The Dome Chronicles: Mr. Hill’s Opus

The Dome Chronicles

By Garry Leeson

In 1972, a boxcar from Toronto containing a menagerie of farm animals and an eager young couple pulled into the station platform in Kingston, Nova Scotia. They were bound for a deserted hundred-acre farm on the South Mountain, determined to preserve the foundations of farmsteads past while constructing a geodesic dome. They were pioneers of the future, armed with respect for tradition and an irrepressible sense of humour. They didn’t call themselves farmers. They were back-to-the-landers. Farming was industry and their calling was sustainability. Over the next forty years, through flood and fire, triumph and catastrophe, they persevered, unwittingly sowing the seeds for the modern small-farm movement.

Mr. Hill’s Opus

Toronto’s Central Technical School was a rough and ready inner city institution that until 1959, the year I started there, didn’t have a music program. The word was that they had contemplated starting one for some time but had hesitated because they couldn’t find anyone strong enough to deal with the, predominately male, streetwise toughs who formed the better part of the student body.

The first time I encountered Bud, as Mr. Hill insisted students and faculty alike call him, he was busy breaking up a brawl in the hallway outside his music room. I watched with my fellow classmates as he bent over and separated two fist-flailing opponents sprawled on the floor, lifted them by the scruffs of their necks and sent them on their separate ways. We were all impressed; clearly he was the man for the job. There was no messing with him. He ruled his band rehearsals with an iron hand, beating out time on his music stand with a baton that was more like a thick cudgel, symbolic of the discipline he demanded.

We endured his frequent outbursts when we couldn’t get a tune quite right, and the odd swat on the back of the head gladly, because for some strange reason we really admired and respected the guy. Maybe it was because we knew he was the real deal: a working musician who supplemented his meager teaching salary by playing trombone in a Dixieland band. He was the personification of “cool” and it wasn’t long before, if not playing like musicians, we were talking like them.

There was a down side to our relationship with Bud, however. His Svengali-like influence was wont to lure us away from our regular courses of study. Who wanted to sit through all those boring academic classes when, with impunity, you could slip down to a welcoming music room anytime you felt like it? We all wanted to be musicians just like him.

To my delight, playing my trumpet in one of his bands had gotten me out of having to serve time in the school’s mandatory army cadet program, but it wasn’t that I had anything against the military. In fact for some reason (I blame it on John Wayne) I decided to quit school midterm one year and join the United States Marines.

I had just turned eighteen when I boarded a bus and headed for a recruitment centre in Buffalo, New York. When I arrived there I was greeted by a tall mannequin of a man in a crisp full dress Marine uniform: light blue trousers with a narrow red stripe, a navy-coloured box-necked tunic with red piping and polished brass buttons, a wide white belt with an honest-to-goodness real sword, and it was all topped with a white cap with an impossibly shiny black visor. My God, he looked good towering over me. I was sold and found myself humming the Marine hymn as I followed him down a long dark hall to a room full of school desks. I wrote a short series of multiple choice tests, then it was off with the clothes to be poked, prodded, and made to cough by a series of guys in white coats.

Two weeks later back home in Canada, I got a letter telling me that I was accepted and would be going to Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training.

My bags were packed and I was ready to go when I remembered that I had left a few important items in my locker back at school. Classes were in session when I slipped down the empty hall to my locker. I had just retrieved my things and was closing the door when the bell rang and I turned around to see Bud emerging from the music room. As soon as he recognized me, he almost flew in my direction and pinned me against the locker. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he spat in my face. “Just getting my stuff” I whimpered. “Never mind your damned stuff, you dolt. What’s this I hear about you joining the Marines?” Obviously someone had ratted me out.

What ensued was an hour long lecture that commenced with a question: “Have you ever heard of a place called Vietnam?” He continued with a litany of horror stories about a pointless war. When he finished I didn’t argue. I knew he was right. The TV news was full of clips of the young men of America marching down city streets chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” and here I was foolishly offering myself like a lamb to the slaughter.

So I sent my regrets to the leathernecks and stayed where I belonged. Thanks to Bud Hill, none of the horrific things that happened to countless others happened to me. At the ripe old age of seventy-five, I am alive and still singing and playing my trumpet. He could be vulgar, and was no Mr. Chips, but I sure held, and still hold, Bud Hill in the highest regard. He gave me the gift of music and far, far more.