Kelso, the flutist

It was August 27, 1970, a hot, humid day in Amsterdam, a small, working-class manufacturing town that straddles the lazy Mohawk River, named after the Indian tribe that once inhabited the river valley in upstate New York.  The town was over two hundred and fifty years old and there were still families whose ancestors were the original Dutch and English settlers in the area, but the majority of the population now was comprised of Italian, Polish, Eastern European and Irish immigrants whose families had come to Amsterdam to work in the carpet factories.   In its center was a bridge that hung across the Mohawk and oversaw the barges headed west along the river to Lake Erie or east to the Hudson and then to the Atlantic.  The river was once a place for fishing and swimming, but those days were long past.  Parents told their kids to stay away from the river or they’d sure catch a disease of some sort.  It was still nice to look at.  The old Italian men still enjoyed watching the trains across the river as they played bocce at their river-front club on the south side. They were from the old country and they brought some of the ways from the old country. They ate dandelions and mushrooms that they picked at the bocce club, and some may have even fished in the river. 

It wasn’t just the Italians that had a club.  Every immigrant group in the town of thirty thousand had at least one club and church.   The Irish had the Hibernians and St. Mary’s; the Polish, Polish National Legion and St. Johns; the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian Club and St. Stanislaus; the Lithuanians, St. Casimir’s and the Lithuanian Club; and each club had its own softball team that competed in one of the city softball leagues.  Softball was an important part of summer in Amsterdam, just as bowling was in winter.  A man who hit home runs in the softball league or who was frequently listed on the sports page of the Amsterdam Recorder as having bowled three games totaling over 600, could become a home town hero.  Like most working-class towns, for Amsterdam, sports were a big part of life.

Unlike big cities where people lived with anonymity, in Amsterdam you were never far from someone who knew you or someone in your family.  But unlike small villages where folks tended to be friendly, Amsterdamians tended to be competitive. Folks in the city always seemed to be struggling to gain an edge over their neighbors in even the smallest of ways.  Maybe part of it was because there were so many different ethnic groups, or maybe it was just the natural behavior of people who felt frustrated by few real prospects to improve their lives much.  Whatever it was, kids had to be on their toes in Amsterdam or someone would most likely take advantage of them in some way.

During the summer, most folks in town spent weekend days at the lakes about thirty miles north of the city in the Adirondack Mountains.  There was a constant stream of cars on Route 30, the two-lane highway that ran north of town to the lakes.  Kids sitting in the backseats urged their parents to stop at the Tastee Freeze or Herm’s Charcoal Pit, two places on Route 30 that served the best ice cream in the area.  Teenagers revved their cars on Route 30 on their way to Vandenbergs, the beach where teens hung out.  Vandenbergs was an oasis from parents, a place to smoke cigarettes, have a six pack, and flirt.  It cost five dollars to park at Vandenbergs, but access to the beach was free.  So, the object was to pack as many kids in a car as possible to bring down the price.  Vandenbergs was at the end of a narrow winding road from Route 30.  Everybody in town knew that in 1966 a couple of teens died after missing one of the S-shaped turns in the road and smashing their new Jaguar XKE directly into a huge tree.  That story was told many times at the beach, especially after someone looked like they had too much beer to drink on a hot afternoon. 

But on this Saturday afternoon, in a white house on Summit Avenue in a nice middle-class tree-lined neighborhood, Tim “Kelso” Kelly wasn’t headed for the beach; he was just rising from his slumber.  Through his bedroom window he could hear the locusts buzzing, announcing that it would be a hot afternoon.   Kelso was a disorderly looking wiry young man of nineteen with thick brown nappy hair to his shoulders and a scraggly beard.  He looked like he’d be much more at home in Berkeley or Haight-Ashbury than Amsterdam, but that’s where he had always lived.  His father had been a physician in town, but passed away at an early age, leaving Tim and everyone in the Kelly family in mourning for many years to follow. 

Kelso had been out late the night before, mingling with the locals at Baia’s, a small tavern where college-age kids went to play darts, drink beer, talk with the locals or just sit and watch people.  Kelso had only two beers the night before – that wasn’t why he had slept so late.  It was because at that stage of his life he did not like mornings.  It was that simple.  There was nothing to do on a Saturday morning.  He had outgrown Saturday morning television, he didn’t really like breakfast or physical exercise, his white Irish skin was too pale for sunbathing at the beach, he didn’t have a girlfriend, and his chronic blepharitis bothered him in the morning.  So, Kelso tried to stay in bed as long as possible.  He kept the drapes in his bedroom permanently drawn to ease his eyes.  Better not to see the sun, at least until late in the afternoon when the real action started, he always thought.

