steve’s funny column
Tuning up to fiddle around the country
By STEVE LANG
“I was much distressed by the next door people who had twin babies and played the violin; but one of the twins died and the other has eaten the fiddle, so all is peace.” – Edward Lear
What do a certain tree in North Carolina and me have in common?
Neither of us plays the fiddle, but in May, we might both be present at the 94th annual Fiddler’s Convention in Union Grove, NC.
Since 43 years have passed since this particular tree first drew my attention via a letter from Jenkins, it may now be a coffee or picnic table, a dugout canoe or fuel for a long-forgotten campfire.
However, if that tree is still standing, I wonder if Jenkins will be sitting under it. He seemed to be a patient – or at least, unhurried – sort, but in the past 43 years, there have been nine different U.S. Presidents, countless shifts in political and professional sports power, not to mention the rise and fall of leisure suits, disco and the Rubik’s Cube, so time, and likely, Jenkins, marches on.
Jenkins and I first met on a Saturday morning in the University of Minnesota, Morris gymnasium. We played H-O-R-S-E while most UMM students were either sleeping in or still coming home from the previous evening.
Four or five years passed, and we next met along Interstate 94 in West Central Minnesota. I had pulled over to assist a stranded motorist and Jenkins came shuffling down the ditch the opposite way.
We crossed paths several times in succeeding months, as Jenkins was a frequent guest at the Happy Sun Rhubarb Trucking Farm, also visited often by Dave Balgaard and me.
One January Saturday morning, we invited Jenkins to ride along with us to visit a mutual friend receiving room and board at state expense in a facility several hours down the road. Jenkins, who drove a truck at least as old as he was, asked us to meet him at a neighboring farm.
He chugged into the farmyard half an hour late, shivering in the 20-below-zero weather. On the drive south, the driver’s side door had fallen off, and rather than spend time replacing hinges, Jenkins tossed the door in the box, jumped back in the cab and continued the 25-mile trek.
His brownish-greying beard froze an icy white, and had he chosen to shave on that morning, he could have completed three-fourths of the task merely by snapping off whiskers at the jawline.
As Balgaard and I would discover often, this good deed would not go unpunished. Jenkins said he would be ready to go shortly, but in the meantime:
“How would you guys like to help me clean Harvey’s barn before we go? With all of us working, it should just take a few minutes.”
We eventually hit the road south, while it was still morning, and Jenkins alternately rewarded and abused us with fiddle music. Somewhere in his travels, he had acquired the instrument, inspired no doubt by his attendance at the afore-mentioned Old Fiddler’s Convention the previous year.
While Balgaard and I sang, Jenkins accompanied us, sometimes in tune, but due to his limited repertoire, sometimes producing sound effects not unlike a chainsaw dueling an electric grinder. Between songs/noise, he played a tinny-sounding tape recording of various acts from the convention, and expressed his intention to return to North Carolina in the spring.
Balgaard and I departed on an extended Western road trip a couple of weeks later, and I lost contact with Jenkins. I received the letter outlining the dates of the 1974 convention, with the crude map detailing the bandstand, the tree and a stick figure sitting beneath.
Since I have punched my ticket to this year’s convention, I will be on the lookout for Jenkins. The good news is that attendance is limited to 10,000, not everybody will be old guys like us, and the site is alcohol-free, which will distinctly limit double vision and mistaken identity.
Unless I become distracted and smack into that tree first.
Steve Lang’s closest exposure to a fiddle was briefly fooling with a bowed psaltery. The results, like his other instrumental experiments, left him bowed in humility. He’s the Sul Ross State University news and publications director in Alpine.