The Fifth Chair Flute


Courtesy of Creative Commons

I was not a great flautist, but I loved band for the music that was attempted, for the camaraderie the attempt instilled, and for the friends that resulted. This is a story about the friend I did not make…. Not even that… This is a story about the absence of a friend I never made.

Early in the fall of 1975, I was a sophomore in high school band and eager not to be last chair flute. Second to last, okay, but just not last. After a sketchy audition that involved no shortage of wrong notes and confused rhythms, I was granted the privilege of sitting in the position of sixth chair. Out of how many? I do not know, and it does not matter. I was not first and I was not last. Good enough. I only needed a position to save face; I was a social band member, not a serious musician. My good friend, Deb, sat to my right, and Dixie sat to my left.

Dixie was the fifth chair. Dixie was a mountainous girl with a homely face. (At least this is how my 15-year-old self remembers her.) She was abnormally quiet and utterly friendless. She moved grandly and slowly into the band room amid the screaming, laughing, pushing, shoving, good-natured name-calling. She seemed proud and sad and still. Her size and silence rebuked any would-be teasers and harassers. Dixie was left alone.

Since Deb sat to my right, we talked…a lot. We laughed and giggled at tuba notes that sounded like flatulence. We laughed and giggled when Mr. Heinz became so impassioned that spittle flew from his lips, spraying the cowering bandsters in the first row. We laughed and giggled because we did not practice and did not play the correct notes. We laughed and giggled because Bruce Usher wore short, tight baby-blue polyester pants. Band was hilarious.

Sometimes, Deb was absent. And that it the only time I noticed that Dixie was there. She was just…there. Methodically playing her music, serious and impassive, not a great musician but a serious girl. She annoyed me. Her mere presence impinged on my space (and my fun); she sat tall, her plentiful hips and thighs spilled over the side of the metal chair. When she raised her flute, the flab of her arms swayed repugnantly close to me; my face was near her armpit. I hated the way she made her presence known. No laughter or giggling, only a stoic approach and impressive use of space. Dixie was not fun. And her name was weird.

One day, the fifth flute chair was empty. And another day. And another day. And another day. Mr. Heinz called her name off the attendance sheet, scanned the boisterous band room, called her name one more time, and then moved to the next name on the list. Her absence persisted. Her absence had no effect on the band (or on any individual that I knew of). I was glad to have the extra arm and leg space to my left. And Deb and I could carry on with our exclusive revelry.

And then one morning Mr. Heinz unsuccessfully tried to get the attention of the entire band. As he stood on his podium waving his arms and scanning the room full of band members who were talking, gesticulating, popping open instrument cases, spitting into mouth pieces, licking reeds, and tooting out various notes, he told us that Dixie had died of leukemia.

Candace Berkley has been teaching Language Arts classes for 23 years at Dallas Center-Grimes High School. She was the 2018 ICTE Iowa High School Teacher of Excellence.