Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bomb Scare

Originally published in THE DIAPASON,
August 2007

“…and the livin’ is easy,”
It’s high summer and Americans are at the playground. Amusement parks are full, beaches are packed, and the highways leading to the beaches are global-warming-nightmares – you can see the heat waves shimmering above the lines of cars. Having driven from Boston to our house in Maine on a recent Friday afternoon my wife commented that on the highway she’d seen a lot of vacations she didn’t want to be on. These were the station wagons bristling with bicycles packed with coolers, kids, and dogs, everyone with grim expressions on their faces (especially eighty-mile-per-hour Dad), determined to have fun.

“…Daddy’s rich,”
Three-miles-per-gallon motor-homes the size of troop carriers, topped with satellite dishes, towing trailers full of motorbikes and bass boats with 250 HP outboards, spew black exhaust through National Parks, idyllic countryside, and major cities alike. Along with all that gear are more gas cans than a landscaping crew. You see three or four such rigs with consecutive numbers on their license plates lumbering along in convoy. It’s as though we can measure fun by the price of our toys or by the amount of fuel we burn. You can just hear eighty-mile-per-hour Dad shouting, “I’m paying six hundred dollars a day for this and you’re going to enjoy yourself.”

It’s especially hard when someone’s fun interrupts someone else’s. You’re sitting on the rocks with a friend, engrossed in conversation and watching the tide advance past your ankles toward your knees when a squadron of jet-skis comes screaming along, weaving and jumping over each others’ wakes, the riders having as much fun as possible considering the relatively small amount of fuel they burn. Finally they’re gone, and a hint of two-cycle (gas mixed with oil) exhaust lingers on the evening breeze.

“…and your mama’s good lookin’,”
We’ve dieted and electrolyzed so we can expose maximum surface area to ultra-violet rays without embarrassment, and we pack our natty straw bags with chemical stews to ward off those rays and legions of flying pests. Marketers know how to capture the leisure dollar. Have you ever noticed how pottery studios, art galleries, and t-shirt meccas congregate near the vacation spots? Once in the elevator in a city hotel I heard a woman say to her friend, “stuff in Ann Taylor just looks so much better when you’re on vacation.”

“…fish are jumpin’,” (sorry to be out of order!)
Reflect on those fancy white fishing boats you see on trailers on the highway – two big outboard motors at $25,000 each, electronic fish-finders, hundred-gallon fuel tanks, and fishing rods galore. The first ten fish you catch are worth $6000 per pound. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Perhaps The Diapason isn’t the place for a global-warming tirade, or a cynical rant on American consumerism or vanity. And perhaps it’s too much of a cliché to repeat, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” But how much are we missing when we indulge in this expensive and noisy fun? And what are we teaching our children about priorities?

While all this is going on we wonder about the increasing difficulty of funding symphony orchestras, maintaining collections of art, presenting great theater, and yes fellow readers, funding pipe organs. As a society we seem to be able to imagine a world without art, without music, without theater – but rich in football. This is proven by school-board budgets across the nation. Is there one town in America whose school committee cut sports programs in favor of the arts? (If you know of one please let me know.)

Here’s a little collection of thoughts that reflect these priorities. Some are my own, some are from bumper stickers:

