Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
-Sung by Roberta Flack, 1973
-Writers: Charles Fox, Robin Spielberg, Norman Gimbel
The real killing is over. That’s now in a faraway place and time for these war veterans. They now engage the world with guitars, drums, big amps and speakers and an undertone of spirituality. Sadly, our government has replaced them at war with a new corp of young people who will follow orders without thought or question. These veterans have left all that behind and come back to the world. Their pain now gets played out in the Blues, a personal music of redemption and hope. This is a musical band of brothers now, and the call sign is “Then There’s Us.”
I was on the Cape May Lewes Ferry crossing Delaware Bay one overcast Sunday last September when I found Then There’s Us on the back of the boat, belting it out for bikers. This trip was a “motorcycles only” ferry to accommodate motorcyclists who had spent the last few days at a bike rally in Ocean City, Maryland. Ferry management wanted to soothe the savage beasts with music, I suppose. Most of the savage beasts upon motorcycles today are not the “Wild Ones,” of 1953 — more like middle-aged, middle-class folks gasping for a breath of freedom in this land and finding it outside the choking confines of seat belts, airbags and child seat regulations. This band looked like a Rolling Stones redux, at least from an age perspective. Old folks, mostly.The drummer had a Vietnam veteran cap hanging on his drumset. I asked between songs and found most of the guys were Vietnam vets. Maybe it was the long vistas in the middle of the Delaware Bay, maybe it was the music, I don’t know, but something sent me into what probably looked like the thousand yard stare. I was transported back to Vietnam, and my fellow vets and I were there, and young again. In Vietnam, our number one thought/goal/fantasy was to “get back to the world.” We had been taken from our world and transported to a place we didn’t want to be, doing things we didn’t want to be doing and collecting combat pay because death was just being neighborly. Getting “back to the world” meant everything. We each had our own ideas of what getting back to the world meant, but first we had to get there.
When my Vietnam flashback ended I looked again at these musicians. What I saw were the guys who had made it back to the world, and I smiled. Each of them was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing in the place he wanted to be, back in the world. There was bliss on each face. And in that vision was peace. Blessed peace was right there for anyone with eyes to see. Truly, back in the world, that world we had envisioned and yearned for from that place of war.
Armistice Day is about peace. What we’re now calling Veterans Day was first called Armistice Day. It was created in response to the never-before-imagined horrors of World War I. That war formally ended at 11 AM on November 11, 1918. Thereafter, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, bells were rung all over the world to keep horrible war at bay and peace in our hearts. I guess after World War II happened we gave up on peace. The U.S. government changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, and the emphasis went to honoring those who had served (and are now serving) in the military. It would be hard to argue against recognizing those who put their lives on hold and sign up to do whatever it takes on behalf of the country. Yet, I do wish we thought better of peace; perhaps just one day each year to recognize the possibility?
Anyway, I decided to spend some time with the folks of Then There’s Us. I wanted to know the stories of Randy playing a guitar behind his head and Jimi flashing peace signs with his drumsticks and Sgt. Ducky, lost in his bass guitar the way a young man is lost in the eyes of his lover.
Randy Pomykacz is the band’s hyper-energetic music director and spiritual linchpin. Originally from Philadelphia, he went through 12 years of Catholic school, then decided he might become a priest after high school. “I went to the monastery,” he said. “I was going to be a Franciscan priest. They showed me a real shrunken head one of them had from doing missionary work. So I had to make a decision between the band and the priesthood.” He had his first guitar around age five (Harmony Rocket) and studied with Edgar Stanistreet. Over his career he’s played with Hall & Oates, Ernest Smith (Wilson Pickett’s bass player), Herb Brown (Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”) and others.
They play a lot of original and obscure music considered Blues. What I hear reminds me a lot of Jimi Hendrix. Randy says his mission is to send a message. “As a priest you can only do it with one person at a time,” he says. “But with the microphone I can reach thousands.” He mentioned the Jimi Hendrix song, Belly Button Window as an anti-abortion message he likes to send. Lyrics include:
And I’m looking out my belly button window
And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns
And I’m wondering if they want me around.
Sgt. Ducky (Kenneth Mallard) is the bass player and leader of the band. He’s placid and laid back as bass players often seem to be. Yet he exudes a strong authority, and you can see yourself following his lead. Legal problems as a teenager in Jersey City forced him into the military and Vietnam. He talks of being a sergeant and spending all his time in the bush on special ops missions and having been captured as a prisoner of war. His first gig back in the world was with the New York City Police. After eight years, apparently things weren’t going so well. “I hold the record for the least number of people ever arrested,” he said. “I think I arrested 13 people in eight years. I just found other ways of dealing with it.” Then he went to work for New Jersey Department of Corrections as a Correctional Sergeant. “I was always a sergeant, except for New York police,” he says. That career ended in a prison riot that sent nearly 30 officers to the hospital. “I lost my eye and teeth, and I think they broke every bone in my body,” he says. “They didn’t think I would live.” When asked if there was any song that transported him back to Vietnam, he said Manic Depression by Hendrix.
Jimi Prettyman is the band’s percussion master. “It was jail or the military,” he says so he left the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia for the U.S. Army. He also said, “I thought Vietnam might actually be safer than the streets where I grew up.” Today he says the song, Hey Jude takes him back to Vietnam. Back in the world, he got out of Philadelphia in 1979 to raise his family in the safety of South Jersey. Retired now from wrenching on automobiles and such, he spends his time doing music and taking care of his 90-year-old mother. He said if he had to die 10 minutes from now, he’d go out listening to Rain Song by Led Zeppelin.
Tommy Larkin is working his way onto the stage as the band’s singer. He was banging a lot of tambourine the day I saw them play. Younger than the rest, he went to war in Iraq in 1991. After the military he spent years as an elementary school teacher and a couple of years working in prisons. With the soul of a caregiver he said if he were to die right now, he’d want to be listening to John Lennon singing Imagine.
Bunny Foster never went military, but she did a great job learning to play keyboards. With a light-up-the-stage smile and a good voice, she backs up some vocals while doing the keyboard duties. She’s not retired and maintains a full-time job and family.
“You can listen to all those other bands,” says Sgt. Ducky, “Then There’s Us. For what we do, we’re the best band around.”
Nice to know on Armistice Day there are war veterans who have come back to the world and found their peace.
To contact the band, email email@example.com