Saturday, December 6, 2008

Music Lessons

Mr. Schackne's beginning band class met during the third period. The way we butchered standards like Sousa's "Liberty Bell" and Mancini's "Pink Panther" would make the deaf wince. When Schackne was sick and they called in a substitute, we swapped instruments. I'd hand my metal clarinet to the drummer, and he'd hand me his tympani sticks. We almost sounded better playing unnatural instruments.

At the time, one of the more sadistic junior high fads involved curling a girl's hairpin, pretzeling it around into a wicked tool that--when pressed against the victim--snapped the skin and raised an angry welt. The trombone players found a way of inserting the modified pin into their spit valve. The valve was strategically located at the end of the slide. On a long glissando, the trombonist ran the slide all the way out, popping the loaded hairpin into the ass of any one of the musicians sitting in the row ahead laboring furiously against the logic of the printed music. The flautists usually sat in that row, punctuating the end of the glissando with a agonized yelp. It was, using the parlance of the time, bitchin'.

I have long since forgotten her name, but in reflection I am delighted that she had been the recipient of choice along that vulnerable row of pre-adolescent fannies. Two years before I joined Mr. Schackne's slaugherhouse, my mother had taken me on an errand of some urgency in our '54, powder-blue Bel Aire. There was a huge crowd in the parking lot at Valley Plaza--one of the first large shopping centers in booming suburban Van Nuys--and when we got out of the car, my mother took my hand and we wedged through the throng to a stage that had been erected in front of the row of shops.

Walking with stiff confidence (no doubt owing to a bad back), candidate John Kennedy was making a point of shaking hands, and he took mine for a moment as my mother beamed. I remember the look on her face with greater clarity than I do the man on the stage. Even so, the event is colored more by what happened in Mr. Schackne's music room two years later.

There was a substitute teacher that day and we were grinding out a medley of Christmas tunes for the coming season, when the loudspeaker in the hall cackled to life. It was the principal. Kennedy, he said, had been shot in Dallas and we were to assemble in the schoolyard for directions to go home early. The room buzzed. Some of us were more excited about the prospect of getting out of school than stunned by the news. We hurried to put our instruments in their cases.

In the center of the hubub, the flautist rose with a flourish. She sorted out her dress around her, then proclaimed how bitchin' it was that Kennedy was killed. Good riddance, she said.


Mark said...

You have touched a series of memorial nerves in my essence -

- JFK (life, death, and all before and after);

- the absurdity of human reactions to the assassination; I could write a book just on the three days that changed the world

- Music as an adolescent, and the impact on my entire life

Brent said...

Vividly written, Gabby. Your prose is a delight to read. I was barely of a conscious age when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I remember my mother staring at the b&w television screen...tears rolling down her face. I asked her what happened. She said, "A great man has just been shot." Had the Beatles released their white album by then? I seem to remember her playing that album a lot during this time.

Mark said...

If memory serves me - RFK was assassinated in summer of 1968, White Album was relesaed late in fall of 1968.

Gabby said...

Yep. Assassination in June, White Album in November.