Negotiations, Satchmo and me.

“There came then one of the most surreal moments that I have ever known — and there have been a few.”

I have a very early memory of falling in love with “Satchmo”. I was one of those kids who, from the minute I learned to walk, could show up just about anywhere. It was a chilly January evening in 1960 and I was on my way to the nearby newsagents on a short errand. Passing the only electrical store in the town, I spotted this big, sweaty guy on the display black and white TV blasting away on his trumpet for all he was worth.

For some reason, I could not resist this vision and waltzed into the store as only a four and a half year old kid will and straight into the window display to turn up the volume. I was mesmerized by this guy until the song he was belting out (“When the Saints go Marching in”) finished and from that day to this, the pure charisma of Louis Armstrong has always held me in a warm and rapturous spell. Even now, he remains the greatest person I never met and I have met many in a life full of adventure.

Fast forward sixteen years to another freezing winter evening in January 1976 on the brow of a hill in County Armagh, where I was standing in front of a hooded gent in military fatigues pointing an automatic weapon with both staring coldly at me. This was about six months after the Miami Showband Massacre where a group of young Irish musicians were murdered by a group of terrorists at the direction of British Intelligence, part of the turmoil of the Irish “troubles” which started in 1969 and lasted over 30 tragic years.

We were in a region of the border area between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland, commonly referred to as “bandit country” because the I.R.A. saw it as their “territory” and of course the British Government (via their Security Forces) thought otherwise. This area was a hotbed of “military” activity with all sides engaging each other in covert activities which regularly erupted into ambushes complete with body counts. Sometimes all it might take to be on the “wrong side” of this stuff was your accent or the way you might walk.

By “we” I’m referring to a one hit wonder English pop group, Edison Lighthouse who had a hit across the world with “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”. These guys weren’t the original band members, just a bunch of poor musicians scratching a living any way they could, even if that meant pinballing their way round the Irish countryside in the middle of a civil and religious war, aka “The Irish Troubles”. My job was not only to ensure they got paid at the end of each gig, but I also had the job of getting these groups to and from gigs sober and all in one piece. Not a simple task in any measure.

The reason we had ended up driving on a back road in County Armagh was because the group ignored my directions — for their amusement at my fear and frustration. Five adults sharing a Ford Transit jammed with equipment sure will generate some friction within any group and in this case, I was a barely tolerated outsider to begin with. That’s one benefit of being “management”.

The vindication of this folly took the shape of this guy in a balaclava and military style fatigues standing in the middle of the narrow road with such authority and confidence, he didn’t even hold his hand up to bring us to a skidding halt. “Engine!” “Lights!” I yelled with two short, sharp punches to the driver’s arm and now fearful, he complied. Traveling through Northern Ireland in those days, whatever checkpoint you ran into, you instantly killed the lights and engine on your vehicle or you’d soon have neither. Once you give someone a gun, they just have to shoot it. It’s the same bloody thing everywhere you go.

I nervously stepped from the vehicle and moved towards the lone figure in the middle of the road. With no time to put my jacket on, I could feel the freezing chill crawl into my bones and was aware of the utter silence you only get in the boonies — other than the sound of my own footsteps. I moved with my palms open, arms wide towards this hooded figure achingly conscious of the sidelights of the van behind showing me in silhouette. My best guess being that this was an IRA patrol (or a faction). I had no clue what was coming next other than six months prior a similar “checkpoint” incident had left one out of five gut shot and left for dead like his four pop group colleagues.

In those days, I was never backward about coming forward and always had something to say for myself. I was convinced that I could handle anything, but in that moment I knew what it was to fear for my life and for those other idiots hanging back there in the van. Some call it clarity, others know it as sheer terror. Just as I opened my mouth to address the gunman, Satchmo’s sonorous tone cut across all my thoughts, his words dancing into my conscious.

“… We have all the time in the world, time enough for life to unfold … ”

I actually took a heartbeat to establish where it was coming from before I realized it was him singing in my head. Satchmo can be very sneaky like that with me. This was an instant in my life when I realized whatever I said to this guy was not as relevant as my attitude. And, according to Satchmo’s dulcet tones, I had all the time in the world. “How are you doing?” I asked nonchalantly, like a fellow who’d just had his fill of a nice bowl of hot soup and stepping out to cool off. “Where are you from?” was the first barked question to which I responded “Dublin” hoping that would have been sufficient to get us waved forward, but it wasn’t going to be that easy.

The conversation that followed is irrelevant other than there were some metallic clinks and a few grunts of disgust with our extended dialogue from the nearby ditch assuring me that these guys were loaded and ready for action. Even to this day I have no idea of the length of this exchange; probably just a few minutes. I recall it was the adrenalin that stopped my teeth chattering from the biting cold and allowed the discussion to continue relatively coherently. My priority was not to concede to these people this was a British pop group whom I was traveling through bandit country with.

There came then one of the most surreal moments that I have ever known — and there have been a few. The driver stuck his head out the window and in his broad, guttural and unmistakable British accent yelled with all the expletives: “Oy! Idiot! You stupid Irish git, are you going to spend all night there nattering with your mates or are you going to get your ass back in the van?“ I turned my head slightly sideways to shout two words back to the guy in a very firm way and simultaneously, out of the corner of my eye from our selected vantage point, I saw headlights coming on the road some distance behind and the distant throb of diesels stole across the chilly air. By the time I had made the half turn back to utter words never spoken, I was facing thin air and a clear road ahead.

Within seconds I was back in the van screaming “go!” at the driver and we were on our way again. In a moment of either sympathy or irritation with my chattering and shaking, they turned up the heat so they could have their questions answered. “What was all that about?” over and over. Eventually I answered, “Just a guy asking about a lost dog” and “Ah sure they all have guns around here” I kept answering. The drummer in the group who was Irish, probably knew better, said nothing and even later, out of earshot from the others, I gave the same answers.

It is over 40 years ago now since this incident and the lesson has stayed the course. When you go in to negotiate something only one thing really counts; you got to give yourself all the time in the world. It always works well for Satchmo and me.

David Tracey is writer and producer of FP101.net