Friday, July 31, 2015

July 31, 2015--Friday at the Bristol Diner: Vic Firth

With her face in the paper, Rona asked, "Does anyone know Vic Firth?"

We were talking about the collapse of the Red Sox and ignored her. Baseball in late July will do that to you.

"He was from Maine. Newport, wherever that is."

Ever the gentleman, Bill looked over at Rona, "I think it's somewhere in the middle of the state. North and west of here. I don't think it's much of a port. It's on a lake of some sort."

"I mean heard of him. Not know. Vic Firth."

"Do you think they'll make a deal before the end of the trading deadline?" Jim asked.

"What good it'll do for 'em?" Tommy said and shrugged in exasperation. "They're hopeless."

"It says here in the paper," Rona pressed on, "That he died the other day."

"You don't say," Jim said. "I didn't even know he was sick." Tommy stifled a laugh.

"You guys have no respect. Even for a fellow Mainer."

"OK. So how old was this what's-his-name?"

"Eighty-five. Vic Firth. Like I said, from Newport."

"He's in the papers? Someone we never heard of?" Tommy laughed at his version of black humor. No one else did.

"So what's it say?" I finally asked.

"That he built a better drumstick."

"Built?" Jim said. "You build chickens?"

"Not that kind," Rona said with a sigh. I sensed she was about ready to want to leave.

"Is there another kind?" Jim pressed, having fun. "I mean . . ."

"Not chickens. Drums."


"For drums. Drumsticks for drums."

"For this they put you in the paper?"

"Let me read you a little of his obituary."

"From the New York Times, no less. Only they would make a big deal out of drumsticks for drums."

"If you'd only simmer down for a minute and let me read."

Bill shushed everyone.

"'If you build a better drumstick, the world will beat a path to your door.'"

"I like that," Tommy said. "'Beat a path.' Like you beat a drum. Nice."

Ignoring him, Rona continued, "'That more than 50 years ago, is precisely what Vic Firth did, in the process becoming, almost inadvertently, the world's most prolific drumstick manufacturer."

"Inadvertently, prolific. Very impressive. Do they ever use words like those in the Portland Press Herald?" Everyone chuckled.

Undaunted, Rona continued--"He was the chief tympanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for more than 40 years. It says here that some felt he was, let me quote from the paper, 'the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world.' Seiji Ozawa, the Boston's conductor said that. Of the orchestra."

"We know who he is," Bill said. "We may be from the sticks--pun intended--but we know about our Sox and our Ozawa. Japanese, I think."

"Listen to this. Here's the best part. In the 1960s he grew frustrated with the drumsticks that were available on the market. They weren't balanced enough and whatnot. It says here that he was 'seeking sticks that were fleet [whatever that means--everyone shrugged], strong, perfectly straight, of even weight in the hands and able to produce the vast range and color [again, whatever that means] of sounds he desired.' I like this part--'from the patter of raindrops to the rattle of bones ["That's real fancy writing," Jim interjected] to the thunder of cannons--he was forced to jury-rig a pair.'"

"And so?" Bill asked, making a hurry-up gesture. Checking his watch dramatically, he said, "Some of us still have to work for a living."

"I hear you," Rona said. "One more minute. Here's the part you'll like."

"No more rattling of bones, I hope," Tommy said.

"I promise," Rona said. "He turned this jury-rigging into a business. A big one. A multimillion dollar business. With a factory up here in Maine. I think in Newport. Here's what happened. And I know, real quick." Bill was reaching for money to pay his check.

"Here's something you'll like, Tommy, considering all the stuff you have in your garage." He smiled. "He, Vic Firth, worked in his garage to perfect his drumsticks. He built a prototype that the obituary says had the 'lightness, versatility, and equilibrium' he was seeking. And the next thing you know he had a business going. As I said, a big one. All kinds of drummers and tympanists started clamoring for his drumsticks. They were made mainly from hickory, maple, or birch."

"All three are ideal for what he wanted," Tommy, who is a talented woodworker said. "That is, if I'm understanding about the fleetness and stuff."

"He sells them, sold them from between $7 to $60 a pair to all kinds of drummers from those in symphony orchestras like Boston and rock and rollers like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. And listen to this--his company sells about 12 million drumsticks a year. Amazing, wouldn't you say?"

"I'll be old Charlie gets the $60 dollar ones," Tommy said.

"He can afford it," Bill, nodding, added.

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