This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Mister Jeff

13 June 2015

Music and humor are all about timing. Play a note at just the right moment, or hold a punchline for an extra pause, and the audience is yours. Mister Jeff was a master at it. With only a pair of finger cymbals, the simplest of musical instruments, he could divert attention away from the tune and get everyone to watch the big man with the nimble fingers. It was by no means his only talent but it was his genius to make you smile that made him most memorable. Sadly three weeks ago on May 20th, 2015, Jeffrey S. Shepard passed away in Virginia Beach, Virginia at age 62.

He was my friend.

We first met in youth orchestra where he played bassoon and I sat in the horn section just behind him. Fortune led us to the same college in Virginia where we learned just enough from our music professors to advance together from students to professional musicians in the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra. For several years we shared the same perspective on stage performing great music with extraordinary soloists, aggravating conductors, and inspiring colleagues. After a few years, though I continued to struggle along as an underpaid itinerant orchestra musician, Jeff sensibly gave up whittling thousands of bassoon reeds to take up a more profitable career as a real estate broker.

It was while Jeff and I were at university that we discovered our mutual enthusiasm for the centuries of music that predates the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. We formed a recorder ensemble and taught ourselves to play obsolete Renaissance and Medieval instruments like this duo of 16th century crumhorns. What we didn't know did not stop us from inventing the Locrian Early Music Consort with two other foolhardy friends. Over many decades, long after I had left for other adventures, this early music group evolved using an assortment of brilliant players, but at its center was always Mister Jeff with his plastic recorders, buzzy reedpipes, and novelty percussion. He had a gift, an innate ability to delight, that marked him as a genuine entertainer. And a real wise guy.  Those of us who experienced his artful musicianship and were the target of his endless jests are all the richer for knowing him. 

Telling tall tales is what friends do best, and Jeff inspired many good ones about music. But he also loved the marketplace world of real estate, which introduced me to his exceptional talents in matching people to properties. In my younger days, Jeff found a willing minion, if not a barely competent worker, who would tackle any job for pizza money. It inspired the following story about our relationship which, I am proud to say, appeared in a national magazine many years ago. Without realizing it at the time, my writing of it also inspired this blog.

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Fire in the Hole

By Mike Brubaker

    Among the many skills that must be mastered by a jack-of-all-trades, digging a hole would seem to pose the fewest problems. But life's challenges are not always found in difficult jobs. As I have learned, they will sometimes spring up in the most innocent of tasks.

    A few years ago I fashioned my career as a musician around various odd jobs, many of which were offered to me by my friend Jeff, a real-estate broker. Jeff always seemed to have the kind of small job that fit both my schedule and his desire for cheap and quick labor.

    Some of these memorable jobs required inventiveness, like the time I painted the inside of one of his houses where the tenants had moved, but their dog's fleas remained. Plastic garbage bags slipped over my feet and taped above my knees worked reasonably well as a defense against the fleas, given the limited leaping ability of the tiny critters. But I ran out of ideas when confronted with painting the baseboards, and I had to resort to chemical weapons. New rule: Always ask about animals when taking a job, no matter how small.

    One time I delivered a new refrigerator to one of Jeff's rental houses, and I introduced a new rule for my truck: Always tie things down, no matter how big. This rule I instituted halfway in the delivery trip when in my rear-view mirror I watched a full size fridge execute a perfect back-flip dive out of the truck bed onto the street. No doubt the driver behind me instituted a new rule about following trucks. In any case it was a testimony to the superior construction of Sears cardboard boxes that the only injury sustained was a small ding in the top corner of the freezer compartment door.

    But perhaps the biggest challenge I ever encountered came from digging holes for a fence at Jeff's home. He had tired of tracking down his dog Serge, a Samoyed of great wanderlust, so he asked me to build a simple wooden, dog-proof fence around his waterfront house. The project seemed well suited to my tools and abilities at the time, so I agreed to start the next day. My survey and construction progressed smoothly enough, though the sandy soil slipping through the post-hole digger presented a small challenge. Soon I had all of the posts planted and rails connected. Next came the gatepost, which I planned to put next to the house.

    I began to dig, but after I had got down to a 2 ft. depth, I was startled by a sudden loud pop as a small flame sparked from the bottom of the hole. Having already dug two dozen holes that day, I recognized this as being abnormal hole activity. Seeing nothing in the hole, I continued and plunged the digger once more into the hole. Again there was a loud pop with smoke and flame. This my poor brain was unable to digest, so I decided a second opinion was needed.