One thing about Kelso that everyone agreed: although there were few things that interested him, what did interest him he pursued with a passion.  His favorite pastime was lying on his bed listening to music, like his collection of records by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, an avant garde band that appealed to only the most cynical of rock fans.   He also coveted his collection of Frank Zappa records, which were of the same genre.   He sometimes played his guitar to the music and imagined himself a Zappa bandmember.  His mother didn’t like him staying in his room so much and she was especially concerned about the kind of music he liked.   “Tim, you should go out and do something. Isn’t there anything you want to get done today?  Get some exercise.  You’re starting to get a potbelly and you’re not even twenty.  Get out of the house and go with your friends.”  she used to say.  “Ah, but Mrs. Kelly, you don’t understand.  Tim is an artiste”, Kelso’s friend Tates Black would say between Yahtzee plays at the kitchen table.  Tates was a huge young man with wild hair, but a gentle, playful manner.  During the summer college break he worked for his father’s refrigeration and cooling business, carrying air conditioners and refrigerators. It was rumored that Tates had lifted a Volkswagen out of a ditch all by himself.   “Artiste, schmartiste”, Mrs. Kelly would retort as she rolled the dice.  “Yes, but he thinks very deeply, like an artiste and he has the heart of a musician,” Tates liked to say. 

Kelso did have the heart of a musician.  He’d sit in his bedroom for hours playing his guitar along with Captain Beefheart.  Perhaps he was dreaming of becoming a professional musician during those many hours.  He never discussed it.   But despite the many hours of practice, his guitar playing was not a match for Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or even the Captain Beefheart band and his singing voice was very average, so he must have realized that he was not destined for stardom as a musician.  However, as if God had given him some consolation, Kelso did have an exceptional talent in one musical instrument — the hand flute.  In fact, Kelso played the hand flute better than anyone in Amsterdam and, some people said, better than anyone in all of New York.  People pointed him out and said, “That’s the guy who plays the hand flute so well.”  This made Tim feel proud and whenever he heard such a comment he threw his shoulders back, cupped his hands, brought both thumbs to his mouth and blew through his thumbs to produce a flute –like sound.  He could produce very loud sounds with the hand flute and had quite a range of different pitches, which astonished listeners.  He knew that he had an unusual gift and although he realized that it wasn’t really all that significant a gift, he did feel good when listeners gave him praise and, at least for now, he felt at peace when he played the hand flute.  He knew that in a town like Amsterdam you could become a celebrity for bowling 600 or doing something like playing the hand flute. 

On his good days Kelso ventured down Summit Avenue, past the home of the Gavry’s. The Gavry’s were a Lithuanian family whose name when they came to Amsterdam was Gavrilchuk. As they used to say about their name, “What’s the big deal? We just decided to chuck the ‘ilchuk’.”

At the intersection with Glen Ave., Kelso took a right and walked down the hill, past Grant Avenue, under the low hanging Maple and Elm trees, past the home of Dutch Howland, the Bishop Scully high school basketball coach, and across Romeyn Avenue to Mac’s Confectionery.  Young children were sometimes in front of the store with their bicycles.  Some would be sitting on the low cement wall at one end of the one-story yellow wooden building looking at baseball cards, talking about the local softball games or eating popsicles; others were sometimes in the vacant lot next to the store playing catch or throwing a frisbee.  The confectionery owners, Mac and Virginia Riano, a couple in their sixties, greeted Kelso as he closed the front door causing the bells attached to the back of the door to jingle.  As he walked past the cash register to the booth area Kelso made a point of stealing a glance at Sally Valar’s legs while she served customers from behind the soda counter.  Sally, a Bishop Scully sophomore, was a few years younger than Kelso.  “Legs to die for”, he’d say to himself.  He secretly fantasized about lots of girls that frequented Mac’s, old acquaintances from high school, just about anyone.   Fantasizing was one of his favorite pastimes and when he sat in the red vinyl booth at Mac’s he’d watch the girls who’d walk in the store and imagine that they secretly desired him. 

When Kelso wanted to get the attention of girls in Mac’s, he’d play the hand flute very loud.   Mac and Virginia sometimes commented to the customers standing near the cash register or sitting at the counter, “I don’t especially like that sound, but isn’t he good at it?”  When he heard such praise, Tim flared his left hand out to change the pitch, demonstrating his range.  When friendly girls were sitting on the red swivel stools at the soda counter, Tim took extra time away from his cherry Coke and Mad Magazine to entertain them.  “Hey girls, listen to this”, he’d say.  The girls, most of them no more than twelve or thirteen years old, shook their heads in acknowledgement and giggled.

