Abijah Gooch was a character in the 1930’s era hillbilly comic strip, Li’l Abner. For some reason, young Charles Fisk, liked to refer to himself as A. Gooch, and as his next-door neighbor and sort of adopted younger brother, I continued to get letters from him signed “A. Gooch.” They all started “Dear Son.”
Gooch and his family moved into the left-hand half of our ugly Victorian duplex house in Cambridge in the mid-1930’s. They arrived in a black, two-door Model A Ford: father, mother, Gooch and his pretty younger sister Josie (called Crunch by Gooch), a fat cocker spaniel named Vickie and a cat named Jeep, carried by Crunch. Shortly after the Fisks were settled next door, Mildred appeared, a young black woman who was working her way through the New England Conservatory by doubling as their maid. Mildred gave Gooch piano lessons. I, too, started with Mildred at the astronomical price of twenty-five cents per lesson.
Gooch was a normal looking kid except for his eyeglasses: they were perfectly round, with silver rims and armor-plated lenses.
In many ways our life was out of a Norman Rockwell painting: touch football games in a neighbor’s yard in the fall and baseball in the spring. (Gooch was a fan of the Braves before they left Boston for Atlanta.) In the winter, we’d all—Gooch, Crunch, my sister and I—tramp down to the skating club, our skates clanking against each other. Gooch never wore a cap, and the water with which he attempted to control his hair would freeze. The Fisks had a summerhouse in Rockport where Gooch had his own sailboat named “Port Luck.”
Before his voice changed, Gooch was in demand as a boy soprano at Christ Church. He looked forward to funerals because he got paid ten dollars per service. (“Oh, good, somebody died” he once said.)
It didn’t take long for Gooch to get interested in sound, first in how to make records come to life. He designed and built his own amplifier when he was fourteen or fifteen. I remember the hanging lamp in our front hall swinging back and forth as a result of the high-wattage, hi-fidelity sounds emanating from Gooch’s equipment on the other side of our firewall.
As to music, Gooch’s taste was then running to the major orchestral works of Beethoven, Brahms and Tschaikovsky. He had the four-handed edition of Beethoven’s symphonies, and I can remember our trying to slog through Beethoven’s Seventh. The slow second movement was the only one that would have been recognizable. As he got older, he became more interested in the Baroque era. (Episcopalians, please note: Gooch wrote S – 259 in the Service Music section of the new hymnal.)
Then came the big band swing era. Gooch bought records by some of the white bands — I remember Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller — but the black bands like Count Basie and especially Duke Ellington really turned him on. He loved the Trumpet and took lessons during his big band enthusiasm; I don’t remember his being much of a virtuoso on the horn (or on a keyboard either). Gooch played for me the first Fats Waller record I ever heard, “Winter Weather,” and I have loved Fats’ piano sound ever since. At this point, Gooch started making arrangements for a dance band in Arlington. (I never heard any of them.)
Louis Armstrong, sketch by Charles Fisk c. 1940
During World War II, before we found ourselves in uniform, Gooch and I were spotters. During air raid drills we would climb to the roof of a nearby apartment building and check for specks of light that could have been seen by German aircraft. After one alert, we were invited to stop and visit with the couple who lived in the apartment through which we reached the roof; they had a great piano and we played four – handed boogie – woogie on it—like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Gooch sat on the left.
Most of us took dancing lessons as kids, but Gooch’s parents thought them a tad frivolous, so my sister became Gooch’s dancing master. Fred Astaire he never became.
The money saved by the Fisks by omitting Gooch’s dancing lessons was being spent on his hair: Mr. Fisk became bald at an early age, Gooch was getting his head treated by a hair expert. Whatever he did seems to have worked because I lost my hair long before he did.
Gooch’s first fling with organ building occurred when he was about sixteen. He bought an old parlor organ, or harmonium, for ten dollars, built a Pedal board for it, the pedals hooked up to the keyboard by a system of wires and pulleys, and then pumped it using the family Electrolux. I don’t believe any of us realized what this particular project might lead to.
Gooch was clever with a pen. Some of his caricatures are shown. Ruby Newman was a Boston bandleader who provided music for debutante parties and kids’ dances.
Ruby Newman, sketch by Charles Fisk c. 1940
By the time I was sixteen I started hanging out more with kids my age at the old Browne and Nichols School—Gooch attended the more progressive Cambridge School—partly because no matter what Gooch and I did together, he always ended up the manager. I discovered that I liked interacting with others on a more equal footing. So our paths diverged a bit, even though Gooch was more talented than any of my new pals. Also, at this point I was much more interested in Gooch’s younger sister, on whom I had a terminal crush.
The Fisks moved from the other half of our house as the war approached its end, but Gooch and I ended up at Harvard together after JV Day. We lived in different “houses” (dormitories) but we both rowed and would see one another at the boathouse. To my surprise, Gooch, who lived with a rather “preppie” bunch, had become a member of one of the (then ten) exclusive social clubs. (Most of them had been Greek letter fraternities before they were banned around the turn of the last century), and he arranged to have me “punched” for the same one. (He never told his parents about his club membership, expecting their disapproval.)
Gooch developed an attractive, laid – back social manner which I am sure helped as he dealt with boards of trustees and deacons. He was not only 1000% honest, but had a way of assuring one of his rightness.
My last contact with Gooch (now Charlie) was a very happy one. In the late 1950’s, my wife, baby daughter and I were living in Westwood, Mass., a country suburb of Boston. I was on the vestry of a young Episcopal church. Our organ was an old pump-with-your-feet reed job like the one Gooch bought for $10. Gooch was then working for the Andover Organ Company and provided us with the beginnings of a real pipe organ—the Rückpositiv division plus Pedal stop, which he lent to us. The whole works cost us less than $9,000. The sound was small, but beautiful.
Gooch was a key part of my growing up, and what a kick it is for me to keep reading about his success as one of our greatest organ builders