Al Batt: The music drowned out the sounds of many clarinets
Tales from Exit 22, by Al Batt
“You live in the middle of nowhere.”
The visitor who said that was from a big city.
That caused me to reply in the traditional way, “Not really, but I can see nowhere from here.”
I live not far from St. Aidan Catholic Cemetery. It’s near Bath, Minnesota, which falls in the category of a ghost town. The population is zero, but has 100% response to the Census. I visit there often.
Myron visited cemeteries. He’d been born musical. He played on the floor before he started school. By the first grade, he could play the radio. He was a virtuoso on the recorder in grade school. Only the PK (preacher’s kid) was better. He was forced to give up the recorder when he entered junior high and tried to replace music with other things. He became a Scout, but learned that when it came to making s’mores, he was a s’moron.
Myron tried playing the clarinet. Everybody did. He moved to a tuba. Tote that barge, lift that bale. He checked it off and went to the drums. He wasn’t good, but he was loud. He was drummed out of the junior high school band. That left him with the big decision as to what his life’s path would be. He knew the future was important because his favorite baseball player, Dan Quisenberry, said, “I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer.” Over the years, he narrowed it down to becoming either an underwater welder or a bagpipe player (piper). He decided to become a piper. His parents entertained doubts, but were supportive and consented. His father called it one of those “What was I thinking?” moments. The neighbors claimed it was just bad parenting. “I don’t mind the boy owning bagpipes. What I mind is him playing them,” said one.
The family had to mortgage the farm to keep Myron in musical instruments. “Why couldn’t you have taken up whittling?” his father muttered often.
“You just don’t appreciate good music,” he told his father.
“I do appreciate good music. That’s the problem.”
“Put it down, you’re hurting it!” his siblings said all too frequently.
Myron practiced. Bagpipes squawked. Then a sound was produced that could almost be called pleasing. It was as if he’d been cast adrift in an ocean of cosmic awareness. He became one with the universe.
He liked the company of bagpipes and became a great piper. As good on the bagpipes as Lawrence Welk was on the accordion. It was likely both had to put up with jokes like this one. What is the definition of perfect pitch? If you pitch an accordion into a dumpster and it lands on the bagpipes.
He had two jobs one day, piping at graveside committal services. The first one was in the morning and included lunch at a church. They served funeral potatoes. He loved scalloped potatoes and ham. If someone offered him scalloped potato and ham pie, he’d eat two pieces with whipped cream on them. The church found it difficult to get shed of Myron. He got a late start.
He jumped into his Dodge Caravan. He believed a Dodge was perfect for swerving to miss a pothole. His second job was at the first burial in a new cemetery in the middle of nowhere. Cemetery and graveyard are used interchangeably, but a graveyard adjoins a church (in a churchyard), whereas a cemetery doesn’t. This was before GPS and smartphones. His directions were scribbled on the back of a funeral home brochure. He either read them wrong or they were written wrong. He became lost several times.
Then the fog lifted. He saw a vehicle and some excavating equipment. He turned in the drive, parked and jumped from his van. The wonderful writer Patrick McManus wrote of two ways to deal with great challenges, “proper full-bore linear panic” and “modified stationary panic.” Myron used a third method. He grabbed the bagpipes and hustled as fast as a man in kilts could to the gravesite. The vault lid was already in place. Everyone was gone, but he’d signed up to play and he would.
He played “Amazing Grace” better than anyone had before. It was divine.
Two workers had been decanting behind a tree. One said, “I’ve been installing septic tanks for 34 years and this is the first time I’ve ever cried while doing it.”
And that’s about the end of the story.
No eardrums were injured during the making of this column.
Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday.