Former Fisk Apprentice, now Visual Design Consultant
Anyone whose life was entwined with Charlie’s became accustomed to the importance he ascribed to words. This could take diverse forms such as the proper use of an obscure adverb, a jibing nickname, or the right inflection for a bit of slang. He honed his speech with the same care that made him a master-voicer, creating in the speech of pipes a magical language of organ sounds. People really listened when he spoke because he did not waste words. The special phrases of his individual repertoire, “Charlie-isms”, still bring a smile or a sigh because they were so often full of meaning.
When I first met Charlie in the summer of 1972 he was tending to the Harvard organ organ, anxious to exit Appleton Chapel with his toolbox. I was a privileged organ student, anxious to meet the man behind the instrument that had become my musical Everest and emotional battleground. In a candid comparison with another instrument, I asked him why the Harvard organ seemed to have so little power in the bass registers. He patiently explained that the scale of the 8′ and 16′ Prestants was the largest he had ever used, but that the bass-absorbing acoustic of the room was impossible to overcome. Then came the “hook,” as he smiled wryly and moved to the door, “If you think you can do better, Chuck, perhaps you should come work with us at the shop.” Did he know what he was doing? You bet!
Two years later I had dropped out of Law School (my former Tort and Contract notebooks having been adorned with organ sketches and specifications), directionless in an early life crisis, and embroiled in an organ building controversy. The First Armenian Church in Belmont, Massachusetts, where my former piano teacher was organist, had followed the advice of Berj Zamkochian (then organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and was proceeding towards the purchase of an organ with electro-pneumatic key action. By then I had become a nearly evangelical “tracker-backer” and devoted Fisk admirer. “Brrrrrrrrj,” as Charlie would later name him, had panned the Old West Church Organ in a letter to the pastor as a limited use “period instrument” and I was seeing red. Charlie loved to poke me about this episode after I joined the shop, saying “There is nothing worse than a convert,” spoken with the pained smile of a Mother Superior all too familiar with the syndrome.
I managed to get Charlie an appointment in Belmont where he closely observed my earnest desire and agitated state. He also saw my drawings for the first time and expressed admiration, mixed with gentle humor, of the naïve architectural forms I had created, trying to merge a huge stained glass window with Middle-Eastern and Colonial motifs! The window problem was a devil he knew all too well and this frustration bonded us. In December, 1974 he wrote me a letter saying that I could come up to the shop for two weeks to work on Belmont concepts if I agreed “to work quietly in a corner and not speak unless spoken to first,” adding “I do not propose to pay you for this.” How could I refuse such a warm Yankee invitation?
Those weeks led to a further invitation to try out for so-called real employment. Joe Grace, the former mayor of Gloucester and prickly old salt, nicknamed me the “Arab” (pronounced AAAAAArab) as I got my first taste of sanding and filling the nicks in old wood pipes under his direction. Charlie, quickly sensing the potential hurt of this moniker due to the Turkish genocide of my Armenian forbears, developed an alternative. He would delight in calling me the “Armoooooonian,” extending the vowel for as long as possible. Charlie loved making light of anyone who seemed heavily self-absorbed. A fertile mixture of an egalitarian Cambridge aesthetic and a love of comic strip names fueled the game. This helped me forgive, and even enjoy, his fondness of calling me “Chuck Poo” long after I had left the shop’s employ and established a successful studio as a liturgical designer. However, he was always careful to use the redacted “C.P.” if anyone outside the shop was within earshot.
Concise and sometime sharp comments were Charlie’s way of making a shop lesson memorable. Early in my apprenticeship I recall his suggestion that I liberally use wood scrap for experiments, to which I enquired if this was not wasteful? His reply: “Foolish boy, we are awash in the stuff!” On another occasion I asked him if it did not make him tired, looking at all the holes that had to be drilled to make a single wind-chest. His reply: “No, that’s what I have peons like you for, Chuck.” One quickly learned to think carefully before posing a question!
His responses could sometimes reveal a penetrating and profound sense of human fragility. In our first conversation during which he asked me to join the shop, knowing I was about to make a life-changing decision, I asked him if he related his faith in God to his work. He characteristically replied first as a scientist, pointing to the screen of an oscilloscope that resided in the office and noting the mystery that no one really knew why pipes sound as they do. Then after a pause, he added, “In the end, what else do you have?”
Years later, when we were developing a scale model for the case design of Christ United Methodist Church, Greensboro, NC, I ran into a snag while trying to resolve the termination of a contemporary style pipe-tower. I presented Charlie with a number of design alternatives, none of which quite satisfied either one of us. We sat together for a while in silence. He then turned to me with an expression that was both a peaceful smile and a grimace of painful recognition, as if he had been in this very place many times before. A chill went through me as he said, “The ending of things is always difficult.”
Such simple words, yet so subtle and far-reaching in import!
Although I have long since established a practice in residential architecture, designing Fisk organs remains a mainstay of my being. The shop has matured and changed enormously since 1983 but many of us still hear his voice as we work. With them I count it as one of life’s greatest gifts that Charlie made me one of his own.