Arf Arf!

For those who have written asking whatever happened to the parts about the Big Red Band, I’ll get back there shortly. Those of you who know me and my writing understand that I tend to wander around a lot on the page

Where was I? Oh, yes, many pages ago I was buying a flute, which meant a trip to the music store in downtown Parkersburg to look at a catalogue. As those of you have kindly pointed out, I got all the info about the music store wrong in an earlier entry. It seems the name of the store was Shroeder’s, (no relation to our esteemed band leader, Frank Shroeder). One of the pleasures of writing this memoir is knowing that my West Virginia friends out there will correct all the parts I get wrong. Thanks to everyone who is helping me.

The music store downtown… But first, allow me one of my digressions. For some reason, I remember that this store always reminded me, when I walked in the door, of the country store we used to hike to in Walker, and other West Virginia country stores of that time. I’ll bet many of you remember these stores. Old places built of, on the outside, grey, weathered wood. Inside they smelled of wooden floors, wooden counters and shelves, and dust, usually something fruity, maybe a barrel of apples or bushel of peaches, depending on the season. There was often a giant wheel of cheddar cheese, sometimes covered with cheesecloth. The cheese would sweat small beads of oil, and you could order a slice, which would be wrapped in butchers paper and tied with a string and it was delicious. The soda was in a large cooler, bottles jammed down in drifts of ice: orange crush, grape or other fruits that you never see any more, Cokes and Pepsis. You could buy about anything in those stores, and the old ladies and gents behind the counter were always nice to us kids with our nickels and dimes clutched in our grimy little fists.

The music store didn’t sell produce or cheese, but I remember it having long wooden floors, wooden shelves and wooden counters that had their own comfortable smell of age. They sold instruments, mostly guitars, in the front, records in the middle and in the back were glass booths where you could play records and make a decision on which you wanted to buy. No one seemed to care that you would go in a booth and spend an hour listening to records and come out and not buy anything.

Music was in the air much of the day around our house. My mother kept the radio on, a small, white plastic model that sat on a shelf in the kitchen, while she worked around the house. When my dad was home on the weekends, it was tuned to big band music; during the week my mother listened to a local, top-ten station. Some of the songs I remember clearly, many of which are still played today, were Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, A Teenager in Love, Lonely Boy and Lipstick On Your Collar. Well, maybe they don’t play them much anymore other than on oldies stations.

It was around this time, seventh or eighth grade, when my passion for classical music was born. It must have been a hot Saturday in the summer. Saturday, because my dad was home. We – my sister, mom and dad and I — were all in the kitchen. My dad was sitting at the white metal/porcelain kitchen table. He had on his weekend pants and a no-sleeve undershirt, what we now refer to as a wife-beater. We were kidding around, and the radio was playing a big-band show. The announcer said they were going to have a contest. He would play an old big-band tune, and the first person to call in and name the band would win a prize, which was an LP — a long playing record — and a case of soda. The tune started and my dad immediately said, Tommy Dorsey; I called the station and told them, and we won.

This was astounding. As far as I know, we had never won anything. The radio people took the information and sent us the paperwork. The next weekend, my dad drove to the grocery store and picked up the soda, a case of coke, and dropped me off at the store to pick out a record. And why did he drop me off? The store involved in the contest was our nemesis, J.C. Penny. Thank God it wasn’t Monkey Wards. Dad wouldn’t go in, but he figured that we would take the free record because giving it away would probably harm Penny’s and make them more vulnerable in the ongoing war that was Sears against Penny’s and Wards. (See earlier entries for more on Sears Roebuck.)

I had to ask directions to the record section because it was hidden away at the very back of the second floor of the store, behind the lady’s underwear section, which was mortifying, but oddly fascinating to walk through. I fought to keep my eyes straight ahead as I made my way through ranks of bras and underpants. Two bins held around fifty records, divided up into a popular music section and a much smaller selection of classical music. For some reason, I was seized with the notion of buying a classical record. I knew what classical music was, I had seen orchestras, dimly, on the neighbor’s television, and I had heard orchestras on the radio. Many cartoons of the time showed orchestras. I knew it was music that smart people listened to, rather than popular songs like How Much Was that Doggy in the Window. I thought if I listened to classical music, I too would become a smart person. I pictured myself sitting in a fancy living room, maybe smoking a pipe (I was an adult in this image) reading a book and listening to this type of music. Off to the side, sitting on the sofa would be my lovely imaginary wife, dressed only in a bra and panties.

No! That was a joke! I didn’t think that at all!

