I once owned a farm in Africa. Sorry, wrong story.
I once resided in the small college town of Athens, West Virginia, home of Concord College, where my father coached football, taught physical education, and ran the men’s dorm on campus. Mother helped out with the dorm, a den mom to the male students. The early ’50’s were easy and graceful.
My parents, younger brother, Bob, and I lived in the apartment attached to the dorm, a splendid life during my Athens Elementary School years. Snows were deep and the summers close to heaven in the high elevation Appalachian Mountains. You could see your breath for many months during the long winters.
Every kid in town had a sled and a bike. I lived for sledding down the steep Girls Dorm Hill and riding my bike around campus and into Athens. There was a movie theater in town, admission a dime, a grocery store and a drug store, a Methodist church that we attended and one for the Baptists two blocks away, a gas station and a cemetery on the road to Princeton, and a barber shop operated by Mr. Litton. When I needed a haircut, I dropped in and casually advised Mr. Litton that my parents would pay him later.
Our town telephones were party lines, a first down for investigators if party lines had existed during my FBI career. Bob and I listened in on our neighbors when Mom wasn’t paying attention, keeping our breathing down, careful not to cough, fart, or drop the phone to go pee.
Mom and my grandmother, Nanny, played the piano daily at home and at church on Sundays. Nanny had also accompanied silent movies in the 1920’s while my grandfather, Big Daddy, ran the projector. We sang at home, hymns or whatever was currently on the charts on The Hit Parade on TV. Bob deliberately sang off key to annoy everyone. I also embraced the trombone at an age when my arm could not reach 7th position on the slide. We were a music family.
I took piano lessons from the elderly and legendary Miss Halroyd, who lived alone in a magnificent house not far from the elementary school. She was a gentle and soft spoken soul with remarkably beautiful hands and elegant fingers. She seemed to play without touching the keys. Many kids in town took lessons from her twice a week, taking turns to leave school and walk to her home. Looking back, Normal Rockwell was hiding around town and secretly painting everything we did.
Miss Halroyd hosted an annual evening spring concert to display the piano prowess of her many students. The event was held on the auditorium stage at Concord College and was attended by college and elementary school faculty, towns people, and children from all over. Everyone dressed up. The selection that I chose to play when I was age 10 was the old spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” I practiced and memorized the piece till I had it cold. We did not use sheet music, performing without a net. I was listed in the polished program as Jackson Owens, my pet family name.
I waited backstage for my turn, nerves crawling yet confident. I walked onto the brightly lit stage in front of an audience of hundreds, knowing that my brother was out there being pinched hard by my mother to keep him from laughing. I wore a spotless sport coat, dark pants, Sunday shirt, wide tie, brown shoes and closely cropped hair thanks to Mr. Litton, a budding FBI agent if I ever saw one. I faced the audience, smiled and formally sat down on the piano bench, shoulders erect to correct my naturally stooped posture. I slowly placed both hands over the piano keys, lowered my fingers and began to play, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” AN OCTAVE TOO LOW! Thrown, befuddled, struck stupid by all those lower notes, cast adrift by the piano devil, I abruptly stopped playing, stood, walked to the front of the stage, bowed deeply and with absolute professionalism like I’d seen on the Lawrence Welk Show, and formally walked off stage into the dark embrace of backstage, enveloped in thunderous applause that smothered the gagging laughter of my brother .