’s music room. I was his only student. Lessons were held one night a week. Most of my tip money went to pay for the lessons.”

For a young public high school student of 17 to walk up to the director of music for an institution like Punahou and ask for private lessons – wasn’t that a rather unorthodox course of action?

“I know,” said Bob, “but I was hungry for knowledge of music, I was like a fanatic. I was not satisfied with the teachers around here. My parents wouldn’t help me … so I didn’t hesitate; I just went right up to him.”

The will to overcome

To veer for a moment from the thrust of Bob’s story, his determinations bring to mind the stress and strains of Norman Cousins, longtime editor of the nation’s foremost literary magazine, SATURDAY REVIEW, who was stricken with a rare and serious illness of the collagen. Collagen is a protein which makes up the fibers of all connective tissues of the body. The disease, progressive and often irreversible, gives the victim a sense of the body disintegrating, of the body “becoming unstuck” as Cousins puts it.

His fight for life (today, he’s editor emeritus of the magazine and continues to write its editorials) is documented in his book, “The Anatomy Of An Illness” which has been a best seller ever since its publication several years ago. It is not a spiritual or regenerative tract. Rather, the reason for its immense hold upon readers is that it expresses, as no other book of recent times has, the capacity which is there within each of us to mobilize our bodily mechanisms of resistance to disease … if only we take the measure of responsibility to do so. To take on a measure of responsibility… that is the crucial point about Cousins’ experience.

This is not an attempt to equate Bob’s push to Cousins’ will or to establish an analogical link between the two. Cousins’ experience is cited only for the purpose of highlighting the proposition that the will to overcome is not just a theoretical abstraction … and Bob’s is another case in point.

Reconciliation – confrontation – wires

“But then,” laughed Bob, “after going through all this, I got drafted!” Before getting into that part of his life, a few more episodes need to be sifted through.

Upon his graduation from McKinley, he quit his part-time job at the Royal and ended his lessons with Dr. Holt. Then his parents, in a conciliatory mood, called him back home, which only led to a new kind of confrontation. His dad wanted him to go into carpentry, a rather surprising recommendation, considering that nothing in his life up to the moment had involved hammer and saw. So once more he had to challenge his father and over his objections decided to become an electrician.

Bob cannot recall what made him opt for the electrician’s trade. It could certainly have been a psychological reaction against his father but even more likely, his familiarity with musical wires – piano wires, for one, and the wire strings of other musical instruments – must have had some telling effect in leading him to wires of the electrical kind. Whatever, there was no tailing-off in his accent on things musical even as he worked full time for a living (having started off as an electrician trainee at 50₵ a day with Hiramoto Contractors). He took more lessons on the banjo, with Richard Choy who was then known as the banjo king of the world (Choy having come into his laurels for having won first place in an international banjo competition held in New York City in 1935).

Bob also found time to form a little dance band: a guitarist, a mandolin player and an accordionist, playing mostly Japanese and Hawaiian tunes. It was a pick-up group of guys. “I taught all of them how to play their instruments,” said Bob, who played the steel guitar in the quartet. “We also had three singers and I coached them also. We played for spending money only, on weekends.” It mattered not that the band had no name; it kept Bob committed to music during his non-working hours and helped to keep his pulse on the musical tempo of the times.

“Just before the battle, mother…”

The 100th Infantry Battalion was organized in June 1942. Bob had been drafted in March 1941 and would have been out of the army a year later if not for Pearl Harbor. And there wouldn’t have been any 100th Infantry either but for Pearl Harbor. In the course of events like these, men have little choice, if any, but to be swept along in the tide.

For Bob, however, the consequent imposition of the military presence upon the civil life of the community was of great concern to him because his girl friend, Bessie Noji, lived in the shadows of Diamond Head. Even before Pearl Harbor, the two had picked June 1942 as the time they wanted to get married, which would have been a couple of months after his anticipated discharge from his year’s service in the draft. But now, he was in for the duration, whatever that may turn out to be. And as he kept getting reports from her of what appeared to be indiscriminate shootings by military personnel as they made their security checks around the civilian streets and backyards bordering the Diamond Head military installation, he feared for her safety.

