Monday, July 18, 2005

Alphorns and Inmates

“Everybody in?”

The sliding metal door behind us groaned to life, pushing most of the light out of the dead-end hallway. As the shadows fell, I looked around at the small crowd gathered around me. On my left a square-jawed Major stood ramrod straight, to my right, a shaggy, bearded fellow stared at the low ceiling and smiled serenely. Behind me, Sheriff Deputies waited at parade-rest. As soon as the door clanged shut, the wall in front of us began slowly moving leftward. Filtered sunlight poured into the space, revealing a cavernous cell block beyond the threshold, where nearly a hundred idling inmates loitered and paced. Without a word, we all stepped forward; the cameraman and the goat-herder, flanked by Randolph County’s finest. As we entered the cell-block, incarcerated eyeballs washed over us.

‘Yeah, that’s right...we bad...’

A few minutes later the old man pursed his lips and a low mournful sound wafted out of his strange horn. Slowly rising, the strange tone rose, filling the highest reaches of the two-story lock-up with a sound born in the Swiss Alps. As it did, the inmates stopped shifting in their jumpsuits. Those sitting on the bolted down picnic tables slowly tapped their feet, their county-issue shower shoes bobbing in time. On the balcony above me, a shirtless inmate leaned into a urinal and smiled serenely at the foreign music. Even the deputies seemed more placid than before, as they silently fanned out into the crowd. Off to the side, I peered through my viewfinder, struggling to bring this latest absurdity into finer focus.

Halfway into the next desolate tune, I abandoned my tripod and shouldered the camera. As I skirted the perimeter of the incongruent gathering, more than a few inmates watched my every move. I knew better than to point my lens directly at them; instead I framed up shots from across the room while stoic deputies tracked my progress from behind mirrored sunglasses. That’s when a squirrelly looking gentleman in an orange jumpsuit motioned for my attention. When he got it, he began whispering loudly about being attacked. With the low drone of the alp-horn filling every crevice of the great space, I could only catch every other word. But when he pulled back his stenciled collar to reveal a scabbed-over bullet wound, I knew he wasn’t asking what time this would be on.

Up front, the old man and his assistant stopped blowing their horns. With the help of a third man, the old goat-herder barked out a message in what I guessed to be German. In a voice oddly reminiscent of the Burgermeister from that old Santa Claus cartoon, the old man’s translator barked a message of love and forgiveness. I didn’t expect his jumpsuit-wearing audience to be very receptive but as I panned the camera around, I saw more than one inmate nodding in silent agreement. After a few more pleads and platitudes, the trio of foreigners fell silent. Taking the horn’s mouthpiece into his weathered lips, the old goat-herder from Switzerland began blowing a familiar series of plaintive notes. As ‘Amazing Grace’ filled the highly-disinfected hall, more than one crusty inmate looked to be on the verge of tears. Me, I glanced at my watch and thought about my next stop: a sit-down interview with a local politician. Whatever the elected official wanted to discuss, it couldn’t be any weirder than this.

Or could it?


Rashunda said...

Oh my god. Alphorns are the most gruesome form of torture a human can inflict on another human. Someone call Amnesty.

Bluedog Photog said...

Is that the Rashunda I know and love?

Anonymous said...

Shame, shame, shame! The only way Alphorns sound majestic and good, is on simple chords and scales along the built-in scale. They must be played in places that feature echoes. You must not play one in your shed! There are handbooks dating back to the 1800s. They severely restrict the usage of Alphorns. Conservatism, for once, is good. Alphorns basically belong in the setting of alpine sunrises, of echoing valleys, and that's what they are built for. No echoing valleys here, as far as I can read.