Tacking Down First Chair


When I was a little girl, I learned to play the flute.  The man from Baldwin let a lot of the kids in my class try different instruments.  He only let me try one because when he put the flute to my lips and told me to blow:  a long clear note came out and Mr. Baldwin-man’s eyes got big and round and he said, “Holy cow.”   I was sure he never heard anything like that before.  I know I never did.

“Did you ever blow on a flute before?” he asked me.  Of course I hadn’t. “How about a pop bottle?  Did you ever blow on one of those before?”  he asked.  I shook my head no, ’cause I had no clue what he was talking about.  Heck, I only had pop if company was over and I never even got a whole bottle of pop to myself.

Pretty soon I had a shiny new flute of my own.  It was really used; I could see that by the holes wearing through in the corners of the carrying case, but to me it was new, and that’s what mattered most.

At first I was only allowed to blow on the mouthpiece.  Mr. Jenks, my cranky, old band teacher, said , I could put the whole flute together, after I learned to make music with the mouthpiece.  I tried and tried to get the sound like I did with Mr. Baldwin-man, but only tinsy little whistles came out; hardly what anyone would call a note, even somebody like me with a good imagination.  I sounded like wind rushing through the car window cranked down a half-inch, the way Grandma C. wanted, so her hair stayed nice.  She said that was the perfect circulation; she should have been squeezed in the back seat with four sweaty sisters, one who kept whining ‘don’t touch me’,  and a little brother that always got his way and took my special nest spot in the back window.

I was a failure at the flute.

But I kept on practicing.  Sometimes Mom said I should rest a little bit and read a book, or all of a sudden she had some chores for me to do; then I’d be right back at it, ’cause I just knew I could get good, if I kept at it.

My friend Beth, played the flute, too. and my friend Diann was the one and only French horn player; she sat right behind me.  Beth and I had challenges to see who was in first chair.  Mr. Jenks never said so, but I knew first chair meant you were the best, and that’s what I wanted to be.  Mr. Jenks was really serious about band, and could almost make it like work.  I loved playing the flute.  I practiced all summer long, even when nobody told me to, even when I stayed at Grandma Z’s for a week.

Mr. Jenks sat up on a high stool so he could see out over the band and make sure everybody was paying attention and nobody whispered, blew spit valves at each other, or got up to shenanigans.  The stool had no back and a leather seat cushion pinned down all around with upholstery tacks.  One day, when Mr. Jenks put the attendance slip outside the door, Beth said, “Do you dare me to turn a tack over on Mr. Jenks’s stool?”

“Yeah, do it.” Diann whispered from behind me, and then it seemed like everybody started egging Beth to turn a tack over.  So of course she did.

“Shhh…” she said, and sat back down as if nothing happened.  I was sure Mr. Jenks would see that tack just sitting there, plain as day, and then the trouble would start, ’cause he was one to get to the bottom of things.  Instead Mr. Jenks just hooked his heel on the bottom rung of the stool, looked around, and hoisted his butt up over the seat cushion.  That’s when Beth let out a scream like somebody just cut her leg off.  Mr. Jenks just flew into the air and over to Beth, he was so startled, and maybe a little bit scared, wondering about what happened to Beth, never knowing that his butt was just inches away from that tack.  Beth just sat there, in first chair, her hand over her mouth, pointing to his stool.

“What?  What?” he said, right up next to Beth.  “What’s the matter?”  Now his eyebrows pushed together in the middle making a big groove in his forehead, his fists were on his hips, with his baton still in his right hand, so it stuck out behind him like a little tail wagging, as he bent over Beth, all concerned about her welfare.  Beth just sat there, one hand over her mouth, the other one pointing.  She was probably frozen in place like the rest of us, ’cause there was going to be some consequences for the mischief.  Mr. Jenks figured it all out, and down to the office Beth went for an appointment with the Board of Education; that’s what the principal called the paddle bad kids got whooped with.

Mr. Jenks inspected all his tacks, climbed up on his stool, and gave us all a good talking to about what a dangerous prank that was and how something like that could lead to infection.  I was super happy I had a music stand to hide behind, ’cause I just kept gulping and shaking and trying hard to hold in any laughs, thinking about Mr. Jenks with a big old infection on his butt.  I had to think up the worst things I that ever happened to me: when my dog Bingo followed the tractor down to the road, and got run over by a big truck.  Even then, the vision of Beth screaming out and Mr. Jenks jumping off his stool kept popping up behind my eyes and I had to wipe my hand over my mouth and turn my lips inside-out, ’cause the giggles just kept bubbling around down there in my guts.

I played the flute all through high-school, Beth and I always battling for first chair; we never talked about the Board of Education or that tack again.  As we graduated to the next grade, Mr. Jenks kept graduating too; he stayed right with my band, so did his high stool.  Before he climbed up on that stool he always gave the seat a little brush with the palm of his hand.

I got a brand new used flute, and I still love to play.  I know it’s a little bit mean, but every time I think of Beth and Mr. Jenks and band, even after all these years, just can’t help but laugh.

4 thoughts on “Tacking Down First Chair

  1. Loved this story…it brought back so many memories of concert band and our director, Mr. Henrys, turning red whenever he got mad at us for goofing off or making the same mistake again and again! I can still see us all as we were then playing “Old Thunderer”!

    L.

  2. Why did were we always so hard on the band teachers? I would have loved to have been there to see this story unfold. I feel like I was. Tears were running down my face as I was reading it and seeing the old guy move like that..

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