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Grounded 

Longtime local saxophonist Frederick Sheppard went overseas to play jazz and make some money. He came home on crutches and in debt to the U.S. government to the tune of $11,000.

When he saw the nurse, the tall, rail-thin American patient began to gesture wildly and speak butchered Finnish in a New Orleans' Central City accent. He was paging through a copy of Englantia Ensiavulski, a book of English-Finnish medical terms that the nurse had left on his bedside table. "Kipulääkettä," he was saying -- or trying to say -- pointing at the Finnish word for "painkiller."

Saxophonist Frederick "Shep" Sheppard, 58, had broken his hip and ended up in Satakunnan Sairaanhoitopiiri, the central hospital in Pori, Finland. The town, located on the Finnish coast about 150 miles northwest of Helsinki, is home to the Pori Jazz Festival, held each July. Sheppard had performed in the festival in previous years and this year was on the roster with the Original Royal Players, a New Orleans brass band that performed a few times each day.

On July 16, the fourth day of the festival, the band played its 4 p.m. gig and was slotted for another one at midnight. "Early that evening, I went back to take me a nap," says Sheppard. He fell into a sound sleep, and was jarred awake by his bandmates pounding on the door.

Next to his bed was a rug. "It was a plush, pretty rug on those shiny, shiny wood floors they have over there," Sheppard says. When he heard the knocking, he leapt out of bed and onto the rug, and then slipped straight to the floor -- hard. "I have never felt so much pain in my life," he says.

Still, he made the gig. He tied a rag around his bleeding arm so that he wouldn't mess up his crisp white Royal Players jacket. He got on stage -- by crawling, he says, onto the platform -- and then stood, playing, for an entire hour. "By the end, I was leaning," he says.

After the gig, he was taken to the hospital, where surgeons repaired his hip with three screws and a 6-inch suture -- a neat fix that a parade of medical residents at New Orleans' Charity Hospital would later admire when Sheppard went in for a checkup. The medical care came courtesy of the Finnish socialized medical system. But the flight to New Orleans carried a steep price tag. In order to fly from Helsinki to New Orleans, Sheppard had to sign a United States government loan for $11,117 -- the cost of his return flight, according to documents he received at the time.

Until he repays the government, Sheppard's passport has a hold on it, a fact he discovered in August when another brass band tried to hire him for a trip to Brasil. Soon after, he had to turn down a gig in India. "The government wants their money and I can't go out of town," he says with a grimace.

Sheppard is stuck, says Anthony Bennett, the bandleader for the Original Royal Players. "Without his passport, Shep can't make a decent living, he can't pay his bills," says Bennett. "Because that's where most of his money is made -- traveling overseas."

Immigration attorney and Tulane University professor Larry Fabacher also believes that the passport restriction is too much. "It's not his fault, and it's a rotten deal, says Fabacher. "Particularly if he can't make any money unless he goes abroad."

As he sits on one of Jackson Square's metal benches, Frederick Sheppard's curly gray hair puffs out underneath his signature leather cap. At 6 feet 4 inches, he's the tallest of the musicians in today's pickup jazz band, but he'll spend most of the set with his long legs stretched out, a pair of Finnish-issue crutches leaning nearby. Around his neck are two straps, one to hook onto his alto saxophone, the other for his tenor. Right now, he's blowing on his soprano sax, a skinny straight horn that resembles a golden clarinet.

Sheppard says a few words, then holds up an index finger. He plays a little riff, then says a few words, then holds up the index finger again, then plays a few elaborate passages. "Musically, Shep's a genius," says his old friend Anthony Bennett. "He turns notes inside and out."

Sheppard was born in Charity Hospital in 1945 and started playing music in the late 1950s, while still a junior high student. He earned his first saxophone coin by coin, with his mother, who worked as a maid, chipping in a dollar for every quarter he earned. The result was a $200 horn from Werlein's. "It was old and raggedy," he says, "but I didn't know it. It looked so good to me."

Within a few years, Sheppard was playing all over town, on both sax and electric bass, which he picked up in a hurry during the 1960s, when the jazz clubs started turning to rock 'n' roll. While in high school, he skipped prom to play a gig with Aaron Neville and the Hawkettes. Then he joined the military.

During the height of Vietnam, Sheppard was wearing a suit and tie, teaching at the U.S. Naval School of Music and playing -- with the Navy Band -- for a few different United States presidents. "I'm an old soldier," he says, but he's even more an old musician, given that his anecdotes about military men often begin with musical recollections. "Now that general, he liked 'The Yellow Rose of Texas,'" he'll say, first scatting a few bars of the tune, then telling the rest of his story.

Over the years, Sheppard has gigged with many R&B and jazz big-timers such as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. He's played with Fats Domino since about 1970, starting on electric bass and then moving to saxophone.

Sheppard is, by his own admission, eccentric -- partly because he focuses on music above all else. If music is in the air, his attention span is guaranteed to be minuscule. He'll speak in short bursts, obviously distracted by every little note he hears. And if a fellow musician is playing carelessly, he can be stern. "Don't mess over the music," he'll say, wrinkling his brow.

"They flimflammed me, man," says Sheppard over a slice of red-velvet cake at a local coffee shop. He did not realize, he says, that he would be flying back on a stretcher, with a Finnish nurse -- an expensive setup that requires six removed airline seats for the stretcher alone. It simply wasn't necessary, he says, noting that, for the last leg of the trip, fromWashington, D.C. to New Orleans, he had occupied a single coach seat, in the front exit row, where he could stretch out.

But what could he do? he asks. He had to sign the papers, he says -- it was his only choice to get home.

Bennett feels awful about the situation. "But there was nothing I could really do about it," he says. The rest of the band had left Finland as planned on Monday, July 21, says Bennett, and the last he'd heard was that the festival people were planning to exchange Sheppard's plane ticket for a later one and then put him on a flight that left Wednesday.

Sheppard didn't depart for home until July 29. When he was discharged, the hospital gave him an elaborate stack of paperwork, noting Sheppard's medical needs in detail and warning airport personnel that the screws in his hip might trigger metal detectors.

Then a driver from the Pori hospital transported Sheppard and a male nurse from the Pori hospital to the Helsinki airport, with one stop in between -- the city's American Embassy. Consul Edward Birsner met Sheppard out front. He handed the nurse two plane tickets and gave Sheppard food and cab money totaling $114 in American currency, an amount included in the loan. Sheppard then signed about a dozen pages of paperwork titled "Repatriation/Subsistence Loan." In the forms was the clause "after my repatriation, I will not be furnished a passport for travel abroad until the funds provided me have been repaid in full."

"I'm going to sign this just because I need to get home," Sheppard says he told Birsner. "I don't mean any of it." But he dutifully signed "Frederick George Sheppard " to the bottom of the loan forms, then headed toward the airport.

Sheppard flew back from Helsinki on regularly scheduled commercial flights, at a rate that seems "very reasonable," says Ralph Krevens, spokesperson for the Florida-based Air Ambulance Network. Air Ambulance had nothing to do with Sheppard's flight, but they arrange about 60 similar transfers each year for American citizens injured overseas and for foreign travelers who become ill while traveling in the United States.

Krevens rattles off the costs for recent flights they've arranged -- $27,000 from the northeast United States to Korea; $41,000 from Texas to India. "So $11,000 from Helsinki to New Orleans sounds like a very sweet deal," says Krevens.

Not that Krevens isn't sympathetic to Sheppard's situation. "I'm a musician on the side myself," he says. "So I know we don't make much money."

For decades now, Sheppard has packed suitcases for European trips. Times have changed, he believes. "I know people who have showed up at the American Embassy with a cigarette stub and a saxophone," Sheppard explains. "The embassy would feed you a steak sandwich, send you to the airport in a limo, and pay for your ticket."

"Maybe that sort of thing happened in the 1960s, but those happy days are long gone," says Jason Matthews, staffer for Sen. Mary Landrieu.

The loan arranged by the American Embassy in Helsinki followed standard procedure, says U.S. Deptartment of State spokesman Stuart Patt. "This money is coming from the U.S. Treasury; it's not extra money that we had lying around," he says. The department is subject to audits and must account for each loan.

"The use of the loan program is really a last, last resort," Patt explains. "What we try to do first is put them in touch with family and friends back in the United States who can wire them some money." The embassy in Helsinki did call Bennett and a few of Sheppard's other brass-band colleagues in New Orleans, but none of them could come close to footing the bill, says Bennett. Patt notes that the passport restriction may seem unfair, but it's also standard.

Theoretically, Sheppard could fight that passport restriction, says immigration attorney Fabacher. "He could go into federal court and argue that he has a constitutional right to travel," he says. It would likely be a futile argument. "It sticks in my craw," Fabacher says, "but I think that the government can do that." He believes that the government would argue that the issue is not constitutional but rather regulatory, like restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Staffers in Sen. John Breaux's office deal with hundreds of constituent passport issues each year. They say that they have seen this type of passport restriction before for people who owe back taxes or child-support payments and suggest that Sheppard contact their office to try to change the restriction.

Patt guesses that if Sheppard gets on an approved payment plan, it's "very possible" that his passport restriction will be eased. But his loan is for an unusually high amount, Patt cautions.

Sheppard says that he has a good history with government loans -- one, to be exact. It was for $1,800, and he got it during a military stint in Heidelberg, Germany. The loan paid for a cream-colored 1968 VW bug with a sunroof, delivered to the Port of New Orleans. "I was clowning," he says, recalling how he showed off as he drove it from gig to gig and around town. The loan? He paid it back, no problem.

To offset the current debt, some of Sheppard's musician friends hope to organize a benefit for him. At best, it might raise a thousand dollars. The rest will be on him.

Last week, as he sat on the bench in Jackson Square, Sheppard was still in disbelief at the arrangements that led to his $11,117 tab. "It's a railroad," he says, while the trombones play a call-and-response. Then he holds up an index finger, takes a deep breath, and plays a particularly gorgeous solo -- fast runs of pretty notes ending with some long tones, held strong.

With the song done, Sheppard takes the sax out of his mouth and rubs his thumb on the reed. "It's a railroad," he repeats. "And what's worse, now I'm missing all kinds of gigs."

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG
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