    My friend Kim, another musician-cum-handyman, was at the house that day doing some interior painting. So I went inside to fetch him to witness this strange anomaly. I directed him to stand over the hole as I thrust the digger down. Again the hole spit fire and smoke. "I don't know what it is, Mike," he said as he jumped back, "but I sure wouldn't dig a hole there if were you." As I stood scratching my head wondering how to move a hole, Kim went back inside. He returned a moment later to tell me his power tools and the household appliances no longer worked, which meant I had probably found...

    Electricity, at least in my experience to that date, had always entered a house from overhead. Buried lines seemed somehow unsafe. Suppose it rained and the roads flooded? Kim and I went inside to scan the phone directory under Electricians, Goofball Repairs A Specialty, where we discovered a free service for locating buried lines, called oddly enough, Mis Quik. So, good construction engineer that I was, I made a belated phone call to them and then knocked off for the day, leaving my friend Jeff to cope with the leaking electricity.

    Jeff called the electric company that afternoon, but the repair crew did not arrive until 1:00 AM. As Jeff showed the linemen the hole and explained my problem with the gatepost, they obliged by putting a neat loop in the service wire around where the post should go and then filled in the hole. But they asked, “What happened to the fellow that dug this? He severed a 220 volt service entrance line, and the humidity should have been just enough to make a good connection. Did he survive?”

    All this Jeff explained to me the next morning on the phone, but by the time I arrived at the house the Mis Quik buried line service had come and gone too, having marked a neat green line on the lawn that went straight across where the hole should go. Only after Jeff had personally shown me where the new line took a loop, and assured me that he had seen the men do it, did I start the hole again.

    I still have the post-hole digger with three very neat quarter-sized bites taken off one blade. But the real shock that day wasn't where I was digging, but how. You see, in order to bind the loose, sandy soil as I dug, I had used the garden hose to water down the dirt in the holes. But at least I knew enough that when standing in soggy mud, if something strange spits fire at you from a hole in the ground, you don't reach in with a hand but poke it with a sharp stick instead.

This story was featured in the February 1993 edition of Fine Homebuilding.
By coincidence the accompanying cartoon was
a remarkably accurate caricature except for the backward cap.

Collaborator, confidant, comrade, even co-conspirator. Jeff Shepard was all of these to me and more. His role as friend, colleague, boss, and of course as brother, father, and husband will leave more memories and love than anyone could count. 

It feels very strange that he now joins my antique photo collection of vintage musicians. Even stranger is that these sepia tone photos were taken by my late father many years ago when my dad attended one of our performances. I owe more to our friendship than I can possibly write about here. Suffice it to say that I would exist in an alternate universe without his influence on my life.

Thanks Jeffrey. I'll miss you.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more stories of vintage people.


Karen S. said...

A lovely tribute for him, I'm sure he was quite an amazing and entertaining man!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm so sorry, Mike; he sounds like a wonderful person and a great friend. My condolences.

La Nightingail said...

You have done your friend proud with this wonderful tribute. Even before reading about him, he just looks like someone you wish you could have known. And after reading about him, I'm sure of it. I have a feeling you influenced his life as much as he influenced yours. That happens with good friends. My condolences on your loss, but how lucky you have such wonderful memories to remember him by.

Postcardy said...

You are lucky you survived that digging job!

Wendy said...

I thought you all were being funny playing an umbrella handle -- I should know better by now. Mister Jeff sounds like a good bookend for you, and I can tell you will miss him. Sorry for your loss but glad to get to know him through this thoughtful tribute.

Nancy said...

This is such a beautiful tribute to your friend. I'm so sorry for your loss, Mike. How I wish there were a youtube video to honor him and his music.

And thank you for the laugh with your article from Fine Homebuilding. What a hoot! So glad you survived.

Brett Payne said...

I'll echo everybody else's sentiments in saying that this is indeed a wonderful tribute to your accomplished virtuoso friend. I wouldn't wear my cap backwards like that either, by the way.

Jo Featherston said...

A fine tribute that I'm sure your friend Jeff would have enjoyed, and your hole digging story fits in very conveniently with our SS theme this week. Amazing that you still have the post hole digger!

Alex Daw said...

Oh Mike. Well done you for your take on the them this week. I think to lose a friend must be the saddest thing and I've had many a bad dream about being the one left behind. I hope that you are surrounded by other dear friends/family to support you and that Jeff is doing his bit from the other side to still make your life amusing. I laughed out loud several times reading your article. I'm not sure if your friend's humour rubbed off on you or vice versa. Thanks for making me laugh today. I really appreciated it.

Little Nell said...

How sad to lose such a good friend and huge influence at a relatively early age, but what a wonderful tribute.

Sean Bentley said...

Oh dear... he sounds like an amazing character. And I agree, thought those were umbrella handles!

tony said...

Bless Jeff X A fine post & photos ,Mike.


What a nice homage to your friend.
And I just can't believe your luck
at not getting electrocuted....
Good for you!!


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