So one fine morning in May, he informed his commanding officer at Schofield Barracks of his intentions to get married. Could he have a pass? The CO obliged, the pass to end at sundown that day. Quick as a wink, Bob was on a bus headed for town. Getting off at the Army-Navy Y, he phoned Bessie and told her to meet him in town because they were getting married. She was flabbergasted, to say the least. How come – so suddenly? What’s happening? And her mother was doubly flustered and upset when she was told about it.

Likewise, Bob’s mother literally hit the ceiling when he phoned her. “You can’t do this!” she cried. “Do you think that you have been brought up all by yourself?”

Nevertheless, after the initial shock had worn off a bit, the parents became reconciled to Bob’s point of view that it was for the best, because after the marriage, the Noji’s could place a star on the front door of their home, denoting that a member of the household was in the service of the country. And that should have the desired effect of commanding respect from military personnel and others who might be roving around the area.

Then came the rush. Bob and Bessie hurried to the Board of Health for a marriage certificate only to be told that a certificate could not be issued on such short notice- they were advised to go to the police station for such authorization. They did and with the necessary permit were issued a certificate to marry.

Meanwhile, the parents were also caught in a dither trying to make arrangements for the wedding ceremony and the best they could do on this spur of the moment was to have it performed in the home of a minister, a Reverend Miyake. So at noon they gathered in the living room of his home: Bob in his private’s uniform, Bessie in a street dress his parents and her mother (her father had passed away some years ago).

At the big moment in the ceremony as Bob held Bessie’s hand in his, the minister laid his hands on Bob’s and pronounced them man and wife. There is no telling the thoughts that must have crossed the minds of the parents at this moment. For Bessie, she gave Bob a nudge; he did not respond.

Out on the street after the ceremony, Bob reached in his pocket, pulled out a ring, and slipped it on Bessie’s finger. Cried Bessie, “Why didn’t you do this when the reverend laid his hand on yours?”

“Was I supposed to do it then?”

“Yes!” she sighed in exasperation, “he asked you for the ring but you just stood there! That’s why I nudged you!”

“Oh, no!” groaned Bob.

The tale of “The Owl And The Pussy-cat” tells of the two who went to sea “in a beautiful pea-green boat,” taking with them “some honey and plenty of money.” Overcome by the singing of the Owl who played on a small guitar, the Pussy-cat said to him:

You elegant fowl!

How charmingly you sing!

O let us get married! too long we have tarried:

But what shall we do for a ring?

The ring! Unlike the travails of the two who thought that marriage was a lark but then had to sail away “for a year and a day” in search of a ring (which they found when they finally came to the land “where the Bong- tree grows! And there in a wood a piggy-wig stood! With a ring at the end of his nose”), Bob’s dilemma was a simple conventional failing: he did not comprehend the words of marriage and guidance being intoned by the minister because they were spoken in Japanese!

Nothing mattered, though, because Bessie was now entitled to her star and with that peace of mind, Bob returned to his Schofield base in the late afternoon. The day was May 20, 1942.

The critical battle for Midway was shaping up and all passes had been frozen; there was no way he could get into town again, even for a moment. Two weeks later, on June 5, the 100th sailed out of Honolulu Harbor for parts unknown. Bessie managed to find her way to the pier that day to wave goodbye to Bob. And until his return more than three years later, when he could again hold her in his arms, that wave was all he had of her. Their wedding reception, too, had to await those long years of separation.

Mine sweeper

In the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion, Bob was assigned to the Pioneer platoon of Headquarters Company. A pioneer platoon’s main job is mine sweeping, as tough and dangerous a job as any in the army. When not preoccupied with that, the men lug ammunition. In between, like everybody else, they play the old army game of “bunk fatigue.”

