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In tribute to the teacher 'who made me hit the bottle'

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Even with my generation of baby boomers, there’s likely to be a diminishing number of folks who still remember the classic W.C. Field’s line, “It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her…”

By about the fourth grade, or earlier, I’d begun to collect and share humor as a means of gaining positive strokes from my peers. A few years into my comedy “career,” a friend loaned me a copy of MAD Magazine, which introduced me to the wonderful world of satire, puns and the double entendre. Perhaps I’d heard a few jokes or stories of this genre before, but with MAD, it was page-after-page of satirical articles and cartoons. It was with great anticipation I’d await the next issue and its zany character, Alfred E. Newman, with his oversized ears, freckled face, silly, gap-toothed grin, always asking, “What? Me worry?” After a 67-year run, MAD’s final issue was published July 4, 2019.

The title of this piece is with a tip of the hat to both W.C. and Alfred E. Originally, I titled it, “My Teacher Made Me Hit the Bottle.” Unfortunately, there are incidences from time to time in which irresponsible teachers have abused and/or contributed to the delinquency of their charges. This particular recollection is emphatically not that case! As you’ll see, it’s a double entendre. The mentor I’m recalling was my third-grade teacher, Mrs. McFarland. A large, red-haired woman with a generous bosom, I remember she generally wore dark dresses, dark hose, and dark lace-up shoes with short heels. Generally, I wouldn’t remember some of those sartorial specifics, but when you’re staring down at your desk because you haven’t done your homework, and she was slowly, methodically stalking the aisles with her laser-beam eyes, your own eyes tended to sweep the floor and pick up certain fashion details you might ordinarily miss.

In spite of the fact she was demanding and tolerated little, if any, nonsense, there was a wonderful side of her most of us anticipated with great pleasure; I know I did. Mrs. McFarland loved music, and she enjoyed sharing it. I have no idea as to the content of her job description in 1951, but no doubt it was strongly focused on the “3 R’s.” We certainly received a robust dose of the 3 R’s, as well as some science and social studies, but she always found time for music.

In addition to the rhythm band kit, which I imagine all of the primary teachers were issued, Mrs. McFarland had added two special musical instruments of her own. One was an old wind-up Victrola. Basically, a big black box about two feet square, it stood roughly three to four feet high. It was hinged on the top (at the back) so you could reach inside to place a record on the turn table. On the right side of the box about halfway down, was a shiny, chrome-plated handle used to wind up the turn table. After a few rotations of the handle, the turn table would begin to spin. Then you’d very carefully move the arm containing the needle to the edge of the spinning record and gently place it on the outer edge of the thick, black disc. Voila! Music! Some years later, my sister and I received a more modern (and considerably smaller) record player for Christmas, but I believe the one in Mrs. McFarland’s class was the first one I ever saw or heard.

In many ways the second instrument resembled a coat rack. Made mostly of wood, there were two vertical end pieces about four feet tall, braced so they rested on the floor. The end pieces were connected at the top with a horizontal rod about four feet long, giving it the appearance of a coat rack. Suspended from the rod, eight or so inches apart, were eight brown bottles, each filled with varying amounts of water. Some may’ve guessed it was a bottle xylophone! Using her home piano or a pitch pipe, she’d carefully poured water into the bottles until her instrument produced a perfect scale — at least to the ears of a bunch of third graders. When I described this miraculous musical instrument to my parents, one of them replied they knew the source of the brown bottles — Mr. McFarland was the local pharmacist!

As might be expected, when it came time for musical activities being chosen to play the bottle xylophone was a very big deal, but one the performer approached with trepidation. Thinking we might break it, at first most of us were afraid to hit the bottle, so it took some coaxing on Mrs. McFarland’s part. If the brown-bottle xylophone represented the peak of our orchestral instrumentation, most of us agreed that rhythm sticks were the pits. Basically “rhythm sticks” were nothing more than drum sticks that were missing the bead on one end. The fact that they came in a variety of colors added little, if any to their desirability. Even to third graders, a stick is a stick is a stick. To the best of my recollection, Mrs. McFarland over the course of the school year made sure that each of us had the opportunity to make that arduous, but rewarding musical journey from “serf” of the rhythm sticks to “King” or “Queen” of the bottle xylophone.

Fast forward more than a decade. As a college junior, I was enrolled in a year-long music history course at Appalachian. As a music education major, music history became one of my favorite undergraduate courses. At some point, our professor, Dr. Erneston, presented a unit on ethno-musicology — simply stated music of other cultures.

During this unit we learned of the gamelan orchestra found in different parts of Asia, particularly in Indonesia. Basically, a gamelan orchestra consists mostly of several xylophone-like instruments wherein different size metal “bowls” are inverted and placed on a stand or suspended from a rack a foot or so off the ground; the player sits on folded legs and plays the “bowls,” more correctly labeled “metallophones,” with one or more mallets in each hand.

The reason gamelan music sounds so different to western ears is much of it is based on a five or seven-note scale; we westerners use an eight-note scale. In an interesting marriage of cultures, Dr. Erneston pointed out that the French composer Claude Debussy became fascinated with the sound having heard gamelan orchestras at both the 1889 and 1890 Paris Expositions. These musical experiences later influenced some of his compositions.

Fast forwarding again, a little less than a decade, and many things have changed. I’m now married and my wife and I are working in Asia. Assuming we’d return to the US in a few years, we traveled often and as extensively as we could.

During a two-week tour of Southeast Asia, we spent a few days on the exotic island of Bali. On one of our first nights, we visited a small village where we attended a culture show featuring shadow puppets, ketjak dancers, and a gamelan orchestra. Sitting on wooden benches in the village center, we were surrounded on three sides by bamboo torches. What few electrical lights the village possessed were focused on the stage. Like any well-planned production, the evening’s performance was a gradual crescendo that rose from comical shadow puppets to the exciting and unique sound of a male chorus and dancers performing the ketjak, also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. As the dancers waved their arms as if in battle and rapidly chanted “ketjak,” it was easy to understand the dance has its roots as a trance-inducing exorcism dance.

The setting, costumes, dancing, vocal chorus, and especially the gamelan were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was an incredibly mystical experience; we were truly mesmerized. In this panoply of dance and drama, the musical accompaniment –much like that of films— was ever-present. In one of those bizarre, dream-like moments in which seemingly disparate experiences briefly converge in one’s consciousness, for a fleeting moment, I thought of three people — Nick Erneston, Claude Debussy and Hattie McFarland — the teacher who’d “made” me hit the bottle. “Thank you, Mrs. McFarland!”

Daniel W. Mitchum is a former teacher at Statesville High School.

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