Six Apparitions of Lenin on the Piano

In the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, there is a picture titled, "Six Apparitions of Lenin on the Piano." It shows a room, mostly bare, mostly dark. The only light shines obliquely through a doorway in the far wall. In the middle of the room is a piano. Spaced across the keyboard, just above the keys, are six tiny images of Lenin's face, glowing, as if in a candle flame. The entire picture has the bright, pellucid cast that puts the edge on surrealism.

This picture is special to me, because I've been there.

When I was 12, I was in the Boy Scouts. As scouts go, I was pretty clueless, but I went where they led me, and did what they told me, and muddled along for about a year, until I lost interest and dropped out.

Our troop went camping one weekend each month. Usually, these were forays into the woods, but one weekend we went to a local jamboree. This was a gathering of scores of troops from the area. We all camped out on a big field on the grounds of a local university.

At the end of the weekend, all the scouts in all the troops packed up their gear for the long trek—back to the parking lot at the edge of the field. In the parking lot were parents who had volunteered to drive. My father had volunteered to drive.

All the scouts went down into the parking lot, loaded their gear into cars, and departed. Except my troop. Alone among all the troops, my troop had brought its vehicles—a van and a car or two—up out of the parking lot and right to the edge of the field. They had loaded the van with gear and the cars with scouts, and they still had a half-dozen scouts left over, because my father was looking for us down in the parking lot where all the other scouts were, and not by the field where we were.

The scouts without transport were standing in a line, and the scout master was becoming agitated. He asked me where my father was, and I said (truthfully) that I didn't know. He asked me if I could call home; did I have change for a phone call?

I had read the Boy Scout Handbook, which advised to bring some change when you went camping, in case you needed to make a phone call. At the age of 12, I didn't carry keys, or a wallet, or money, but I knew that to make a phone call, you needed a dime to get a dial tone, and most of a dollar if you actually wanted to talk to someone. So whenever I went camping, I grabbed a handful of change and tossed it into the bottom of my pack.

I told the scout master that I had some change in my pack. He became more agitated, saying, "In your pack? What if you get separated from your pack?" I had to concede the cogency of his question, as I was at the instant separated from my pack—not by any great distance, but by 40 other packs that lay on top of it in the van where they all had been loaded.

As I considered this, each scout in the line reached into his back pocket, pulled out a black wallet, and flipped it open. As I looked down the line, I could see that each wallet held a card.

In the center of each card was a hole.

In each hole was a dime.

Printed on each card was the legend

MY
EMERGENCY
DIME

A few minutes later, my father found us. We loaded the remaining scouts and went home.

It was years later when I first saw "Six Apparitions of Lenin on the Piano". But when I saw it, I recognized it instantly. I've been there.


Notes

Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich, not John [Lennon]
phone call
This was back when you needed coins to get a dial tone at a pay phone.

Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@world.std.com / 1996 December 10