Generations are familiar with the synopsis of The Music Man. Harold Hill, a con man, poses as a band organizer and sells uniforms and instruments to the naive families of River City. But before he can abscond with the cash, love intervenes, and in the end a band actually materializes.
Joe Damery has two of those kids’ bands on his Bedford resume. Only he never was a con man.
Damery is 92 years old. He can still tap out the melody on an orchestra bell of “Ode to Joy” from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And he still can’t read music. But his resume sparkles with musical ensembles through the 1960s and ’70s and into the ’80s.
“Anything I attempted to do in Bedford was what I thought was for the betterment of the town. And in most cases, it was with youth,” said Damery, a retired telephone technician and installer, during a recent interview at his home.
Damery was 11 years old when he moved with his family from Arlington to 98 South Rd. in 1942, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He ended up repeating sixth grade – in what is now Town Hall – taught by the legendary Betty Liljegren, so he could catch up in math.
During World War II, expansion continued at Hanscom Field, and Damery remembers huge earth-moving equipment delivered to the railroad depot at South Road and Loomis Street.
“In Arlington, I would go down and watch the trains. When I came to Bedford, I was surprised to be seeing the same trains,” he related.
He shared another wartime memory: ballgames at Page Field on Loomis between troops stationed at Hanscom and Fort Devens. During the games, Damery said, he and his friends clambered to the back of the Army vehicles and explored the machine guns mounted in the rear. They also learned “to stick around and they’d drop us off at Malaguti’s store on Hartford Street and buy you a Coke.”
There were Independence Day celebrations on that field as well, he said, bonfires built from old railroad ties. “We didn’t have a band – I think we sang patriotic songs,” he remembered.
Damery has a vivid memory of Gen. George S. Patton delivering an impromptu speech in front of Town Hall on South Road. Patton landed at Hanscom Field for a whirlwind speaking tour, with stops planned for Lexington, Arlington, Cambridge, and Boston. The base’s main gate was at the end of South Road, so the entourage drove the length of the street. “He stood up in his Jeep and he had the familiar hard hat and ivory-handled pistol, and he said that he had a few words for the Town of Bedford,” Damery related. “He was in touch with the common man.”
Damery joined other Bedford kids attending Lexington High School, graduating in 1949. The next year, he recounted, “The draft board called and told my mom that Joe has a week to make his choice or be drafted. I had been an Air Explorer Scout – we met at Hanscom Field – and was acclimated to the ways of the Air Force.”
He enlisted and served for four years, including a year in South Korea right after the conflict, serving as an air traffic controller.
Back in civilian life, he fell for a girl in the neighborhood who had just graduated from Concord High. “I saw her one day down at Purity Supreme, and I asked my brother Bill who she was. ‘That’s Mary Martin,’ he said, and I told him, ‘Yeah, and I’m Ezio Pinza.’” (Those two starred in the Broadway production of South Pacific with more than 1,900 performances). They went to the Ice Capades on their first date.
After they were married, they rented an apartment on The Great Road for $85 a month before buying a new house on Bridge Street where Damery still resides today. The asking price was $18,500, but the builder cut it to $15,500 when the buyers said they would loam and seed the rock-strewn lawn, Damery recalled.
On the other side of the Shawsheen River, across an old concrete bridge, were a couple of houses on land that became prime commercial property off Wiggins Avenue. Joe and Mary had three children; today he has five grandchildren.
Damery’s passion for music and marching began at age 11, watching the 1943 Memorial Day parade along The Great Road. “I saw a kid my age playing a drum. I said to my mom and dad, ‘I would like to be that kid.’”
Soon, he was a member of a drum corps in Lexington, and “I took the bus once a week and learned to play. I ended up in the drum corps circuit all of my adult life.”
In the Air Force, he was part of a troupe that was featured in the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade. Back home he was a member of various drum corps based as far as Medford and Malden.
After his return to civilian life, “the first thing I wanted to do was become an American Legionnaire and start a drum corps in Bedford,” Damery said. He had first pitched the idea as a high school freshman. “So, I went to them again and I said, ‘How about now? For $50 I can teach a group of kids.’”
His class totaled 15 boys. They drilled for two nights a week for three months, using practice pads on table tops. Then, at a gathering of Legion members, “I marched them in and they played,” and the longtime chief of police, Frederick Sullivan, “stood up and said, ‘We’ve got ourselves the making of a drum and bugle corps.’”
The post allocated enough money to buy snare drums and bugles, “and that was the beginning of the Militiamen in Bedford.”
He recalled the Militiamen’s first parade, Patriots Day 1962 in Lexington. They stepped sharply along Mass. Avenue to the beat of the snares, carrying the horns. “Play something,” the crowd implored; Damery confided that “they couldn’t play a note.” That came later.
Fast forward to the early 1970s. There was a lot of excitement about involvement in the upcoming American Revolution Bicentennial, and one of his daughters, a Girl Scout, said, “We would like to do something musical. Let’s get a glockenspiel.”
The dictionary definition of a glockenspiel is “a percussion instrument consisting of a series of graduated metal bars tuned to the chromatic scale and played with two hammers.” It has 24 notes covering two-and-a-half octaves, Damery explained. When he publicized his plan to form a marching ensemble of glockenspiels, “I was flooded with calls. People wanted to donate. We ended up with 15 plus six snare drums.”
The Bedford Girl Scouts’ Cadette Bell Band flourished for several years, and its itinerary included Disney World and the childhood home in Atlanta of Juliette Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.
The first song they learned, Damery said, was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”