Beating the Train

This photo reminds me of my dad Floyd Pitts who would sometimes reminisce about his younger days when he was still in high school at Morrow, Arkansas. He’d tell part of this tale then slap his leg and start laughing.

During that period of his life – early 1930s – his parents and younger sister had to move to West Memphis where his dad found work. Floyd stayed at Morrow to finish high school. He slept on a cot at the Morrow Mercantile with duties to keep the fires going at night so the stock didn’t freeze. Alongside his work duties and high school classes, he and three friends performed around the Northwest Arkansas region as a quartet.

“By 1933, I was the leader of the Morrow Quartet (I played fiddle and sang bass) and we were the best in the whole area. We sang at anything. We’d put on a show at places like the Savoy Community Building, we sang on the radio all the time, KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks [then located in the Washington Hotel on the southwest corner of the Fayetteville square, Mountain and Block], any old breakdown tunes.

Floyd Pitts circa late 1930s

“It was a novelty for a boy to play the piano. People would take us home for dinner if we’d perform.  Jim Latta was the father of one of the singers—the lead, Vernon Latta. He’d help us out buying gas. Vernon played guitar and mandolin. Or the Morrow Mercantile would help us because of Dennis Carmack, the tenor of our group. There were four main guys who owned the Mercantile: Ernest Ball, Lowrey Carmack, __ Reed, and [can’t remember].  Ty Reed sang alto (high tenor). I played fiddle and Dennis Carmack played guitar.

“Dennis had an old Chevrolet and that’s how we got to Fayetteville for our weekly radio show. One time we were running late. There was a railroad crossing at the turn off from the Cane Hill Road to the main highway just east of Lincoln. We heard the whistle and as we roared up to the crossing, we could see the train coming. Trains were long in those days, usually pulling an endless string of freight cars. We knew we’d miss our broadcast time if we waited for the train.

“The train was barreling down, close, too close, to the crossing. There wasn’t time to discuss it. Dennis floored that old Chevy. The engineer laid on his whistle as we hurtled ahead throwing up a huge dust cloud behind us. We could see the engineer’s mouth moving as we approached. He was shaking his fist at us.

“We flew over those tracks without a second to spare. The force of that train as it passed behind us shook the car. As we made the sharp turn just after crossing the tracks, that old car went up on two wheels. We all leaned to the right, laughing at our near miss as the car slammed back onto all four tires. We made it to the Fayetteville Square in time for our show.”

Floyd Pitts went on to gain his bachelor’s degree in music at Northeastern State University at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, then taught music at Rogers AR public schools until his service as an officer in the U. S. Navy in World War II. After the war, he gained a master’s degree in music at Iowa before returning to Rogers to teach. He took over the band man post for the Grizzly band at Fort Smith’s high school in 1953. During his time at Fort Smith, he moonlighted in vocals and piano with a dance band that played local venues like the Elks Club. In January 1957, he proudly led his band in the Washington D.C. parade for Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration.

In 1958 in search of better income, he moved his family to Miami, Oklahoma to lead the music programs for the public schools and direct the junior high and high school bands. During those years, he pursued after-hours income by tuning and repairing pianos, something he’d done since his high school days when he’d teach shape note singing at schools and church houses around the area and inevitably encountered out-of-tune pianos. His father, a sometimes blacksmith, forged Floyd’s first tuning hammer from an old Model A tie-rod.

Floyd remained the Wardog band director at Miami until 1967, when the family once again relocated to Fayetteville, Arkansas. (His wife, Carmyn Morrow Pitts, was relieved to be back in “God’s country.”) From there, Floyd taught band a couple of years at Westville, OK and for many more years at Lincoln AR, more or less a return to his roots at the end of his long career in teaching music to multiple generations. He retired in 1979 but continued his new career as a full time piano tuner/technician alongside his daughter Denele until a couple of years before his death in 2004. Even in his last days, a good old fiddle tune would bring on a flurry of foot tapping.

~~~

Floyd’s first tuning hammer from Model T tie-rod, late 1920s

Side note: KUOA began as a project of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, using these call letters starting in 1926. With the deepening of the Great Depression, in 1931 the University decided to lease operations to out of town interests. “Members of the Fulbright family then formed KUOA, Incorporated, to purchase the station, and on April 1, 1933, they took control, with Roberta Waugh Fulbright as president, John Clark as secretary-treasurer, and daughters Roberta Fulbright as station manager and Helen Fulbright as vice president.”[1] Ownership of the station shifted to John Brown University in 1936.


[1] https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/kuoa-radio-station-3678/

My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

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.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

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.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

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.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

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.