For Bob, the time in between was also a time for music. And as luck would have it, his platoon sergeant, Calvin Shimogaki, was also a great musician in his own right, a professional on the saxophone. Then there was Robert Toma, a whiz on the guitar. So it was that the three (with Bob on the uke) provided musical respite for the boys during breaks in the training days at camps McCoy and Shelby. And when the 100th went overseas to Italy, so did the musical instruments of the three, carried as luggage on the company supply truck. As they did in the training days, so they continued to provide musical interludes during breaks in the fights which were now for real. They played a lot of Stephen Foster melodies and all the other favorites of those days.

“I remember ‘The Shiek of Araby’ being one of them,” said Bob. “The boys called them out and we played.” They were the only such group in the outfit. One day in Italy, Bob became a victim of the occupational hazard of the pioneer platoon. He had gone out to check a mine field that had been newly laid out by our boys, to see that all was OK. In the process, the strap on his legging apparently snagged on a trip wire, setting off a mine. The explosion put five shrapnel holes in the left side of his body. He survived that and after about a month in the hospital pleaded with his doctor that he be returned to his outfit. But the doctor wouldn’t so he missed the 100th’s sojourn into France. Bob rejoined his company when the 100th was in its “Champagne Campaign” in southern France, after its bloody expedition into Bruyeres.

“In a way I’m glad the doc didn’t release me,” mused Bob, for no telling what could have befallen him the Bruyeres battle. The 100th went back to Italy for its last battle and when Germany surrendered, Bob was in the first group of GIs to head for home. Back in Hawaii, he was discharged shortly after V-J Day.

A new goal

Although Bob went back to his electrician trade, music continued to be his constant companion. But where his previous emphasis had been on playing, he was now curious as to how things worked. So even as he labored as an electrician for a mainland contractor on the Tripler Hospital construction job, he began studying piano tuning and repair.

Said Bob, “There are over eight thousand parts in a piano and every part is measured, meaning that each key and string and hammer and everything else is in perfect alignment with each other. It is the job of the piano technician to keep it so.”

Well, Bob’s own body went out of alignment one day as he bent over to lift a bundle of wire. He slipped a disk, which took him off the Tripler job. He went to work at Pearl Harbor as a battery electrician, a less strenuous job. But then, while pulling on an electrical cable from shore to ship in order to install power on the ship, he reinjured his back. It was then that he came to the conclusion that his laboring days were numbered, that he’d better plan on doing something else. So he enrolled in the Bryant Correspondence School for a full course in piano tuning and technics. After a year’s study, he received his diploma in October 1965. Now, his goal was to become a certified piano technician.

The Piano Technicians Guild is the nation’s foremost organization for providing technological expertise and guidance in all aspects of piano tuning and repair. To become a Guild member is the goal of every top technician in the field. Periodically, the Guild conducts qualifying examinations – in tuning, bench work and academics; exams which span a full day. Bob traveled to Salt Lake City in 1966 to take the exams. He passed; pictured is his certificate of membership.

Meanwhile, at his Pearl job, there ensued prolonged discussions and differences of opinion between his private doctor who advised him to layoff his job and the Navy doctor who maintained that Bob could continue working. He finally got a medical discharge in 1973 at which time his doctor asked him whether he had something to do to keep him occupied in retirement. Bob assured him that he had.

Bob is but one of only four Guild members on Oahu. There’s one on Maui, also, and one on Hawaii – for a grand total of six in the Islands!

Guild members are recognized world-wide for their technical competence. How come only six in Hawaii? “There is no place here where a person can go for schooling,” said Bob, “so it’s difficult to gain the required technical knowledge. There are a lot of piano tuners here, most of them music teachers or professional piano teachers, but they’re not certified members of the Guild.”

