I grew up in a little town named Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. On Sundays we faithfully attended the Pioneer Methodist Church, directly across the street from Harry Sand’s Chapel of the Hills Funeral Home. My folks were married in that church in September of 1929, a fact which had nothing to do with the crash of the stock market the following month. Of course I couldn’t know then that my parents 50th anniversary reception would be held in that church, and five years after that, my Dad’s funeral. All the Shinn tribe had been Methodists from way back, including my grandfather in Missouri who was a circuit-riding preacher, and some great-great-great grandfather who apparently worked along side John Wesley in the English revivals of the 1700’s.
Down the street from our church was another church, which my folks referred to as a “holy roller” kind of church, with a sign outside that read:
“Jesus Saves & Heals Every Evening at 7PM Except Mondays"
I grew up wondering what Jesus did on Monday evenings. My Uncle Verge (who wasn’t really my uncle – we just called him that – he was a neighbor who lived across the field from us) went bowling on Monday evenings, and although a good Methodist child wouldn’t be caught dead inside a bowling alley back in those days, I sometimes visualized Jesus bowling along side of Uncle Verge, since they both apparently had Monday evenings off.
Our church was the respectable church in town during the mid-40s. It had stained-glass windows, oak pews, and a brass lamp stand with 7 candles. We sang the great old hymns of the faith out of a regular hymnbook, accompanied by a pipe organ and the violet-robed choir, and even though I had no idea what words such as “here I raise my Ebenezer, ” or “rend your hearts and not your garments” meant, I figured the adults did. Later I found out that the great majority of them were as clueless as I about their meaning.
Our pipe organ was big and old, capably played by the minister’s wife, and my second favorite place in the entire church was in the pipe room, accessible only through a little door in back of the choir loft. I used to sit in the pipe room while by folks were at choir practice, imagining that I was the conductor of a massive orchestra. Later, when I was 12 or so, a devious friend showed me how to throw the organ temporarily out of pitch through a combination of tape and cotton. Our biggest project was to throw the 16-foot “D” pipe (the organ pipe that makes the low “D” sound) for the Christmas cantata in 1949. Our choir was performing the Hallelujah Chorus, and it is in the key of D, so that low D is the foundation on which the entire composition was based. Timing was critical. We had to rig things up between the organ prelude and the start of the cantata, a period we estimated as being no more than three minutes while Rev. Cheek offered the invocation and welcomed the guests.
Meanwhile, we had to crawl out of the fellowship hall, slither up the stairs and behind the back row of the choir without being detected. We pulled it off like clockwork, arriving in the pipe room just in time for the invocation. Rich, my co-worker in crime, manned the tape while I handled the cotton. We had no sooner finished than we were surrounded (and deafened) by the first chord of Handel’s great Oratorio as the concert began. We apparently didn’t do something exactly right, because the pitch was not as far off as we had planned – just barely sharp, enough to annoy the trained ear, but not enough to disturb the general public too much. In retrospect, that was probably for the best, as if the pitch had been too far off, the choir director no doubt would have stopped the concert and investigated. As it was, he carried on, frowning occasionally at the organist, as if she could do anything about it. We later heard comments at the reception following such as “my, that organ is sounding old!”, and “didn’t Mr. Dithers just work on it last summer?”, and “you know, it was good except for the bass section. ”
Our exit went as smooth as our entrance, and by the time the closing prayer was over we were safely in the fellowship hall, tape and cotton disposed of. It was one of the really proud moments of my life, and I seriously thought of taking up burglary as a profession. My only regret was that I couldn’t tell anyone about my triumph without paying a price I wasn’t prepared to pay.
There were other times, many other times, when things didn’t go as smoothly. When I was six I played the part of Tiny Tim in the Christmas play in the fellowship hall, and I fell off the edge of the stage instead of saying “God bless us everyone!” Hysterical laughter is not a fitting end to Dickens Christmas Carol.
My first favorite place in the church was the bell tower, the delight of every kid, and I used to love to climb up the winding stairs and feel the texture of the rope that led to the bell. Occasionally Mr. Ornsby, our Sunday School superintendent, would let one of us kids ring the bell during the break between Sunday School and church, much to our delight. One Halloween years later, a friend (who grew up to become the Sheriff of Placer County) and I broke into the church (we didn’t think of it at the time as “breaking in”, since it was “our church” and we regularly went in and out through a back window we knew about), and rang the bell for about two minutes at midnight. Having grown up in the church and knowing every inch of the surrounding hillside was an advantage when the police came, and we were long gone and headed up Nevada Street for home by the time they got the minister (who had apparently slept through our little concert) out of bed in the parsonage next door and had him unlock the church to see who was ringing the bell.
Duane Shinn is the author of over 500 music books and music educational materials such as DVD's, CD's, musical games for kids, chord charts, musical software, and piano lesson instructional courses for adults. His book-CD-DVD course titled "How To Play Chord Piano In Ten Days!" has sold over 100,000 copies around the world. He holds advanced degrees from Southern Oregon University and was the founder of Piano University in Southern Oregon. He is the author of the popular free 101-week online e-mail newsletter titled "Amazing Secrets Of Exciting Piano Chords & Sizzling Chord Progressions - Intelligent Piano Lessons For Adults Only!" with over 70,000 current subscribers.