I always wanted a great wedding story. Every organist has a wedding story, and for years, I did not have one. When we gathered for our secret organist meetings to complain about brides requesting “It’s a small world after all” for a processional and grooms requesting the Texas A&M fight song for a recessional (I’ve actually had both of those requests), the stories came out. One organist could recount a bride passing out in mid-ceremony. Another would recount the time a nervous groom made it up to the altar only to violently vomit all over the floor. For many years, my best story was of a wedding where an eighty-five year old man married a fifty something woman. He was wealthy, and she was divorced. The only funny part of the story was me imitating the old man walking down the aisle. It was like watching Tim Conway as the old man on the Carol Burnett show. He walked so slowly that I had to play the Pachelbel canon about fifteen times. While cute, the story only managed to elicit a few chortles and guffaws next to the tales of weak-kneed brides and weak-stomached grooms. However, one day something unexpected happened: the fire marshal made an unannounced visit to inspect the Methodist Church where I worked at the time.
It turned out that the fire alarm system in the church was not up to code. A new system needed to be purchased and installed immediately. This was all managed quickly by a property committee. When the company finished the installation, they taught the pastor how to operate the system. While the property committee managed to move quickly on issues of fire safety, musical safety did not interest them as much. The “organ” was an electronic Allen that had been languishing in the corner of the chancel for some thirty years. It was the sort of jalopy that I normally characterize by saying, “It’s the P.O.F.S. 1000 model.” (If you are unfamiliar with that acronym, I will let you work it out for yourself.) Aside from being about as useful as my toaster for musical accompaniment, it boasted a special feature. When the power in the church would brown out for a moment, every “stop” on the organ would engage. On the old Allens, there is a set of push tabs that run horizontally above the keys that control the different sounds. When the power would flash, the push tabs that controlled the “stops” would depress by themselves from left to right like a set of cascading dominoes. This was loud enough in itself, but if you were unlucky enough to be playing at the time, the result could be cacophonous. The organ would let out a deafening electronic cry of despair that would fill the church. This was immediately followed by clacking sounds of the push tab dominoes.
The excitement of playing the Allen P.O.F.S. 1000 is enhanced by the fact that Tampa is one of the lightning capitals of the United States. With up to fifty lightning strikes per square mile in a year, power outages are a normal part of life for us in the rainy season. That was actually the main problem with the old fire alarm system in the church. If the power went out, the fire alarm system went out. We needed a new system that would engage in the case of a fire that burned through electrical wires. Much like the P.O.F.S. 1000, the new fire alarm had a special feature for lightning storms. It would automatically engage during a power fluctuation.
It was during one such stormy summer day that a couple came to by married at our congregation. It wasn’t the first marriage for either person, as I recall, so they wanted to have a rather small celebration. The pastor and I were handling the ceremony without the aid of an overly fussy wedding coordinator. The couple had invited about fifty guests. The processional went off without a hitch. They moved up to the chancel. When it came time to bless the rings, the pastor took them and held them for all to see. He began his prayer.
There are some scrumptious moments in life that you shouldn’t miss without savoring each morsel. There is the moment between the end of a piece and when the conductor lowers his or her baton. There is the moment when the needle is on the smooth part of the record before the next song starts. There is also the moment when the lightning strikes between “In the name of the Father, and the Son” and the “and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
It seems uncanny how moment may attach to moment in a continuous monogamy during periods of boredom and unpleasant activity. Moments seem to congregate in curved asymptotic lines that never quite touch the vertices of reality as they stretch toward infinity. I once wasted what seemed to be three years of my life listening to a poor public speaker eulogizing someone at a funeral gig. He combined James Joyce’s stream of consciousness style with an obsession for irrelevant detail. He packed fifteen seconds of thought into thirty-five minutes of panegyric. People whose favorite word is “and” seem to be able to execute a metaphysical miracle by transforming a moment into a lifetime.
It seems equally supernormal when moments slip by so quickly that the clock’s secondhand looks like it’s on steroids. A deadline approaches, and one wonders what happened to all the moments that seemed to be piling up around your feet when the eulogy was taking place.
When the lightning struck, a moment sauntered by at a slow pace, but it was chock full-o-events. The slowness of the passing moment was balanced by the rapid succession of sensory information hurling toward the chancel. In a few short seconds, I had a wedding story to tell.
The pastor held up the rings to bless them. As the prayer was concluding, the Trinitarian blessing was interrupted. The pastor said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son…” There was a bright flash of light as a lightning bolt struck right outside the nave of the church. An almost simultaneous, vociferous clap of thunder followed the lightning bolt. All the lights in the sanctuary vanished leaving the wedding party standing in darkness. The organ let out it’s agonizing electronic death throe cry and the push button tabs cascaded down. It was at this point that I first got to experience the special features of the new fire alarm. As our eyes adjusted to the dimmed light, a strobe light on the fire alarm began to flash. A voice that was at once authoritative and awkwardly mechanical began to blare out from a speaker box, “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING! ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING!” The alarm continued flashing the strobe light and repeating its warning at regular intervals. Taking advantage of one of the pauses in the mechanical voice, the pastor quickly inserted, “and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” only to be followed immediately by “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING!”
With so much happening between the “Son” and the “and the Holy Spirit”, the momentary flood of sound and strobe light created a little pool of stillness. The happy bride and groom were disoriented and looked to the pastor for some kind of guidance.
The silence was broken by the return of the lights inside the sanctuary. All breathed a sigh of relief that was quickly re-inhaled when a booming mechanical voice said “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING! ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING!” The pastor made a feeble attempt to continue the service. “In token and pledge,” he said. “In token and pledge,” repeated the groom. “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING! ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST EXIT THE BUILDING!” “Uh…look. I’m really sorry about this,” the pastor said apologetically. “We just had a new fire alarm installed, and I am the only one that knows how to operate the system. Just wait a second.” With that simple explanation, he left the bride, groom, wedding party, organist, and congregation. The pastor walked from the chancel through one of the back doors and left the sanctuary heading toward the church office. We all sat staring at each other in silence only to be regularly interrupted by the “ATTENTION! ATTENTION!” Some nervous laughter began to emerge here and there amongst the pews, but the overall mood was strangely somber. “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! YOU MUST” and the voice was cut off in mid-imperative. The pastor walked back in, stood before the couple, and said, “I’m really sorry about that. In token and pledge…”
I’ve often wondered if that couple remained married. It can’t be a good omen for your wedding when a mechanical voice keeps telling you to “get out while you still can.”