An instrument of destruction

Kevin Cowherd

April 27, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

We were visiting friends at their cabin on the shores of a beautiful lake when a horrible screeching sound began emanating from the house next door.

At first it sounded like an animal in distress, or a large appliance being dragged across a linoleum floor.

Then I felt a familiar shiver run through me and a dull ache near my temples as I recognized the source of the noise.

"That's Justin playing the accordion," said our hostess, in an apologetic tone. "His mother makes him practice every day at 3."

Putting aside, for the moment, the issue of whether this constitutes child cruelty, it was certainly disturbing.

Here I had driven 200 miles to relax and enjoy myself, only to discover I was staying next door to a madwoman who was using her child to slowly and systematically drive her neighbors insane.

The child, forced to play the most annoying instrument known to man, is doomed, of course.

Oh, he seems normal enough right now. During our stay, we observed that he laughs easily and interacts well with the other children, who do not yet regard him as a kook or an oddball.

But wait a few years. Wait until he starts bringing the accordion to school and his little friends start to avoid him.

Wait until those family gatherings when his mother implores: "Justin, honey, play a few songs for Aunt Shirley," and the room empties as if someone lobbed a hand grenade in the door.

Wait until mom starts dressing him in lederhosen and an alpine shepherd's hat with a feather, and squiring him from this polka festival to that one.

Then we'll see how well-adjusted the little fellow is. My guess is that he'll be setting trash fires and hot-wiring cars by then.

Anyway, for the better part of the next hour, Justin could be heard fouling the pristine mountain air with a series of badly mangled toe-tappers, such as "Lady of Spain" and "The Beer Barrel Polka."

As the noise droned on and on, causing even the tiny woodland creatures to retreat in terror, I thought about how much of my life has been devoted to avoiding this dreadful instrument.

Certainly, I am not alone in this respect. Most people recognize the accordion for what it is: an instrument that summons the initial terror, although none of the later reported peacefulness, of a near-death experience.

One thing I've never understood is: Why do accordion players insist on smiling throughout their performances?

You would think that upon realizing the suffering they are inflicting on an audience, they would wear a properly contrite look.

Instead, most actually appear to be enjoying themselves as they play -- which, of course, is almost impossible for non-accordion lovers to imagine.

Perhaps the only instrument that can rival the accordion in terms of nausea-inducing potential is the bagpipes. This is an instrument which, for some reason, seeks to replicate the sound of dozens of panic-stricken geese being slaughtered.

Being of Irish descent, I am overly familiar with the bagpipes, having been exposed to almost toxic levels of that music in my youth.

Maybe the single worst night of my life was when I accompanied my mother some years ago to what was billed as a "special entertainment treat."

The term "special entertainment treat" was ominous enough, as it generally signals a dog act or an elderly man who bangs out John Philip Sousa marches on his knee with spoons.

This was even worse. It turned out to be three men playing the bagpipes in a smoky Knights of Columbus hall.

Naturally, my first instinct was to locate the bar and begin drinking heavily.

What you hope to do in a situation like that is anesthetize the senses, soak the neurotransmitters with alcohol and deaden the central nervous system.

Yet despite the warm glow which soon enveloped me, the experience was an absolute nightmare. The three men seemed stunned to be playing in front of so many people, and the music was even more shrill and disjointed than usual.

At the end of their 90-minute set, the doors were finally flung open and the audience emerged pale and shaken, looking for all the world like frightened airline passengers who'd just survived a no-brakes emergency landing.

Still, in terms of sheer annoyance capability, the accordion is to the bagpipes what Princeton is to elementary school.

Justin certainly proved that. By the end of our stay in the idyllic lakeside setting, the little fellow was working on a halting rendition of "New York, New York" that had emptied a nearby campground like a dose of mustard gas.

People paid good money for those sites, too.

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