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Raw materials: Bob McQuillen

Here are selected excerpts from my interview with Bob McQuillen, conducted in 2007 at his home in Peterborough, NH. My questions are in parentheses, his answers in plain text. 

From teenager to young adult: 

I graduated from high school and went into the service. Well, I went to college for a little while, flunked out, and then went into the service in January of '43. 

The Marines. I wound up going out in the Pacific for three years. I went to quite a few different locales, but I only went on one operation, which turned out to be Guam Island. I landed on Guam on D-Day. I was a very lucky soul; I happened to be in a communications outfit, and we didn't land on H-hour. They landed at 8:00 and we landed at 10. So I never got into the real horrible stuff that you read about and see in the movies. I did get shot at, but I got missed too. 


(Did you play music in the Marines?) Yeah, I did. I sure as hell did. I was in several different places. One of them was Guadalcanal Island. Not during the operation, well after it. We had a training camp there, and after supper, we used to gather in a tent, and I got hold of a guitar someplace, I don't remember how, and I learned how to play hillbilly tunes with a gang of guys who were right out of the hills themselves. It was absolutely wonderful. Just great. 

(You were in the service for 3 years. In the Pacific the whole time?) Yes, I was in the Pacific pretty much till the end of it. Went over to China for a while after the war. 

Then I came home for 5 years,and floundered. Floundered, floundered, floundered, John. I couldn't anchor myself. Finally I re-enlisted for Korea. 5 years out, 3 years back in. This is when I began to learn stuff. When I got out of the Marines, I went to the Keene Teachers' College [now Keene State College]. 


(During those years of floundering, what did you do for a living?) I did 15 different jobs. Some were back and forth in the same job, but 15 different places in 5 years.

(What were some of them?) I worked for the Merrimack Farmers' Exchange. They had stores all over New Hampshire, and I worked selling feed and grain and seeds, all kinds of stuff, in their stores in Goffstown and New Boston. I also worked in their Bow Mill. I helped make cow feed. Sold Fuller brushes. Worked for the Old Farmer's Almanac; [publisher] Robb Sagendorph got me on the road trying to sell advertising -- I did a lousy job at that, I was awful. He had a little weekly newspaper in Dublin that he published for a while, and I was the editor of the Dublin Opinion. 

Worked for the town, gradin' roads, for New Boston and Dublin. I moved to Dublin in '49. Prissy and I moved over there from NB. 


(You met your wife at a dance?) Yup, Ralph Page dance in Peterborough.

(Do you remember that night?) I do indeed.

(Can you tell me about it?) I can and I will, no charge. 

I came to a dance. It was in the cold weather. It was near the beginning of the dance. Ralph saw me come to the door, and I was all set to pay Mrs. McKenna, who was taking money for the dance. And Ralph saw me come in, and he said, 'Hey Bob, come on in and grab a girl! Pay later!' Because he wanted to get the dance goin', he was all ready to roll. 

(At that point, did you already know him?) Yes, I'd been going to the dances for a while, we'd become friendly and all. So anyway, I took my coat off and I threw it, just like a whatever -- somethin' circular, flyin, flyin, flyin. I don't even know where it landed. And I ran into the hall, and there were 3 girls sittin' on the side. There was one here, Rose McKenna; there was Margaret McKenna, and there was this other girl sittin' in the middle. I looked at one, two, and three, and I thought, oh boy. And I asked the middle one to dance. And that was Priscilla Scribner. And she was the cutest creature. 

So I danced with her that night, and when I got home from that dance I said to my mother, 'You know, I think I've found the girl I want to marry.' Right from that very day. And that's what happened. 

(How long before you got married?) We got married September 1, 1947. So I daresay it was a year before we got hitched. 

(What was it about her?) We just plain clicked, is the best way to put it. She was a lovely, lovely, lovely girl. (he takes a long pause, and picks up a picture of her) She was neat. 

She went out with Alzheimer's. 


