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The Fifth Course

In Transit

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The mandolin is the perfect travel instrument. My mandolin, in a hard shell case, has fit in the overhead compartments of every puddle-jumper into which I have had the pleasure of folding myself. Occasionally a zealous gate agent will attempt to tag my case for gate-check for the short flights. When that happens I have been able to put off the green-tagger by saying, “It’ll fit,” or “This needs to come with me -if you need to check something take the backpack.”

The size also allows me to get in some practice in the terminal while I wait for my next flight. I just unlatch the case, pull out the mando, prop my left foot up on the closed case, and start working a few fiddle tunes. No one has ever expressed an objection to the added sonic distraction over and above the muzak, gate announcements, airport security announcements, and conversations. Indeed, I have had many positive comments about both the instrument and my playing of it.

Tonight has been no exception. The travel day started at 1:45pm EST in Harrisburg, PA with a rescheduled flight from there to Washington/Dulles. After a brief wait, I was aboard the flight from Dulles to San Francisco, the second leg of my travel day. All was going well. But heavy weather in San Francisco has held up the last leg of my trip, 90 miles east to Modesto.

A massive storm has come ashore and halted air travel between my lay-over stop and my destination. It is now 11:30pm PST (or 2:30am EST) and I have been traveling for nearly 12 hours. Rather than complain or delve into my usual reading material (a Ben Franklin biography and the latest New Yorker magazine: too dense for the late hour and my fatigue level) I popped the lid on my mandolin case.

My fingers warmed up on some pop music riffs like the ones from Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” Frank Zappa’s “I’m the Slime.” Then I started in on a few easy fiddle tunes like “Soldier’s Joy” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Throughout this process I have kept a lid on the volume, not wanting to blast my neighbors out of their nearby seats. After a little bit, I got into some of the harder stuff, “St. Anne’s Reel” and “Salt Creek.” Finally I stumbled through some Baroque (Mouret’s “Premier Suite des Symphonies”) and some Celtic (“Swallowtail Jig”).

The one thing I have not done is sing. Either I’m too shy or prudently avoiding a spectacle. I can’t decide which. But the real prohibition is that this place with its hustle and bustle provides entirely too much noise and distractions to allow any thoughtful practice. So all I am really doing is maintaining dexterity in my fingers.

Nevertheless it is better than sitting still and doing nothing. So here is your encouragement to do the same. Bring your mandolin, your guitar, your fiddle on your travels. Carry it with you and don’t be afraid to bust it out in the terminal while you wait (sometimes interminably) for your next flight.

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