But how would I know what record to buy? For some reason, I decided that the best classical composers would be the ones with the longest, most foreign-sounding names. It turns out that this was not a bad way to choose, as I left the store with Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #2 in C minor, one of the world’s great romantic pieces.

At home, my sister was disappointed by my selection. And it was then that we faced the next hurdle: we didn’t own a record player. Or at least we didn’t as far as I knew. Dad took us into the living room.

There was a large piece of furniture that I assumed was there mostly to hold a lamp and a couple of vases. I knew there was a radio in there, but we hadn’t listened to it for years, not since we got the small white plastic one. This was the sort of radio that when you turned it on it took some time to warm up. The sort of radio you could smell as it emitted a familiar (and somehow comforting) odor of dust and hot tubes. Dad opened the radio part, then from underneath he rolled out a regular turntable. I didn’t even know it was in there. We didn’t own any records other than the new one I had just bought. Well, actually we did, we had a half-dozen Disney records that we listened to when we were smaller. What did we play these on? I don’t remember.

Dad turned everything on, and we sat down to listen. Those first, brooding chords of the Rachmaninoff began and in seconds I was enthralled. I have no recollection of what anyone’s else’s reaction was, but I felt an entire world opening, a world that, like the record turntable, I had not known existed.

The next Saturday we won again. This time we picked up a case of orange soda, and my sister got to choose the record. She went with Frank Sinatra, which I didn’t have any interest in, you could hear him anytime on the radio, but I have a feeling the rest of the family was pleased with the choice.

The next week we won again and were permanently banned by the radio station from ever entering the contest again. This time the soda was root beer, and I was back at Penny’s facing the record bin. I employed my tried and true method and came home with Shostakovich’s (the longest foreign name in the bin) Preludes and Fugues. I put the record on, expecting Rachmaninoff, which is not what I got. The pianist started off innocently enough, but soon was hitting what even I knew were “wrong notes.” The rest of the record was the same and after listening to both sides, I was completely confused. I know now that this was the first time I had encountered dissonance in music, but I didn’t know that word and neither did anyone else in my family, at least when it was used as a musical term. I asked my father, who understood what I was talking about. He explained that once, years before, he had attended an Erroll Garner concert, a black jazz pianist who played in somewhat the same way. Dad said Garner was the man “who played the right wrong notes.” Making music that might sound wrong, but who, after awhile, made those wrong notes work. This was jazz, my father said, but the idea was the same with the Shostakovich. Give it time, listen and learn.

I wish I could say that I sat back down and listened to the Shostakovich again and the scales fell from my eyes, and ears, but it wasn’t so. I wore out the Rachmaninoff record, but the Shostakovich, not so much. I think I learned to appreciate it, and came to somewhat understand modern classical music, but it didn’t fill me with the same yearning that Rachmaninoff and other romantic composers did.

We ended up giving most of the sodas away. We almost never drank soda at home. I don’t know if it was because we were too poor to afford it, or that my mother didn’t think it was good for us. My parents didn’t drink any of it, and after a half dozen bottles of the various flavors my sister and I had no interest in it either. For some reason this was vastly different from those rare sodas we drank after walking miles down a dirt road, the sodas from the old country stores. There was so much of it, three cases stacked one atop the other in our kitchen, and it was so sweet to us that I remember drinking a couple of bottles, the way I’d seen other people drink them, and then feeling sick. I’ve hardly ever consumed a commercial soda since. Thank you, radio station. You turned me into a classical music lover and made a big contribution to my health all at the same time by teaching me to dislike soft drinks.

And because I love to get songs stuck in other people’s heads, here are the lyrics to How Much Is That Doggie in the Window. You remember the tune. Sing along to it, and make sure you add the “arf arf” at the end of the chorus.

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I must take a trip to California

And leave my poor sweetheart alone

If he has a dog, he won’t be lonesome

And the doggie will have a good home

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I read in the papers there are robbers

With flashlights that shine in the dark

My love needs a doggie to protect him

And scare them away with one bark

I don’t want a bunny or a kitty

I don’t want a parrot that talks

I don’t want a bowl of little fishies

He can’t take a goldfish for a walk

Arf! Arf!

3 thoughts on “Arf Arf!

  1. When a freshman in college, I went to an Erroll Garner concert. That was my Rachmaninoff moment. Vivid images and sounds of that concert still remain. At the time, I didn’t even know how to spell jazz, but that evening was simply stirring. Also, I, too, remember your Dad as a remarkably talented and fine fellow. John

    Like

  2. What a smart man your dad was in so many ways.
    BTW, I used to listen to that Rachmaninoff piece as a kid, too. Took me out of Columbus, Ohio, and I was glad of it.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s