There were many Kelso wanna-bes in town, inferior hand flute players, who came to Mac’s to match skills or challenge Kelso.  There was Chris Gavry, (Gavrilchuk) who played a mediocre hand flute at best.  Chris liked to chew bubble gum and smoke Merits.  This gave his hand flute an unusual cavernous sound and a smoky smell.  Then there was Tim McKnight, a former high school football star, who now was more interested in emulating Stephen Stills, his favorite singer, than in catching touchdown passes.  McKnight liked to sing in public, play air guitar and would occasionally play hand flute. There was Tates, who had huge hands, a definite asset for hand flute playing, but who was limited to only two notes – high and low.  And, finally there was Paul Gavry, Chris’ older brother.  He may have been the best of the Kelso followers, but he was still learning the finer points. 

Kelso was very polite and patient when it came to hand flute contenders.  He never directly discussed their failings in the art, nor did he give direct instruction or discuss his hand flute skill.  When the subject came up or when someone made a poor attempt at imitation, Kelso would patiently demonstrate the proper technique.  If the truth be told, he liked following his imitators’ weak attempts with a demonstration of the real thing.  This seemed to be the right compromise between instructing the imitators, which seemed inconsistent with his light-hearted attitude toward life, and ignoring them, which seemed either too arrogant or too humble, he couldn’t decide which.  Usually his demonstrations produced silence and almost reverence.  For example, McKnight and Paul understood their inferiority and would shake their heads in amazement.  But, there were also those like Tates and Chris who were so uncultivated they were unable to recognize their own shortcomings.   Sometimes after giving a lesson to the “contenders” Kelso would smirk to himself before returning to his Mad Magazine.  He knew he was the best and he allowed himself just a little bit of pride every so often.

There were also Kelso protégés in the neighborhood, young neighborhood kids who stood outside of Mac’s practicing the hand flute.   When Kelso wasn’t around, you would hear them say things like, “Here’s how he does it”, or “I saw him do it this way.”  One time a youngster was overheard saying, “You know how they sing that song about the Pinball Wizard?  They ought to sing a song about him called the Hand Flute Wizard.”  When the kids saw Kelso walking down Glen Ave. they stopped playing, stopped talking and watched “the master” as he strolled by into the store.  Then they tried to peek through the window, around the many ads taped to the glass.  As misfortune would have it, Kelso’s favorite booth was directly behind a big yellow and black ad that read “Develop Your Film Here, 24 Pics for $1.99”, but they’d still find a way to catch a glimpse of him and sometimes they could hear him play the flute.

On some days the traffic was very light at Mac’s.  Only a few neighborhood people stopped in to buy bread or milk.  An older neighborhood man named Bob Kroller was there every day.  He nodded at Kelso in the booth and sometimes said hello.  There were lots of rumors about Bob because he was a single man who lived alone and wasn’t very friendly.   He was not especially impressed with Kelso’s hand flute, probably because he didn’t know how the sound was produced or maybe because he was planning strategy for his next softball game.  Sometimes Jimmy “Pie” Sheridan stopped in after visiting his cousins, the Quiris.  Pie was a good-looking, friendly guy who was sent away to prep school in Worcester, Massachusetts because his father wanted him to improve his grades.  Pie always wanted Kelso to teach him to play the hand flute, but Pie never really got the hang of it.  Buster Schuster, sometimes stopped over to the store to buy groceries for his mother.  Buster was a few years younger than Kelso, but big for his age.  For some reason Buster called Kelso “Top”.   “Hi Top, you see anything good in that magazine?  You think it’s goin’ to rain today?  I hope not, I have a baseball game tonight.  My mother told me to drink some milk so that’s what I am goin’ ta buy.” Buster might say.

It was on August 27, 1970, near the end of the summer, that a group of the regulars had met at Mac’s on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  There was Kelso and Tates Black, Chris Gavry, McKnight, Scott Merrow (fellow Irish Summit Ave. resident), Tim Blanchfield (the sweet but feral weight lifter from McClellan Ave.) and Paul Gavry.  Sally Valar and Marie Labate were behind the counter.  Mac and Virginia were at the register, talking to customers and stocking shelves.  Marie had a radio behind the counter tuned to 1540 AM, WPTR which was playing “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy.  “Hey Marie, switch it to a different station, will ya?”, Paul yelled.  “It’s almost over”, Marie replied. 

