The late Don Joiner was a first cousin of mine. He was 14 years older than me and was a gifted musician. He played the piano and organ as a teenager at Harmony Baptist Church, the place where our family worshipped twice every Sunday. Don’s considerable talent is perhaps what inspired my mother to arrange for me to take music lessons.
In the second grade, at Pinehurst Elementary School, I began taking piano from Mrs. Myrtle Peavy. She was also our school principal and had a no-nonsense approach to discipline.
Ben Reed was a classmate, friend, and fellow piano student. We stayed after school two days a week for our lessons with Miss Myrtle. In the free time before our sessions, we’d throw a baseball, hang upside down from the monkey bars, or see who could go the highest on the swings.
On one of those afternoons Ben led us on a daring expedition through tangled vines that had encapsulated a small abandoned building. He took me there to show me Dock Watson’s thumb. Dock was well ahead of me in school, but I knew him because he lived only a couple of miles from our house. His thumb had been severed in a shop-class accident then put in a jar of denatured alcohol. I suppose it was placed in the window sill to remind young boys to be careful around electric saws. Dock’s thumb was the only thing left in that run-down building. I guess nobody knew what to do with it.
Miss Myrtle selected a piece for my first recital called “The Wise Old Owl.” She suggested I sing the catchy lyrics, “Hoot hoot hoot goes the wise old owl, hoot hoot hoot goes he.” She later decided we would forgo the singing. She didn’t say why, and I didn’t ask. I had excellent volume, so it must have been something else.
Ben and I took the summer off from music. When we returned to school for third grade, he told me he wasn’t going to keep taking lessons, that piano was more for girls. I figured Ben knew what he was talking about. He was the best athlete in our class, plus he had a girlfriend, the stunningly beautiful Kay Bowen. When I got home from school that day, I told Mama that Ben and I were quitting piano. I thought presenting this as a joint decision would give it more credibility. Mama said if that’s what I wanted to do then she wouldn’t stop me, but that I would have to be the one to tell Miss Myrtle.
That complicated my plans considerably. Miss Myrtle was nice to me, but her paddling skills were legendary. I had a notion her music students received a disproportionate amount of mercy.
David Dunaway, a cousin of mine, was a year behind me at Pinehurst Elementary. I told him this story of my childhood dilemma at a family reunion a few years ago. He laughed and said he knew why I was afraid to talk to Miss Myrtle. He said she paddled the two of us for jumping out a window in the boys’ room. I remember leaping through the windows a few times, but I don’t recall getting punished. I am, however, blessed with a gift for disremembering things that are incriminating.
I couldn’t summon the courage to tell Miss Myrtle that I wouldn’t be back. I could out-wrestle anybody in our class, so it didn’t’ bother me if most of her students were girls. If anyone made it an issue, I knew I could put them on the wrong side of a Full Nelson. Or I could employ the vice-like grip of my renowned scissor hold. Once I locked my legs around someone’s stomach, the only sane option was to surrender by crying, “Uncle!”
I kept taking piano, but I was careful to never practice more than the minimum suggested time. An alarm clock helped ensure that I didn’t exceed 30 minutes per day. I plinked aimlessly through my second year of music, plagued by a lack of enthusiasm.
I didn’t really believe Miss Myrtle would paddle me for leaving the music business behind. I think I was more afraid that she would ask me why I was quitting, a question I didn’t have a good answer for. That small hint of misplaced fear was enough motivation to keep me on the piano bench for another school term.
Not long after finishing the third grade, I found a new source of inspiration. In the next column we’ll delve into the mindset of a fourth-grade cotton-picking piano player. Sometimes life offers us difficult choices. At other times it’s a breeze. My breeze came from a big green fan in the living room, a fan that kept perfect rhythm with the two simple songs I knew how to play.