Where does the work come from? “The work comes as soon as a person buys a second-hand piano. For instance, I take an annual business and pleasure trip to Kona to tune and/or repair pianos. It’s amazing to see the condition of these pianos. They are junkies pushed from Honolulu into Kona! When a person buys a second-hand piano, he’s buying someone else’s troubles.”

Problems include termites getting into the woodwork, strings rotting away from salt air damage, felt parts eaten away by moths, and strings out of tune due to pencils and similar things being dropped on them. Bob cited an incident which took place at a New Year’s Eve cocktail party. Hanging above the grand piano in the living room was a candelabrum with its several branches holding the usual ornamental candles.

“Then someone had the bright idea that it would give the setting a ‘Liberace’ effect if the candles were lit. So they were. And before the partygoers realized it, the hot wax dripping on the piano had burned its way through the sound box and, falling upon the felt, nearly set the piano on fire!”

And one other point. For years, said Bob, it was difficult to keep foreign made pianos tuned to ours because each country had its own pitch. But now the “A” note has been accepted world-wide as the standard. Pianos made in Japan, for instance, are now in perfect tune with our American made pianos. (Going up the musical scale: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do; La is the “A” note.)

Some things can’t be fathomed

It seems as though Bob’s life has, to some extent, been guided by a series of wires: musical wires first, then electrical wires and the static but deadly wires of land mines, then back to piano wires. In contrast, however, he’s also maintained a lively interest in animate objects; race horses, for instance. Their selective breeding was a subject which used to fascinate him no end but not having the means to get into the pragmatics of the subject, he started experimenting with dogs. But at his first attempt at culling – getting rid of an inferior product – that was too much for Bessie, more than she had bargained for. She wouldn’t let Bob kill the sickly puppy. Instead, she kept it for her young son. He sighed and shook his head. “But you know how much it cost her to take care of that sick dog?”

And when his son and the puppy grew up to love each other, that was that – for his first tentative problings [sic] into the field of genetics.

He moved to birds next. “Once I created a monster of a bird. The bird didn’t know where ground was. When flying, he didn’t know when he’d be reaching the ground. I felt so sorry for it that I killed it.” Although Bessie did not raise too much objections to the killing of birds, he nevertheless gave up his experiments.

“So what’s happening is I ended up with orchids,” said Bob. He’s a member of the Club 100 Green Thumb Club. “I find that in orchids I gotta know pedigrees. And instead of culling, if the plants don’t come out exactly the way I want them to, I just give them away. So at least in plants, nobody gets hurt.” On that score, Bob’s backyard is a greenhouse full of orchids. I remember his daughter, Kuulei, telling me some time ago that her father could spend 24 hours a day with his orchids. Anyway, as with all orchidists [sic], he has a shelf full of seedling flasks. One day recently one of them fell off the shelf. It could have been caused by a gust of wind or toppled over by a passing cat. Being unaware of it, he happened to step on one of the long slivers of glass. It pierced his right foot, almost clean through. The wound required six stitches inside and three outside. “Boy, does it hurt,” said Bob. Which explains the crutches in the picture on the first page of this article.

His two sons, Richard and Ronald, each have a son. His youngest, daughter Kuulei, is in Chicago studying music. She was the soloist at the club’s annual memorial service at Punchbowl in 1978, the first offspring of a club member to have that place of honor. So what are his feelings now towards his parents and playing?

”Well,” said Bob, “they never gave me their rationale for objecting so I have never figured it out. And Japan is so famous for its music, too.” But Bessie reminded Bob of the time he first heard his niece playing the piano. In a discussion that followed, he discovered that the young girl had an appalling lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of music. So he took her under his wings and tutored her to the point that within a short time, her playing soared to heights beyond anyone’s expectations. At about this time, Bob’s father returned from a visit to Japan. He, too, was astonished at the revived playing of his granddaughter. His delight knew no bounds. And when he was told that Bob was responsible for her new vigor, he softly said to him, “I’m glad you took up music.”