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James R. Stout

An Old Pump Organ and Something New

            I was 10-years-old and spending a week with my grandparents on their farm. The only thing that was different in the room that I stayed in was the old pump organ. It was what was known as a “field pump organ”. It was smaller than a regular organ, but that was on purpose. It was originally made to be a portable organ and was sometimes called a “Chaplain’s Organ”. It was made by an American company named Etsey Pump Organ Company in Vermont in about 1935. These types of organs were used by small churches in a time when electricity had not yet been brought into rural areas of the country or it was for church services held outside on location. Now, I had seen and heard the organ before because my father had found it, bought it, and made repairs to the baffles and a couple of sticking keys. For a time, it was in his shop and occasionally my mother would play the organ for her own enjoyment. Mom could read music well but had originally learned to play the piano by ear. She took piano lessons later in life as an adult so that she could play better.

            For some reason that I have no idea now why, my parents had brought the organ over to the farm and it was put in the front bedroom. I could speculate on it now, but that is all that it would be. A speculation. So, this was the summer that I was 10 and I spent most of the day outside. I explored the 760 acres of land that my grandfather either owned or leased. I never gave a thought to snakes or such. There were no feral hogs to worry about either. As soon as I could finish breakfast, I would head out the door to explore the farm on foot. I always carried my grandfather’s 1947 Remington bolt action .22 caliber rifle with me and a canteen of water. I still have that rifle and it is well-oiled and maintained. It’s leaning up against the wall by the TV as I write this. The rifle was for sending armadillos to Armadillo Heaven. They were one of only two animals that I was allowed to shoot. They dug holes in the pastures which could be a hazard for the cattle. They also would burrow under the fence around the garden and go after the tender young sprouts. The other animal that I was allowed to shoot was a crow. My grandfather had a very strong dislike for crows given their appetite for the cornfield and garden. He told me that he didn’t ever want to see me shoot any other kind of bird and I never did.

            I’d hike through the fields, the thickets, and the wooded areas of the farm and given that it was quite hot I would collect several pounds of dirt that joined my sweat and this combined with my being brown with a summer tan made me look like I was from below the border. I also had a route that I would take. It was probably about 5 miles of walking. My favorite stopping place was a fairly new “tank” (that’s what we called ponds) that came about when an oil company had been doing some sounding on the land in 1964 and struck an artesian well. My grandfather sent a sample of the water to Texas A&M to make sure that it was fit to drink, and he was informed it was about as pure as spring water can get. So, he had a man with a bulldozer come out and dig a tank. This was done while the spring was temporarily capped. Once the bulldozer was finished, Grandpa opened the flow from the pipes that he had installed, and it filled the tank up to the bream. I might add that it has never run dry since. It is still fed by that artesian well. It’s the only tank on the property that is clear enough to see the bottom. For some reason, the cattle won’t go into that tank. I guess it’s not dirty enough for them! Well, I would have already drunk all the water in my canteen by the time I got to that tank. Grandpa had also installed a spigot so that you could turn it on and drink out of it. He kept an old tin ladle hanging on a nail on a tree for drinking out of the spigot. But I usually just drank out of my hand or filled the canteen and drank out of it.

            I would continue my route and go through the cornfield, approximately 15 acres of it, cross over a creek, shimmy under a barbed wire fence, and get to the county road that was 1.2 miles from the farmhouse. I know the distance because I now live on the land where the county road would pass by and where I would access it. My front double-gate entryway once had what we called a “gap”. It was about 4 wooden fence posts attached to barbed wire that you could open and lay on the ground to get through and it was held closed with a taught wire loop that hung over a stationary fence post. I would walk back to the farmhouse down that road, stopping to say hello to Archie and Janie MacGregor who lived in a small house about 3/10’s of a mile from where I now live. All of us kids were taught to call them “Aunt Janie and Uncle Archie”. They never had any children of their own, so all of us kids were like surrogate children to them. Aunt Janie usually would be sitting on the front porch waiting for me to come by when I stayed at my grandparent’s. Sometimes she would fix me a glass of Tang or give me some pecans if they were in season. I would make it back to the farmhouse in time for lunch. Grandma always cooked a hot lunch. It was considered the main meal of the day. Supper was usually leftovers from lunch.

            I had standing orders NOT to come into the house until I had washed off out back of the house with the water hose. On this particular day I soaked my head with cool water out of that hose, washed off my neck and arms, and then stepped through the back door where the bathroom was located. I had to wash my hands and face again with soap this time and then dry off with a towel. I was drying off my face when I heard that old pump organ start up. Then I heard nearly note for note perfect the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Had Mom and Dad come back for some reason? When “Amazing Grace” finished, another familiar hymn “Near To The Heart of God”, began. I remember this so very clearly. But who was playing that organ? I quickly finished drying off and combed my hair and then headed to that front bedroom to find out why Mom was there. Only she wasn’t there. Much to my surprise my grandmother was sitting at that pump organ and playing those hymns. I had absolutely no idea that she knew how to play the piano or organ. They didn’t own one. I stood behind her and listened to her play that second hymn and then she asked if I knew the song. I said that I did and then we sang the song together. It was an incredible moment in my young life. I was singing a hymn along with my grandmother while she played the pump organ. I was amazed that she knew how to play that organ. It didn’t look like much, but she sure made it sound good. Mixed in with this crystal-clear memory was the fragrance of lunch on the stove cooking and then the slapping of the front screen door that closed by way of a long spring. Grandpa was home for lunch.

            As we sat down to eat lunch and after the prayer of thanks, I asked my grandmother where she learned to play the organ. She told me that she had learned as a girl on an old piano that was in the little community church that her grandfather had planted in the 1860’s. That church is still there. She said that she learned to play the organ on a pump organ much like the one she had just played when she was in her 20’s. They had one similar to it at the church for when they had revival services outside and for funeral services held at the nearby cemetery. The same cemetery where she, my grandfather, my mother, my father, my oldest sister, several aunts and uncles, and great-grandparents are now buried. I think back to those days of my childhood and I’m so thankful for those wonderful experiences. I also realize that there are things about people that we are close to that we don’t always know about. Good things. My grandmother played that old pump organ and to me it was something new. To her it was something that she had learned to do more than half a century before. This realization only reinforces my desire to write these things down and to keep my blog. I have a new grandchild I haven’t met yet because of this coronavirus situation. I also have a nearly 2-year-old granddaughter. The odds are I won’t be there when they are grown. I want them to know who their grandfather was and not just a name and an old picture. I want them to know where they came from. In this case, I want them to know that their great-great-grandmother knew how to play the piano as did their great-grandmother and grandfather. I’ve attached a picture of an organ like the one that my grandmother played that day 54 years ago.


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