Mercifully, the song ended.  “Let’s go take a drive to Vandenbergs, it’s so hot”, Tates suggested.  “Yeah, let’s go” agreed Blanch, “We can grab some beer on the way.  What do ya say Timbo?”

Kelso didn’t answer, he was intent on the next tune that had already started on the radio.  From the first few notes he and everyone else in Mac’s recognized it.  Bumm-bumm-bababa-bumm-bumm-bummm-bumm groaned the electric guitars.  Kelso cupped his hands, put his thumbs together, and raised his hands to his mouth.  The Gavrys took their cue from Kelso, both Paul and Chris raised their hands into hand flute position.  McKnight, who was talking with Marie at the counter, could see the others in the mirror behind the counter and turned to come back to the booth.  Kelso started playing lead hand flute to the unmistakable In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita by Iron Butterfly, the number one rock song at the time.  A very difficult tune for the hand flute, but not beyond Kelso’s considerable reach.  Kelso belted out the tune.  The Gavrys joined-in with bass hand flute and harmony.  Scott started beating out the drums on the tabletop.  McKnight played an imaginary guitar with his right hand and imitated the sound of a heavy steel guitar.  Blanch was dancing in the aisle next to the booth making guitar sounds too.   Paul stopped playing hand flute to sing the lyrics with McKnight and Tates, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, honey, don’t you know that I love you?” they sang while holding imaginary microphones.  Blanch strutted his stuff in the aisle, Paul and Chris kept singing and imitated the typical pained rock star countenance.  Kelso continued on lead flute and Scott kept beating out the drums, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby, don’t you know that I’ll always be truuuhuue?”  The guitars whined and all of the by-standers tried to make guitar sounds to accompany Kelso on the flute. The group bellowed out “Oh, won’t you come with me-hee-hee anda take my haahaa-haand? …Oh, won’t you come with me-hee-hee anda walk this laaa-haa-haa-haaaaaand?”  On Kelso’s signal everyone joined in for the chorus with “Pleeeeease take my haa-HAAA-haaa-haaanndddd”.  Then everyone tried to imitate the familiar thundering guitar piece, but Kelso returned to the flute and belted out the rest of the tune so loud, so well and with such style and panache that everyone else stopped and listened.   Marie and Sally stopped serving cherry Cokes, Mac and Virginia stopped what they were doing and came into the booth area, the Kelso sycophants who were peering in the window came in the store, the customers at the counter spun around on their stools.  Everyone watched and listened.  Kelso was at his best, he was in a zone, he was at the top of his game, he was playing with the heart of an artist, he belted out the tune with precision, with flair, with style.  Everyone at the counter was tapping out the beat, Mac and Virginia were clapping their hands to the beat, Blanch and Tates kept dancing wildly in the aisles, and Paul, Chris, McKnight and Scott were making sounds to try to harmonize with Kelso’s lead.  It was a defining, once-in-a-lifetime moment, a surreal moment, one of those moments when everything seems right with the world.  As Kelso finished the song the entire group burst into applause and whistles.  Kelso got hand slaps from everyone around, Blanch yelled out “Tim Kelly, you are the big cheese, you are the big kahuna.”  Marie had a tear in her eye.  “That was beautiful Tim”, she said.  “Yeah, Tim that was real good”, said Sally.  “You know how to play that thing Top,” Buster added.  Virginia turned to one of the customers and said, “I have known him since he was a little boy.  He’s been coming in here for years.  He’s always been such a good boy and so talented.”  It was a real celebration for everyone, a celebration of Kelso’s special hand flute talent.  It was a day in 1970 that will live in the memory of everyone who was at Mac’s Confectionary that special Sunday afternoon.

The gang broke up after that.  Everyone went their separate ways.  Mac’s was closed shortly thereafter.  Mac and Virginia have long since retired and both have passed on.  Bob Kroller passed away many years ago.  Paul married Marie and they now have grown kids, McKnight and Blanch are teachers, and Scott, after 30 years as a Colonel in the Air Force, passed away.  Kelso lives in Ohio and is a lawyer.  The rest have migrated to parts unknown.  Wherever they happen to be, whenever they hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita they will always remember that magical day at Mac’s and remember Kelso’s performance of a lifetime on the hand flute.

And, yes, rumors from a small town in Ohio are that Kelso still plays the hand flute but only on special occasions.

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