A Lesson from the Worst Drummer in Belize

The following is an excerpt from my soon-to-be finished story about my year as a small ship cruise director traveling with and learning from my retired passengers.  

...The idea of “so what” appeared again the following week in Belize, as Mr. Gallagher danced with his wife to the sounds of a Garifuna band on deck. The women dazzled in colorful, flowing, African-inspired dresses set off by the ship's deck lights and striking against the dark night. The men donned similarly colorful shirts and matching pants. Each had dance moves like few on board had ever seen. Every note told their story -- taken from Africa as slaves, a struggle for freedom, a tight hold on what it means to be Garifuna. To see such a band perform under the stars, anchored off the palm-lined coast of Dangriga as we did is a gift.

“You think I might get a whirl on the drums?” a sweaty Mr. Gallagher asked. The upper buttons on his Hawaiian shirt were undone, revealing a tuft of wiry, white hair. “I don’t know how to play, but I’ve always wanted to try.”

I bobbed my head to the beat. “Um, sure. I’ll see what they say.”

The band played on. Rum punches flowed. I mingled (refining that cruise director charm I'd struggled to find for so long), and helped the chefs bring the containers of melting ice cream from the sundae bar on deck down to the galley. Fresh drink in hand, I forgot about Mr. Gallagher until I returned to the sun deck and the band packing up their instruments.

“Did they say I can play?” Mr. Gallagher asked.

Shit. “I’m so sorry. I forgot to ask.”

His shoulders sank. “Do you think you can? I really wanted to play.”

“Sure. Of course. Would you just excuse me for one second?”

He nodded and I rushed to the ship's office where my assistant, Tim, sat typing an email.

“Party still going out there?” he asked.

“The band is packing up but I need them to play one more song.”

Without a word, Tim reached for a coffee mug on the shelf.

We called the mug the “slush jar.” As cruise directors, Jennifer, Abby, Steve and I had the job down. As accountants, we were doomed. Nothing ever added up. On any given week, we could be short $50 or over by $250 or more, depending on who was counting. We used the mug to store balance sheet overages and took from it when we were under. No matter what the problem, the solution was always in the slush jar.

With heaps of appreciation for their talent and the aid of a $20 handshake, the band leader obliged us one more song.

“And would you mind if my friend over there sat in on one of the drums?" I asked. "I think he’ll be really good.”

The band leader looked at Mr. Gallagher and laughed to himself. “Dat man?”

I nodded. “Dat man.”

“Ok den. Bring him up. Eel play dat small drum.”

The encore started with a bang as the band’s main drummer set the beat. The guitarist jumped in. The women sang in full voice. Like before, the rhythm had people moving. But this time, one musician stood out among the rest. If a rock song is 120 beats per minute, Mr. Gallagher was at 5,000. Buddy Rich would have told him to "tone it down." He beamed at his fellow passengers as he beat the hell out of the small drum, smacking it with both hands, one hand on top, one on the side, every way it could be hit while his wife snapped photos of him. At one point, he stopped drumming to give her a thumbs up. Sweat poured down his face. The singers stared. The band leader laughed. Passengers cheered as Mr. Gallagher worked up to a crescendo—totally out of place for the song—throwing his hands in the air before beating the drum again with an impressionist's version of the beat.

The song ended crisply. Mr. Gallagher stopped a few beats later. While our group cheered for the performers, Mr. Gallagher shook each of the band member's hands vigorously and thanked them before rejoining us and embracing his wife. The band clapped for him, smiling and shaking their heads in disbelief.

After the passengers retired to their cabins and the ship was quiet, I did my usual walk around to make sure that everything was clean and ready for the next day. I was passing the sun deck when I saw Mr. Gallagher laying in a lounge chair and staring at the star-filled sky.

“How did you like that drum?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’ve wanted to play the drums since I was a kid but I never did. Something about this trip and seeing that band tonight told me that I couldn’t wait any longer.”

With the ship's lights now dimmed, I couldn’t see his crow’s feet and wrinkles, only a pair of piercing blue eyes and his white teeth through a wide, ageless smile.

“You didn’t care that you didn’t know how to play before you went up there?”

“So what! You got to start somewhere." He looked up at the stars again. “Marc, don’t wait seventy five years to do something. Whatever it is, anything, if you really want to do it, just do it.”

“Maybe you should take lessons and start a band?” I suggested.

He clapped his hands together and pointed at me. “Now there’s an idea!”

I left him to enjoy a quiet moment on deck, certain that he already had his bandmates picked out.