Peggy Keener: Going out on a high note

Published 5:25 pm Friday, January 20, 2023

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To be the organist of Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church in the 1950s, one had to be recognizably talented, but also quick on the draw. You see, this organ was not just any old musical instrument. This was a pipe organ! An in-your-face kind of pipe organ that the Presbyterians held in exceptionally high esteem.

Even the Episcopalians and Lutherans sucked in their collective breaths the first time they looked upon the bronze pipes that covered the entire front wall of the Presbyterian sanctuary. There they stood, proud pipes touching even prouder pipes, in varying heights looking for all the world like a rigid row of pencils in a giant plastic pocket protector. The splendor of it was … well … splendid.

Yes, indeed, the Presbyterians took every occasion to boast among themselves about those pipes, comparing them shamelessly to the lesser organs housed along the church-lined street of Austin’s church row. There was no need to name names. Those churches knew who they were.

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But, unfortunately, all was not well with the beloved organ. It was facing the waning days of its life expectancy. The clearest evidence of its most aggrieved affliction was one errant note in the treble clef. The moment the organ’s on-switch was flipped, it began to play. Eeeeeee. Lamentably it wasn’t a whispered eeeeeee, but rather an eeeeeee that rasped the ear drums of even the least complaining of the congregation.

The result of this lamentable malady was that the organist was never able to play a tranquil background accompaniment to a prayer, or a poem, or any peaceful utterance by the minister. And whenever the amen of a communal hymn ended, or the choir anthem finished, the organ had to be shut off faster than a butcher hacking up a ham bone. Forget about silent prayers truly being silent while a background of eeeeeee rang in the eardrums of the saintly. It just didn’t work. Indeed, it was enough to throw the parishioners’ reverence to the celestial winds.

As if this were not enough, sometimes the congregation went right on singing thinking that the delayed stoppage of eeeeeee was the introduction to the next hymnal verse. As you can deduce, the Central Presbyterian organist had tension-provoked ulcers brought on by this duty-bound obligation. It was speeding up her advancement into an early old age. Occasionally she lost the ability to turn the organ off at the precise moment the musical interlude ended and the spoken gospel began. Sometimes, in the throes of a mental glitch, she didn’t flip the switch at all and The Lord’s Prayer was accompanied by the vexing eeeeeee. Without a doubt, Sunday was the most angst riddled day of her week.

You see, it wasn’t as if eeeeeee varied even slightly in pitch or volume. Rather it doggedly remained the same, like an obstinate musical fingernail scratching across a holy blackboard. Former spiritually minded folks began fortifying themselves for the onslaught with the thought of slugging down all the communion wine before it had a chance to be served. Something had to be done.

Ultimately, the ungodly eeeeeee caused emotions to peak. Alas, the congregation split into two impassioned camps: 1. Repair the organ (at great expense) or 2. Build a new church (at even greater expense). An un-Presbyterian-like debate went on for months with not even a hint of a compromise. Was it even possible to compromise? Did it really make sense to have a polished, rectified pipe organ in a crumbling building? Did it really make sense to go to all the pricey trouble to erect an entire new structure just because of an occasional uncaptured eeeeeee that had slipped past the organist’s fingers? Even God seemed unable to reach a decision.

To be continued.