Mr. Winter was the name of my junior high school band director, and although his name suggested something cool, he was anything but. He had a temper. And the way he dissipated this temper, which was easily aggravated by a room full of thirteen-year-olds and their benign disrespect, was to leave the band room and smoke a cigarette.
One day in early December we took advantage of his absence by passing a coffee can, collecting funds for his Christmas gift. This action was repeated several times over a week or so. When the clinking sounds of dimes, nickels and pennies hitting other dimes, nickels and pennies came to an end we new it was time to add up the booty. $16.34. Not bad.
My best friend Mike Lane and I were put in charge of acquiring the gift with this fortune. First stop: ask my dad for advice. “Cologne is always nice,” he said without much thought. “You’re not serious?” my mother snapped back, certain there was a more creative idea floating about.
“Hey,” my dad said, after giving it more thought, “why don’t we go down to Bob Stoller’s and see if he has anything lying around.” Bob was our very good friend - a brilliant sculptor, and card-carrying schizophrenic, whose Ventura Blvd. storefront gallery was a couple miles down the road.
We entered the gallery and Bob greeted us. The space was not large, but impressive with welded metal sculptures here and there on dark-stained wooden bases. The storefront was divided into three sections: the gallery, his living space (which was no more than a cot, hot plate, and chest of drawers), and workshop. The latter was the largest of the three sections, and clearly where he spend the most time.
“Hey, Bob, the kids collected some money for a gift for their band director at school and wondered of you had anything.” “Well, let’s see - how much did you collect?” I dumped the money on his desk. “Sixteen dollars and thirty-four cents,” I proudly reported. He looked down at the heap of coins, and back up at me. I figured the blank expression on his face was his attempt at veiling his overwhelming excitement. After a few seconds of thinking he said “Sure, I’ll do it. I’ll make something.” He told us to check back with him the following week.
More than a week had passed. It was now December 23rd, and my father decided it was time to call Bob. Bob had completely forgotten about the project, but promised he would have something by the next day and hung up. My father, sensing my disappointment, assured me Bob would pull it together.
Christmas Eve arrived. My father, brother and I were rehearsing the Christmas carols my dad cleverly arranged for our little trio, which possessed a range of strengths and weakness (mostly weaknesses). On this night, for the past couple years, we hopped around to households of various friends and neighbors. An important and well-anticipated stop on this year’s agenda was the house of none other than the hot-tempered Mr. Winter.
Bob Stoller called and said he would be right over - he had something for us. Bob also happened to be our flashlight holder when we performed our carols. He had originated and mastered a technique of holding three flashlights at the same time, equally illuminating the music on the metal folding music stands.
When Bob entered the house he looked stressed, excited and relieved all at the same time. With bags under his eyes, and a slight sweat covering his gray face, he produced his commission. Our jaws dropped and we gasped. Bob was holding the most beautiful creation: a conductor, complete with tails, in the throws of a passionate gesture. He had apparently been working all night on it, and was looking at us with a big grin, happy he didn’t disappoint us.
Later that night we quietly parked our car two houses down from Mr. Winter’s modest Valley ranch home and quickly set up our music stands. With the flashlights masterly focused, we began playing our first carol. After no more than ten seconds Mr. Winter and his wife opened the door and came out onto the porch, and listened intently to our concert. When we finished, they invited us into the house for a quick hot toddy. That’s when we made our presentation. I set the awkwardly wrapped package on his coffee table. “What is THIS?” he asked. “It’s a gift from the band,” I replied. “Open it.” “Now? In front of everybody?” He hesitated, and then just decided to go for it. Mr. Winter stared in disbelief upon seeing the art piece, and his eyes filled with water. In the three years I had been in the concert band, I had seen many of his expressions, but not the one we were witnessing at that moment.
About thirty years later, Bob Stoller was dying of cancer. I went to visit him at his little house (he had lost his gallery years before). He was in his bed, by himself, with the shades all pulled down. The air was stuffy, and smelled like cigarettes. We talked about art. I gave him a book I had put together of my young kids’ drawings. He looked at each very carefully. He then told me he was always looking for a childlike quality in his artwork.
“Hey Bob,” I said at a quiet moment. “Do you remember the time we came over and gave you sixteen dollars and thirty four cents, and you made that incredible sculpture for Mr. Winter? Well, that was was one of the most generous things I have ever seen.” Bob just laughed and said “Hell, you kidding - I needed the money.”