The Last Word
by Eric Nye '70
In Search of a Rose Brass Bell and f-Attachment
treasures appear in the most unexpected places.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
in," he said.
gulped and entered.
bother taking your horn out of the case," he told me. "We've
got other work to do."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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."
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.
he said. "Take it! I'll enjoy knowing it's being played
Nye plays trombone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He
teaches English to high school dropouts and plans to write