Pat Van Haren typically gets one of two reactions when he tells people his prized 1928 sousaphone has gone missing:
What’s a sousaphone?
And why on earth would someone steal one?
Both are understandable.
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Sousaphones, after all, are not sexy instruments. They’re big tubas, in essence, designed to wrap around a player’s body while standing or marching. They feature prominently in college marching bands and New Orleans brass bands.
Van Haren, a longtime Hilltop resident who self-identifies as a “tuba guy,” used his horn to play Dixieland, and occasionally Christmas carols.
Until recently, that is. Because the large instrument — which is more than 80 years old and weighs roughly 50 pounds — was stolen from his garage sometime between June 30 and July 7.
Now, he’s desperately trying to get it back.
“I was grief-struck, shocked, whatever,” Van Haren says. “I just felt so despondent.”
To understand Van Haren’s pain, one must understand his relationship with this particular horn.
And its rarity.
I think as strange as it sounds, if I don’t get it back, I just hope somebody’s playing it.
Hilltop’s Pat Van Haren on his stolen sousaphone
Van Haren, who began playing the tuba in the 7th grade, first encountered his beloved sousaphone in the music room of Ilwaco High School back in 2013. At the time, he and his wife owned a Tacoma tuxedo shop. Part of the business involved fitting school band members for uniforms.
“I was in beautiful Ilwaco, many, many miles from here, fitting kids for tuxedo shirts. And I saw this gray mass on a shelf, and I said, ‘What do you got up there?’” Van Haren recalls. “I took it down, and it seemed to be in pretty decent shape.”
Van Haren says he jotted down the instrument’s serial number and later discovered that it dated back to 1928 — a relic of Cleveland Ohio’s famed King Musical Instruments.
He made the school an offer.
Then Van Haren waited for more than two years before receiving a letter in the mail saying the sousaphone was set to be sold as surplus by the school district. His $300 bid was the winner.
When he finally got his hands on the instrument, he found it was playable, but only just so. Eighty years of wear and tear had taken their toll.
So Van Haren set out on the nearly two-year task of restoring it. A lot of dirt had to be rubbed clean. Eight decades of dents had to be smoothed out.
In May, after a complete restoration of the valves was finally completed, the sousaphone was “just smooth and tight,” Van Haren says.
“It was such a unique horn. Those horns just don’t exist anymore. They quit making them probably in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he says. “For a horn, nearly 88 years old, to have survived in a condition where it could be restored and still played, it’s a hell of a lot rarer than cars from that era — which are rare.”
But Van Haren didn’t see the horn as a showpiece
“It was something I wanted to play,” he says.
He barely got the chance.
On June 30, Van Haren and his wife left on a brief vacation to Arizona.
When the couple returned, seven days later, the horn — and nothing but the horn — was missing from his garage.
“I had that moment when you don’t see your car, that maybe you parked somewhere else,” he recalls. “No. It’s was just gone. I didn’t get to play it hardly at all once it was restored, where the valves were really working and the sound was really popping.”
Van Haren trails off, the emotion evident in his voice.
When asked what he thinks happened, he searches for answers.
Van Haren’s also been searching for his sousaphone and hasn’t given up hope of finding it.
He’s filed a police report, made fliers offering a $500 reward, visited local pawn shops and posted frequent pleas on Facebook for the horn’s return.
On the advice of a friend, Van Haren even checked the pond at nearby Wright Park, on the off chance that whoever made off with the weighty instrument got tired and decided to ditch it.
It wasn’t there.
Van Haren fears the sousaphone might have been sold as scrap metal. The horn is made of brass, and he thinks it might fetch as much as $50.
The thought makes him shudder. To him, the sousaphone is priceless.
Still, he says he’s trying to take a Zen approach.
“I mean, it is just a thing. I’ve got to accept that it’s just a thing,” Van Haren says. “If the universe wants me to have it back, it will come back. If it doesn’t, I will find some other way to make music.”
It’s true. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes.
But if there’s any justice, Van Haren will get his sousaphone back.
“I think as strange as it sounds, if I don’t get it back, I just hope somebody’s playing it,” he says.