  1. Could we find statistics to prove that more kids have missed soccer practice in order to get to choir rehearsal than missed choir to get to soccer?
  2. How many carefully prepared Youth Choir anthems have been compromised because of the hockey team’s Sunday morning ice time?
  3. It would be a great day when the Defense Department had to have bake sales to buy warships and the schools had all the money they needed.
  4. How can kids learn about the world around them when they’re watching videos every time they get in the car?
  5. When you see three teenagers walking down the street, all talking on cell phones, do you suppose they’re on a conference call with each other? (I was once riding the Amtrak Acela between Boston and New York with an unnecessarily loud cell-phoner a few rows back. In each call he had to announce, “I’m on the Acela to New York.” His third interlocutor said, “So am I.”  My fellow passengers and I knew long before they did that they were both in the same car with us. Much laughter.)
  6. If young children are up at the crack of dawn and teenagers want to sleep until noon, why does high school start at 7:10 am and elementary school at 8:45?
As I write, the early-morning radio is playing Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria one floor up. I hear it only vaguely in the distance but recognize it in the first few seconds (I can name that tune in one note!) because I first knew it as the accompanist of my high school’s Concert Choir more than thirty years ago. (I doubt that the same choir would be singing sacred music in Latin today, but that’s another story.) And as a high school student, it was my usual routine to go to the First Congregational Church (a three-manual Fisk organ) after school to practice for a couple hours. I was organist for a large Catholic church that many of my classmates were forced to attend. How’s that for being cool? But I have many friends and colleagues who grew up with similar priorities. As students at Oberlin in the mid-seventies my friends and I argued about whether Herbert von Karajan or George Solti played better Beethoven. Had they been available we would have been trading Symphony Orchestra cards in lieu of baseball cards. (Come to think of it, that would be a fun virtual game, trading an oboe player for a cellist to build the strongest orchestra.)
I am not saying that singing in the church’s Youth Choir is the most important activity for a young person. And I am not saying that boating is not fun – those who know me know how much I enjoy it. But the bumper sticker about the bake sale gives pause for thought. And it seems that ballot propositions for tax increases in support of the schools are often voted down by an older generation that feels they’ve done their part. In reality, the older we get the more we depend on the young. We notice the first time our physician is younger than we are. One of the big social impacts of John Kennedy’s presidency was that so many Americans were suddenly older than their president. I know many people who felt that change very clearly. So what will it be like when we have a president who grew up playing video games instead of practicing the piano?
When I was a kid…
We all know the old saw: the old uncle rattles on about walking ten miles to school every day and about how easy kids have it now. But I’ll offer another twist. When I was a kid, a community of generous and encouraging organists welcomed me. They took me to concerts and organ-shop Open Houses, and invited me to dinner parties. I felt privileged to witness, even participate in heady conversations. Along with my routine of practicing and lessons and the occasional recital, these experiences were important to my early understanding of what it could mean to be an organist. If you ever have an opportunity to invite a young person to an AGO event or a concert, make the most it knowing how much impact it could have on a young artist.
You can also make the most of your own opportunities. The parish organist has few chances to hear others play – after all, everyone is at work on Sunday mornings. But when you’re vacationing, take a look at what’s going on in local churches. If you’re in a big city, there’s every chance you could hear something special – something that would inspire your work in the coming year, something you never heard before.
Bomb scare.
Shortly after the nine-eleven attacks I was leaving a job site and driving out of New York City with a couple trays of organ pipes in the back of my van. Leaving Manhattan, I went north on FDR Drive along the East River and got onto the ramp system of the Triborough Bridge to head back to New England. Let me set the scene in case you’ve never had that pleasure. The Triborough Bridge is actually of collection of three of four bridges (it’s hard to tell) and myriad ramps that connect the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. According to the New York State Department of Transportation, the bridge carries some 200,000 vehicles each day.
I was stopped by a State Trooper on the Triborough ramp (no I wasn’t speeding, they were stopping every vehicle) who kindly asked if I’d open the rear of my vehicle. He took a look at a rank of Principal and a rank of Trumpet pipes and asked, “What’re those?” My honest response revealed that the Trooper was likely not an AGO member. I offered to demonstrate and he invited me out of my car. With a hot gritty city wind blowing through my erstwhile hair and the dramatic Manhattan skyline in the background, I picked up an eight-footer, pointed it skyward, and blew into its mouth. It was fortunate that I had a copy of The Diapason in the car so I could share photos of organs that featured pipes similar to those in the car.  I was allowed to pass.
Last month we spent a college commencement weekend in Providence, Rhode Island.  That Saturday morning (May 26) we picked up the Providence Journal (colloquially know as Pro-Jo) in which I read an article that reminded me of my Triborough experience. The headline was, “PIPE ORGAN AT CENTER OF SCHOOL BOMB SCARE.” Written by John Castellucci, the article began:
The suspicious-looking object that forced the evacuation of Tolman High School on Thursday wasn’t a pipe bomb – it was part of a pipe organ.
Tolman Principal Frederick W. Silva said yesterday that a couple of students had pried the pipe loose from the school’s circa 1927 pipe organ, which was walled off in a recent renovation of the high school auditorium and forgotten.
Tolman’s 1300 students were sent home and state fire marshal’s bomb squad was called in after a teacher spotted the object in a second-floor locker and alerted school officials.
Bomb squad members couldn’t figure out what the object was. They destroyed it as a precaution, applying a small explosive charge.
Because the detonation wasn’t followed by a bigger explosion, officials concluded that the object probably wasn’t a bomb.
The preservationist in me is concerned that the bomb squad may have failed to document the provenance, material, and dimensions of the pipe before taking such a rash action. The article went on:
…But because it looked so sinister, Pawtucket police officials asked the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to get involved, handling the fragments over to a BATF agent late Thursday afternoon.
I’m sorry to report that BATF was apparently also unable to identify the object. The mystery was solved when the two students involved (both boys) confessed their deed. They were suspended for ten days.  Mr. Castellucci concludes:
…Their motive for taking the pipe organ part? “What they found out was they could make noises by blowing up into it,” Silva said.