Friday, April 13, 2012

On meeting Beethoven's Fifth

In grade 10, at Mount Forest District High School, I was part of a four-some along with Gwen, Lois, and Henny. In the mosaic of our class, we were the 'serious' ones: plain-faced, studious, intense. Walking through the school yard together, we noticed how funny Mr. Gilbert was, how sophisticated Miss Taylor was. While George was the nicest boy in the class, Larry was the cutest. We drilled each other on Latin verbs and chemistry formulas, and wondered what questions would be on the next exam. We looked over enviously at vivacious Deirdre and pretty Wendy, who always seemed to be laughing and flirting with the circle of boys that constantly flocked around them.

Then a new girl joined our class. Her name was Pam Russner. She and her family had moved to Mount Forest from Provo, Utah. Her mother cut hair out of their home. Her father did some kind of agricultural engineering. They were Mormons, even more exotic to me than the handful of Jews in our small town in rural Ontario. I had never met a Mormon before.

Pam was strange and fascinating. While the rest of us spent hours arranging our permed hair, or backcombing our beehives, Pam wore her straight blond hair in a simple Dutch boy's bob. She didn't seem to care about clothes – or boys. She loped through the school yard like a wolf, body canted forward, always slightly ahead of us. She didn't speak a lot, but when she did, she said exactly what she thought – even to the teachers, which thrilled and shocked we four timid girls.

Pam taught Lois and I to fence, lending us the equipment – the black mesh face-masks, heavy white jackets and knickers, the padded gloves and slim dangerous epees. She demonstrated the lunge and riposte, the parry and thrust. We practised on the school's auditorium stage, sheltered from view behind the heavy grey house curtains. Lois and I faced each other a short distance apart, each foot deliberately placed at a 45-degree angle on the strip of masking tape Pam had laid down on the oak boards. When Pam declared, “En garde!”, we bent our hips and thighs into a half-squat, crooked our left arm and hoisted it behind our shoulder, and thrust forward our right hand which held the epee. Pam checked our body positions, stood back and ordered, “Fence!” We shuffled back and forth in a crab-like dance, waving the epees and poking at each other. Afterwards, back in our pleated grey wool skirts and white cotton blouses, we swished through the school halls, feeling slightly exotic ourselves.

One fall weekend as the maples were turning orange and red, Pam invited the four of us to a sleepover at her house. Her parents owned a ranch bungalow high on a hill in the countryside outside Mount Forest. This was a rare occasion for me: I looked forward to it all week with growing excitement. One of our parents dropped us off on the Saturday morning. Pam met us at the front door, and immediately ushered us into her mother's home salon, a small many-windowed room looking out on the garden. A flowered divan nestled against one wall next to a green leatherette seat topped by a cone-shaped metal hair dryer. We bunched together on the divan as Pam's mother deftly washed and styled each head of hair in turn, while Pam produced the odd laconic remark. In the afternoon, we headed outside to the steep paved road. Pam brought out two yellow skateboards, oblivious to the potential ruin of our new hair-dos. We teetered on the skateboards, practising short runs on the tarred driveway, and then Pam challenged us to the hilly road. Two of us looked out for cars, while the other two zoomed down the hill, hearts pounding, hair-dos frazzling. By some miracle, there were no fractured arms, dislocated shoulders or broken necks.

Supper was take-out Chinese food; dessert, crunchy fortune cookies. As the sky darkened, Pam led us into the living room. A long black leather chesterfield fronted by a heavy glass coffee table faced the large picture window, flanked by a teak credenza topped by a bold abstract painting. On an adjacent wall, a low matching bookcase held a long row of record albums and stereo equipment – an amplifier and turntable. Two large speakers stood in opposite corners of the room. There was a real Persian rug on the floor.

At Pam's direction, we pushed the coffee table underneath the window and pulled the drapes closed. She instructed us to lie down on the carpet and close our eyes. Then she pulled one of the records out of its sleeve, placed it carefully under the turntable's needle and turned out the lights. She lay down beside us. The room fell dark, black as the country sky outside. No one dared to speak.

We heard the faint hiss of the needle tracking in the grooves and then the room exploded with the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony: Dah Dah Dah Dum! Dah Dah Dah Dum! I had never heard anything like it before. My knowledge of classical music was limited to the simple Mozart minuets and Clementi studies that I thumped through in my weekly piano lessons with Sister Mary Lolament. At home, we sometimes hauled out an old portable RCA Victor record-player and listened to The Sound of Music or Oklahoma. This music felt wild, fierce and powerful. The sound hurled at me, as if it was a live thing. As the music surged around, my sprouting teenage body tingled with the urgency of the violins and timpani. I felt I was racing across the fields on a runaway stallion. When the notes of the last movement finally died away, we lay where we were, silent in the dark room, until at last Pam rose and turned on the lights.


  1. I absolutely adore this story. Not only because it is superbly crafted to build into a crescendo of excitement (fencing, skateboarding...) as you discover the power of Beethoven's Fifth and classical music, but also because it makes my heart thump too along with yours as a I remember wild and thrilling times of discovery and wonder in my own life. Superb writing, and as usual, beautifully and richly detailed.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Sherry! I'll keep at it... Mary Lou

  3. Great writing Mary Lou! I love your rich details, and your initial description of Pam and her wolf-like movement. What a great character she would be in a novel.

  4. Thanks Allegra! I'll leave the novel-writing to you, my dear!