My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.
His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.
Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.
From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.
He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”
I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.
Most women don’t get that kind of education.
Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.
I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.
Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.
If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.
I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.
But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.
As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist, and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.
All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.
Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.
Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.