Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
The Last Word
by Eric Nye '70

In Search of a Rose Brass Bell and f-Attachment
Life's treasures appear in the most unexpected places.

19148 Pg 60Three years ago, someone stole the trombone I'd owned since high school. My wife and I were living in Dallas at the time, taking care of my mother. One night I left my car unlocked in her driveway with my trombone in the trunk.

The thief made his way down the block before dawn, methodically checking each car. When he lifted the trombone out of mine, he stole not only a valuable musical instrument but also a lifetime of memories.

Granted, the trombone itself was valuable. It was a .547-inch, symphonic-bore, Conn 88H with a rose brass bell and f-attachment--a system of extra tubing for playing difficult notes. My instrument was made in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1964. That was before a conglomerate bought out the company, relocated the factory, and let the quality go downhill. Today, an "Elkhart Conn" from the '50s or '60s is highly prized in trombone circles.

What made my trombone priceless, however, was not its pedigree but its history. I bought it in Dallas in 1966, my senior year in high school. I treasured it because I idolized the teacher who sold it to me: Paris Rutherford Jr.

Paris inspired hero worship on three counts: he played first trombone in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; he had a hulking physique that dwarfed other players when he loomed on stage; and he lived near the SMU campus in a garage apartment, my teenage concept of the ideal dwelling.
When I arrived at his apartment for my first lesson, I had no idea what he looked like. Surely this was the wrong address. The man answering my knock stood 6-feet 4-inches tall with a massive chest, a sandpaper beard, and a forward-sloping flattop haircut. He looked like a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, not a classical musician. Finally I noticed he was cradling a trombone.

"Come in," he said.
I gulped and entered.
"Don't bother taking your horn out of the case," he told me. "We've got other work to do."

Here began my apprenticeship in life. Like the teenage hero in The Karate Kid, I had expected to learn fancy footwork right away. Instead, I discovered that drudge work came first. I polished my breathing, embouchure, and intonation for months. By the end of the year, I could produce a respectable tone.

Two years later, Paris quit the orchestra and sold me his trombone. In reality, his Conn 88H, with its large-diameter slide, was more than I could handle. It was designed for blasting Mahler and Strauss over a 90-piece orchestra, but I didn't care. I wanted a certifiably cool trombone, one that my teacher had actually played, one with the endless run from Till Eulenspiegel embedded in its metallic memory.

The thief who stole my trombone didn't know metallic from Metallica. He didn't know that I had carried this instrument to Oberlin on the train, taken lessons on it in the Conservatory, and played it on Cape Cod with the Gilbert and Sullivan players.

All he knew was to empty the car of my personal effects, including a photo of me and my dad and a card from the Highfield Theater Costume Shop naming me "Nice Person of the Week" in July 1967 for sewing buttons on the grenadier uniforms in The Yeomen of the Guard.

On a positive note, the theft in Dallas gave me an excuse to get a new trombone. At first I thought of buying the latest 88H, but a small voice told me to wait and ask advice. An orchestra player suggested I buy a smaller horn, which I did. I enjoyed playing it, but missed the Conn.

Then last November I stopped in Oberlin on a trip. I drove in from the south on a sunny afternoon. The campus felt deserted because of fall break, but the bright, autumn colors dispelled any sense of gloom.

I had reserved a room at an informal bed-and-breakfast, and I found the old, white house on a street near South Hall. A tapestry of red and purple maple leaves covered the lawn. I decided to unload my bicycle from the car and explore Oberlin.

I rode the new bike trail behind the reservoir, cruised the athletic fields, and watched soccer practice from the bleachers. I visited favorite paintings in the art museum, peeked into Carnegie, and rode across Tappan Square, deliberately crunching leaves under my tires.

Back at the house, I showered, changed, and walked downtown for dinner. When I returned, I found my hosts, a married couple, eating theirs in the kitchen. The wife informed me that she and her husband had graduated from Oberlin ten years before I did. The husband mentioned in passing that he used to play trombone. Soon I said good night and went upstairs to bed.

I felt chilled, and the furnace wasn't on yet, so I searched the room for blankets, beginning with the closet. I saw coat hangers, board games, a vacuum cleaner, a dusty trombone case, but not blank...a trombone case?

I knew I shouldn't pry, but curiosity got the better of me. I pulled the case from the closet and laid it on the bed. I snapped open the latches and lifted the lid.

There on its burgundy plush lining lay a .547-inch, symphonic-bore, Conn 88H trombone with rose brass bell and f-attachment. Because it had no slide lock, I could tell it was older than mine--probably '50s-vintage. The engraving on the bell said, "Elkhart, Ind."

Trying to contain my excitement, I padded back down to the kitchen, told the husband I'd found his trombone, and asked him if he would sell it to me.

"No," he said. "Take it! I'll enjoy knowing it's being played again."
And it is.

Eric Nye plays trombone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He teaches English to high school dropouts and plans to write a novel.
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