The Handwriting and Humor
of Harry Brabec

(A lesson in why you need to save the letters and e-mails
you are sending and receiving from others)

by Barbara Brabec

Because of e-mail and cell phones, only the older generation still writes "real letters" that will some day be a family legacy. I feel blessed to have an incredible collection of hand-written letters from  family members dating back to the late 1890s, and now the letters Harry wrote to me on the few occasions when we were separated are all the more important to me.

I received a wonderful gift worth more than gold to me the day Doug MacLeod, one of Harry's best music chums, returned to me the collection of notes and letters Harry had sent him over a period of twenty years. Doug had played bass drum alongside Harry on snare drum in all the Windjammers' circus meets during that period of time, and they appreciated one another's humor. Through the years, they exchanged audio and videotapes of music they both loved, cartoons that made them laugh, and articles about music and musicians. Here they are, in a picture I've cropped from a formal picture of the whole Windjammers' band. (I think the drummers got to be up front in this shot because Harry and Doug were special friends of the conductor, the famous Merle Evans.)

Harry Brabec and Doug MacLeod,
at a Windjammers meet.

Some of Harry's correspondence with Doug was written by hand while other notes had been typed on Harry's little portable typewriter, where he used his famous three-finger, two-thumb method of typing I wrote about in Homemade Money. Many letters contained information about music jobs Harry had played that I had forgotten about, music he appreciated, people he had met, and of course, little bits of humor, some shared below, and some on another page.

Here from that collection is an amusing postcard sent from the last vacation we took in our favorite cabin in Wisconsin. (I replaced the address area with a picture showing Harry doing what he loved to do most, after playing, which was reading.)

Harry Brabec, bibliophile, reading on vacation

In total, Harry's letters were informative, amusing, and often touching, as the sample below shows. In it, Harry tells Doug how much he valued his friendship—something a lot of us should be doing before it's too late for all the special people in our lives. (And yes, I returned this letter to Doug.) After Harry died, I found a little hand-written note on his desk that read, "Think of all I would have missed if I'd never met you." I'm sure that, at that time, he must have been thinking not only of Doug, but about all the people whose lives had touched his over the years.

the handwriting of Harry Brabec


Here's a cartoon that came back with Harry's letters from Doug. A reference to it in his letter read, "You might like this cartoon. It just broke me up when I saw it, but of course I do have a warped sense of humor." (There is no copyright notice on the drawing, but I think it came from a Polish magazine.)


Now I ask you to think about the letters you have received and saved through the years. Giving them (or copies of them) back to the sender, or to a relative if that person is no longer alive, could be an incredible gift to that person. I remember when, after several years of marriage, my mother gave back to me a twenty-year collection of letters I'd written to her after I left home. It was one of the greatest gifts I ever received because in those letters I found so much I'd forgotten, saw how I'd changed through the years, and had many of my beliefs reinforced. Later, I took a ten-year collection of letters my youngest sister had sent to me during a period of our lives when we were just beginning to know one another as adult women and not just sisters. They were all hand-written, of course, straight from the heart, and totally impossible to recall without the gift I gave my sister in the form of a "Book of Mollie." I categorized her letters by topic so she could once again relive her early years of marriage and motherhood and see how she had changed and grown through the years.

I tell you true: Real letters sent and saved cannot be replaced by cell-phone calls and e-mail messages. Our family histories are being lost because no one is saving the little details. Memory fades very quickly, especially these days when our time is so fragmented and we so often feel pressured by our day-to-day work and activities. At the very least, I would ask you to consider saving every lovely e-mail message you receive from a friend or loved one, plus all the informative ones you've written to family and friends telling what you've done and how you feel about this or that, etc. I simply print out messages on a daily basis and put them in a three-ring binder at the end of the year.

Because the last five years of my life have been so stressful, and the time just seemed to vanish while I was caring for Harry during those years, I have recently re-read the last five years of my e-mail correspondence (in effect, my daily journal) and found not only details of my life that I had totally forgotten, but also a treasure-trove of happy memories and valuable new perspective on my life as a whole. In the end, the most interesting person to us is ourselves, and only through journaling or saving your letters to others can you see where you've been, where you're going, and why.

"If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it." - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

Many of Harry's letters now appear in Barbara's memoir, The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides—The Musical Life and Times of Harry Brabec, Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist and Humorist. Available in both print and eBook editions.

Click the book graphic to preview the Preface, first two chapters, and into chapter 3.

Copyright © 2005-2014 by Barbara Brabec

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