His harmonica is a part of his daily life
In a cavern, In a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner forty-niner,
And his daughter Clementine.
Oh my darling, Oh my darling,
Oh my darling Clementine,
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry Clementine.
Put a harmonica in his hands and the old western folk ballad, “Oh My Darling, Clementine” comes to life. “That doggone music is something you can use all your life,” says Udolpho Township resident Ken Trom, 80.
Trom has been accused of hiding his musical talent until just recently, when he was part of a musical group that performed at a Blooming Prairie flower show. Trom also brought out his harmonica and played at a Norwegian celebration this summer in Willmar.
Admitting to playing one or more of his seven harmonicas every day, Trom said “the music becomes part of you.”
Trom learned to play the harmonica as a young lad growing up on a farm near Blooming Prairie. He learned his talent listening to music note by note and “putting them all together.”
He also packed a harmonica in his bags when he left for the Korean War in 1954 to serve the U.S. Army. It was during times in a tent that he entertained some of his fellow Army troops. “There were about nine of us who would sing and make music,” Trom recalls.
Three of Trom’s brothers, Ralph, Charles and Richard, served in World War II. Trom and brother Lloyd served in the Korean War. Trom has two other brothers, Gene and Lowell.
Trom’s first exposure to the harmonica came when he was about 10 years old. He recalls his brother Charles sending a box of souvenirs from Germany. The box contained three harmonicas. Trom said he commandeered one, a Hohner chromatic push-button harmonica.
“I just kept playing one tune at a time until it sounded good,” Trom said. He taped his harmonica music and has continued to do that to the present day. “I never learned to read notes,” Trom confessed.
Trom bought his first harmonica, a Hohner Echo Harp, at Kopet Music in Austin in 1948. He paid $7.95 for the 48-hole instrument. His last harmonica, a carbon copy of his first, was purchased this year and cost $168. One side contained the key of A and the other the key of D.
During his teenage years, Trom became more proficient at playing the harmonica. There was no way he was going to be separated from his eight-inch mouth organ when he enlisted in the Army. “That old draft board was closing in on me in 1954, and I decided to enlist in the Army,” Trom related.
Trom and six of his Blooming Prairie friends enlisted with him. His fellow enlistees were: Dale Hanson, Bob Kruger, Jack Prokopec, Joe Prokopec, Vernon Strand and Eugene Lysne. Trom took basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, and followed with advanced training at Fort Lee, Virginia. He then went directly to Inchon, South Korea.
Trom was eventually assigned to a supply company near Seoul, Korea. He spent nearly 18 months distributing cold weather gear to the troops. The fighting in the war actually ended in August of 1953, and Trom continued to serve during a time called the Korean Conflict (police action.) More than 300,000 American troops were deployed in Korea during the war, Trom said.
“We were so cotton-picking busy at the supply depot, and I believe this was as hard as I worked my entire life,” Trom says. He reported for work early in the morning and did not return to his tent until midnight.
While on duty at the supply location, Trom remembers his unit battling pilferage from the Koreans. “We caught a lot of them breaking into our buildings,” he said. “They were our friends, even though we were strangers in their land. They had nothing and got desperate.”
To break the monotony of work at the supply camp, Trom would bring out his trusted harmonica, “the dented one,” he said. He would play some folk ballads including “Clementine,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Strawberry Roan” and “Red River Valley.” He also would play some old-time polkas and waltzes, Trom said.
“It would get pretty noisy in our tent and I’m surprised we didn’t catch heck from the guards,” Trom laughs.
“We needed lighter moments from the drudgery of our daily lives,” he said. He said his unit was lucky to have a Zenith
trans-oceanic radio. “We could pick up the states,” Trom said. That’s when he picked up some other musical favorites, including “This Land is Your Land.”
Trom’s song list has grown over the years as he added some gospel tunes including “Just as I Am,” “Shall We Gather at the River” and “My God and I.” He has also added several patriotic tunes including the “Army Marching Song” and the “Marine Hymn.” He said he has three more to learn, Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy. His Christmas tunes include “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” Another favorite tune of his is “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister.”
Last month, Trom played in a group at the Norwegian Hallinglag celebration in Willmar. His sister Darlene played the guitar, Gilmore Lee played guitar and violin and Ardis Knutson played the piano. Trom took his newest harmonica for this performance. “My old harmonica went flat on me,” he revealed.
“It was all done in fun, and if you can’t have fun, you might as well stay home,” said Trom, a man not known to mince words.
Asked what his wife Gloria thinks of his musical talent, Trom replies quickly, “She thinks it’s okay.” The Troms were married in 1962. They live on 152 acres in the woods near the Cedar River.
Trom is a veteran of 42 years in farm credit and banking. He said some of his Korean friends were ones who urged him to go on to school when he was discharged from the Army. He remembers with fondness, a ceremonial rice bowl given to him by his Korean friends. It was decorated with artillery shell casings. Trom followed his friends’ advice and went on to school, studying at Mankato State.
Trom is retired but stays active in business consulting, dedicating time to SCORE, an organization providing free and confidential business counseling tailored to meet the needs of small business and personal objectives.
Trom has also been involved in Vision 2020, a grassroots movement in Austin. Hundreds of volunteers are engaged with a variety of community organizations including government, business, non-profit and education to improve the quality of life by the year 2020.
When not active in business efforts, Trom picks up a harmonica and relaxes with some favorite tunes. Trom jokingly calls himself a “starving artist.”