The Flute-a-phone

from Songs of Gentle Sadness

By Buie Seawell

My Grandfather knew everything.  He was a judge.  He fixed grandfather clocks.  He wrote poems, hymns and music.  And once he sent me a flute-a-phone.

Nobody in my immediate family was particularly musically inclined.  Mom never even sang at church.  Dad, son of my amazing Grandfather, did sing when he rode us places in the car.  Poorly.  I learned songs from him.  Mostly Burl Ives’ ballads and’ of course, hymns at church.  Words.  I learned the words.  I couldn’t carry a tune.  I have no rhythm.

But the flute-a-phone made tunes.  In the box with the small, black plastic instrument was a booklet, Tunes for the Flute-a-phone, and a tablet for writing music.  Discovering that pictures of notes on five-line paper could be rendered, even by me, as musical sounds was for me, a ten year old, profoundly exciting.  People from musical families will laugh, but I grew up not knowing anything about music stuff.  Music was pure magic.  Ms. Townsend, my friend Sarah’s mom, said she could teach me to sing, but my Mom thought it would be a waste of time and money.  There’s this joke that Dad use to tell about teaching pigs to sing, but I can’t remember exactly how it goes.

The summer I got my flute-a-phone our family went to the beach.  We did this most summers for a week or two.  As we – Mom, Dad, Sis, Judge my dog and I –drove along in our black Chevrolet through the godless July heat and humidity towards Crescent Beach, SC, my father suggested I not, “toot that damn thing again” until we got there.  I didn’t, but now it was hot, humid and boring.  After a while we sang “Fox” and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hush Little Baby.”

My sister, Terrell, was a baby – well 2 or 3 years old – and cute.  She liked my flute-a-phone.  My dog Judge, named in honor of my grandfather, slobbered out the window as we drove, but he never minded my flute-a-phone tooting very much.  Mom and Dad smoked, and about halfway to Crescent Beach stopped for a Budweiser.  Me and Sis had a Coke and Judge lapped some water from the filling station water can, which Dad poured slowly on my dog’s red tongue.

My room at the beach cottage was at the far end of the second floor and had windows on both outside walls.  Wonderful ocean breezes came through the open windows.  In the early mornings and late afternoons I blew notes that with my door shut went out the same windows unheard by anyone but me and Judge.

Each day our family walked the sandy road that led to the ocean:  Mom, sometimes carrying, sometimes cajoling Sis along, Dad with fishing pole and shrimp in a paper for bait, and me and Judge.  We would stay down at the beach until after lunch-time or until Dad tired of casting for Whitings and Flounder.  Sis and I were never ready to return when nap-time came.  Mom would talk of needing naps and that we were getting fried by the sun, and Dad would say, “That’s enough.  We’re going back to the cottage now.”  And off we went.

One particularly wonderful day, when the fish were biting, the breeze blowing on shore, the tide pools warm and wondrous with little fish and fiddler crabs, I talked my parents into letting me and Sis and Judge stay for thirty more minutes.  I promised to watch Sis “like a hawk,” and to return not later than 1:30 PM to our cottage.  A long time passed in the joys of tepid water pools and catching minnows.  We put them in a red tin pail of Sis’ while Judge chased the fiddler crabs and barked at gulls.  It was very good.

Then we started home.  Across the hot beach sand of low tide I carried Sis, towels and pail.  At the sandy road I put her down to walk awhile, and called Judge to come on.  As I turned back to the road toward the cottage, Sis had run ahead and was quickly joined by Judge, the two of them squealing, barking and running.  I walked along and just watched, enjoying seeing my sister’s chubby legs churning like crazy to keep up with Judge.

Suddenly, but as if in infinitely slow motion, a pickup truck skidded around the corner of the road ahead of them.  I tore into a panicked run.  But they were far too far for me to reach in time.  I screamed, “Sis!” as loudly as I could.  The truck slid sideways in the sand only feet away from my little sister and Judge.  And at that moment, Judge jumped – up and sideways and onto Sis – and both flopped down in the low shrubs off the shoulder of the road.  The truck skidded back into line and roared off toward the beach, carrying a guy and his girlfriend, beers in hand for an afternoon on the beach.  I don’t think they even saw Sis or Judge.  The girl waved carelessly at me as they passed, laughing.

Terrell was crying and running toward our cottage.  I was crying and running after her.  Judge had disappeared.  Mom and Dad came running down the wooden steps of our cottage.  Sis was telling how, “Judge jumped on me.  Judge jumped on me!” and continuing to sob.  Dad saw the panic on my face and yelled, “What the hell happened?!”  He was always so sensitive when trouble erupted.

After I had tried to explain; tried to say how wonderful Judge was; tried to say how frightened I’d been, we all went inside.  Dad said I should stay in my room and think about not having been “very responsible” in looking after Sis.  In a while Judge came home.  I opened my door a crack and he joined me in exile.  I lay on my bed.  Judge sat on the floor.  The breeze, like grace immersed my naked body.

I took my flute-a-phone and found “Hush Little Baby” in the tunes book.  The notes floated out my windows searching for a god to thank.

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