After his years of floundering, he re-enlisted in the Marines and served in the Korean War. One of his duties was teaching new enlistees the basics of soldiering. That experience led to a career which lasted the rest of his working life:  

Well, the whole show is, after I got out of the service, I came back to Dublin and I got the GI Bill, which I had after World War 2 but I didn't want to go anyplace. This time I had something to do. I was thinking about taking TV and radio repair in Manchester, at the tech school. And that was 40 miles. And I said, 'Well, you stupid shit, why don't you go to Keene, which is only 15 miles, and go to teachers' college? You did that!' The light dawned, and that's what I did. 

(So if you'd lived closer to Manchester, you  might have been a TV repairman.) Yes, I might very well have. It would have been wicked stupid if I had, but I might very well have. 

(What did you study in teachers' college?) I started out majoring in math, science, secondary. High school. I went through to the middle of my junior year. I had just gotten through various courses including organic chemistry and biology.  (Long pause) But I couldn't figure out how to balance equations in chemistry. I was having a rough time. So in the middle of my junior year, when it came time to re-up for the next semester, I said, 'To hell with this. I'm not going there. I'm quittin'.' I didn't want to go any further with it. 

So I came home and told my mother, and told them out at the college. 


My mother gave me the niftiest lecture. I can't remember the specifics of it. But she was so sweet and so gentle. (Very long pause) (Almost has tears in eyes.) And this woman who was the dean out there, she said, Bob, why don't you hook up with our industrial arts? Try that. And they got me to come back and take up the shop work, industrial arts. I says, you know, I says, I think maybe I could do that. Because I liked working with my hands, always did. So I became a shop teacher. Made me go an extra year, five years instead of four. But I went five years, and I made out all right. 


(By the time you finished college, you must have been well into your 30s.) Yep, I was 36. Graduated in 1959. I started September 1959 teaching at Peterborough High School. I'll tell you something about it, too, I was one of the luckiest  bastards you ever saw. I got, I think I got the highest pay of anybody in the Class of '59 who went out for teaching. I got $4,000 to start as a shop teacher. It wasn't just me, it was a lucky circumstance. Because electronics was going ape, it was a big deal, and they didn't have an electronics teacher and they really wanted one. So I got good pay out of it. 

Boy, did I love it, too. I loved the whole scene.  
McQuillen played at contra dances for almost 25 years before he wrote his first dance tune: 
  (What got you started writing music?) Scotty O'Neil. It's all his fault.
Well, this nifty kid, I had him in school down here. In junior high I had Scotty O'Neil. Then he graduated and went to Dublin Boys' School. And at some stage of the game, he was driving back and forth, and he was drivin' in a car, and then he was drivin' on a motorcycle. And to get from his house to the Dublin school, he had to go right past the house where I lived, and also where my wife lived, and where my cute little daughter lived. So from time to time, Scotty would drop by and visit with us. 'Want to stay for supper, Scotty?' 'Sure.' So he'd stay. My wife liked the kid. He was a nifty kid, wicked nice. 

And one day he went out to Keene on his motorcycle but he didn't come home on it, because he got killed out there in an accident. And that was in 1972, fall. And sometime early in '73 was when I came up with this tune, which is the first tune I ever wrote -- dance tune. And I called it 'Scotty O'Neil.' And I took the thing down to Concord where we were going to make one of our records, and I says to the guys down there, 'Hey, would you play this thing?' And they said, 'Sure.' And they played it, and they liked it. So that kind of impelled me to write another. And another, another, nother, nother, nother. And I just got the 1300th one done this mornin'. 

(You name most of them for people, places, animals. Who's the most recent one named for?) The most recent one is named for a mouse! It's 'Mouse in the Truck."

There's a real tune called 'Mouse in the Cupboard.' I got this truck out here that I got a piano in. You go out there and you smell, and a God damn mouse got into the overhead, up in the ceiling. It's full of insulation, and they got in there over the winter. And the thing stinks to beat hell, It's a stench. So I gotta tear the whole damn thing apart, and see if I can clean that up.  

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.