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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #457
Musique du ballon
David Gunn

At a quarter to seven on the sixth of May, 1937, Warbler Hadley Blackmoor, professor emesis of Calamitology at the University of Hummock-on-Smythe in southwesternmost Lincolnshire--or at least the part of him that tended to dispute the fundamental laws of time--was sitting in a tree blind that overlooked the Lakehurst, New Jersey Naval Air Station. Hovering overhead like the world's biggest piñata was the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin 129, better known as the Hindenburg, the world's first transatlantic commercial airliner.

Blackmoor scholars will recall that this is not the first time he sailed back in time to witness the Hindenburg "mishap." On an earlier excursion--though given the flimsiness of the time-space continuum, earlier here is a relative term--he mistook another airship, piloted by a woman known only as "Betty," for the Hindenburg. After initiating events that caused its crash, both he and Betty disappeared quite unwittingly into an Algonquin Hole, after which life picked up its pieces and went on. Blackmoor's initial journey to Lakehurst was solely calamitological in nature--he wanted to insure that airships would henceforth be balloona non grata in the world of air commerce. However on this return engagement, his designs on dispatching the dirigible were musical.

Blackmoor's sabotage of the airworthiness of Betty's balloonocraft was manifest in a pin-shaped hole that compromised the hydrogen bag, granting the craft's valuable lighter-than-air gas its freedom. As the airship headed tarmacward, it sounded like a giant raspberry--and I don't mean the edible fruit of the genus Rubus. Rather, imagine the sound of a pricked party balloon in a Manhattan subway tunnel. Now multiply that by eleven thousand. That's what Blackmoor heard, a sound that pried off the manhole cover of his subconscious and slipped inside, filling him simultaneously with feelings of anxiety and comfort, of ambition and aversion, of Heckle and Jeckle--a sound that he had tried to replicate under laboratory conditions for years, only to be met with failure. His sole recourse, he deduced at last, was to precisely recreate the original circumstances.

Blackmoor glanced at his wristwatch. He was pretty sure he'd already been Algonquin-holed by six forty-five. Still, he scanned the surrounding present and pluperfect sectors for his doppelgänger. He'd never before run into himself on one of his time-slippage outings, he didn't know what would happen if he did, and he didn't intend to find out.

He didn't have time to find out, for at that moment the great aircraft began its stately descent. At once, the professor stepped out from his tree and floated through the air until he was directly beneath it, holding out his arms for balance like a mid-air crossing guard. Over the thrumming of the diesel engines he heard the incongruous sound of Beethoven's Mazurka Moussaka being played on a piano. Now he remembered: the dirigible's main lounge featured such an instrument! Blackmoor hesitated. Sacrificing three dozen lice-ridden cross-oceanic tourists for the greater good of his curiosity was one thing, but a piano? The music segued into a mishmash of dissonances and tone clusters that would later be ascribed to an etude by a 25-year old John Cage titled "About Four and a Half Minutes." The cacophony steeled Blackmoor's resolve and he pulled a mayonnaise jar from one of his pockets, held it high over his head, and charily unscrewed the lid. Instantly, an annoyed swarm of Africanized bees flew out and up to the belly of the bulbous balloonocraft, which they commenced to sting with an intensity that few usurers could match.

Gradually, to the deep diesel drones and the inscrutable keyboard poinks was added the fzzt-fzzt-fzzt of a hundred tiny air leaks. Hardly noticeable at first, the sound loudened rapidly as the Hindenburg lost--then found, then lost again--altitude. However, it wasn't the sound Blackmoor had anticipated. It was weak, fragile; it lacked utterly the puissance of the screaming exhalation of Betty's airship, an acoustic event that was predicated on a sudden deflation, an unrestrained flatulent episode. But he could change that. He had only to make the holes bigger, let the hydrogen gas escape faster. And the calamitologist had the means to do it--an animatronic Africanized bee the size of a DeSoto. There was only one problem: the robot bee was back in his tree blind, and he might not have time enough to fetch it before the Hindenburg landed, for the latter had begun its final approach. The realization of that fact presented Blackmoor with two additional problems: (1) he was between the airship and the tarmac and, the suspension of the fundamental laws of time notwithstanding, he might soon be permanently sandwiched between them; and (2) having spotted the mayonnaise jar, the Africanized bees were on their way back to their handler in moods not conducive to interspecific badinage.

Blackmoor dropped the jar and paddled as hard as he could through the soupy New Jersey air towards the tree, which had drifted some distance away from him. As the bees, too, began their final approach, he kicked his feet at them like a flamenco dancer on amphetamines, an action that created a single spark of static electricity.

But one spark is all it took to produce a sound not unlike a party balloon surrendering its air in a subway tunnel magnified by 11,000. Regrettably, it wasn't quite the sound Blackmoor had in mind, plus its consequences were dreadful, indeed. The Hindenburg promptly turned into its alter ego, Vyacheslav Molotov, spewing hydrogenated cocktail sauce all over the Lakehurst tarmac. The fiery explosion incinerated the bees and would have likewise smoked the University of Hummock-on-Smythe's foremost calamitologist, had not another Algonquin Hole conveniently materialized and sucked him safely--which is another relative term--within.

Today's 457th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is a paean to the sound that so captivated Blackmoor: musique du ballon. So just sit back, grab hold of a favorite gasbag or two, and heed the airworthy words of the freshly hyperventilated Kalvos.