Thursday, September 17, 2009

He played that song to death

     I have been retired from the bench for a while, but I'm dusting off the old organ shoes this weekend. The Methodist Church called me to substitute on Sunday, so Bach and I are getting reacquainted.
    When I first moved to Richmond, I decided to keep my organ skills current by playing for a Methodist church on the South side of town. Being a newcomer, I did not realize that I had just committed a terrible faux pas. No one ever crossed the river to the south side. It was just not done. Oh well, here I was, not only on the south side, but on Hull Street at that. As close to committing social suicide as I could possible come.
     I loved this church, however, because it reminded me of the one my grandparent's belonged to in York, SC. It was old red brick, with a long flight of stairs leading up to double front doors. Due to it's location in the wrong part of town, it had a small, elderly congregation. The youngest member of the choir was 65, the oldest probably in her late eighties, but I wasn't asking. The rest of the original congregation had either died or made the great white flight to the suburbs. I was the only congregant who still retained my natural hair color, my original teeth, and could drive after dark. We held choir rehearsals at 5 in the afternoon so everyone could skedaddle home and bolt the door before sunset. It was not, as I've said, the best part of town.
     I loved this church and I loved it's people. They were the last remnant of a culture that was disappearing. Gentle folk who talked in that old drawl of long, soft, vowels and dropped consonants, who smelled of lavendar and rosewater, and still rinsed their hair blue. They loved their Lord and their church, and were fiercely loyal to a  denomination that was hemorraghing members as fast as the other main stream Protestant churches. Average attendance on Sunday morning was 50. The hymns were still listed on a chalkboard at the front of the sanctuary, and the fifty faithful would make a joyful noise that would rattle the windows..
     They didn't like for me to take vacations, because it was too hard to find an organist willing to drive through the projects on a Sunday morning to reach the church. But it was Christmas, and I was going home. Fortunately, they were able to secure the services of a gentleman who also pounded the mighty Wurlitzer at the Byrd Theater on Saturday nights. He agreed to fill in, and I was off the hook.
     I knew when I got back to town after New Year's that something dreadful had happened. I had 15 messages from the choir, all urgent and full of panic. Call immediately, call ASAP, where are you, are you home?? I dialed the first number and got Miss Adelia Smith on the line.
     "Oh Beth, it was awful, just awful. You must promise you will never go on vacation again. We just couldn't go through this again."
      Slow down, I urged. Take a breath. Tell me what's going on.
     It seemed that the substitute organist was a rather portly fellow, perhaps topping the scales in the 300 pound area. He arrived on Sunday morning, rehearsed the choir, and proceeded to the choir loft. The prelude began as the choir waited in the hall for their cue to file in. Suddenly, this horrible cacophony of sounds filled the sanctuary. The choir members looked at each other with puzzled frowns. Was this some new contemporary piece? Was he playing Paul Hindemith in the Methodist church? The discordant chord lingered on, and on, and on, until they could stand it no longer. They opened the choir door to peep in, and saw the organist slumped over the keyboard, deathly white and unconscious. The minister and choir members rushed to the organ, and realized a crises was in place. Call 911, someone yelled, and not being of the cell phone generation, one of the ushers rushed to the church office to dial up the ambulance.
     Meanwhile, the chord played on and on, because no one knew how to turn off the organ, and no one could move the organist. He was too hefty for the aging ushers to lift him off the bench. No one in that crowd had bench pressed 300 pounds in over 50 years. The only solution was for the choir members to get on either side of him, lift his head off the keyboard, and balance him in a sitting position on the organ bench until the EMT's arrived.
     There they stood, three on each side, three behind, holding that dead weight still for all their might. Even after help arrived, there were obstacles to overcome. The body had to be loaded onto a gurney, manuevered out of the choir loft, then hauled down a flight of 25 very steep stairs. The attendants struggled to steady the body as it shifted from side to side, threatening to crash down the steps and land on the sidewalk. Finally, he was secured into the ambulance, transported to the hospital, and pronounced dead on arrival. Cause of death: organ failure.
     I do not mourn his death. He died doing what he loved best. He died in a church, for heaven's sake. That has to count for something on judgement day. I mourn the death of the Broad Rock Blvd. Methodist Church. It closed several years later, after the remaining parishoners had either passed away, gone to live with relatives or been shuttled off to nursing homes. Today, that beautiful old sacred building is closed down, stained glass windows covered with plywood, chains around the double front doors, weeds overtaking the parking lot. The neighborhood has become even more dangerous to enter, even though the stigma of crossing over the river has subsided. The church, locked and vacant, is still watching over the street, waiting, just waiting, until the spirit moves another generation to break through the chains, throw open the doors, and lift a joyful noise unto the Lord.
     I haven't played for a Methodist church since then. I don't believe in bad luck or superstitions or curses or omens or any of that stuff.  I am absolutely not afraid of being the substitute organist for a Methodist church, but if you don't hear from me on Monday, please check the choir loft at Bethel.

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