UNTIL RECENTLY, I was convinced that the most annoying musical instrument on earth was the accordion.
Even in the hands of an accomplished player, the accordion sounds like a refrigerator being dragged across a cement floor.
Let's face it, there are only about a dozen people in the entire country who enjoy accordion music, and they are mostly shut-ins, sociopaths and members of weird religious cults.
Think of the accordion and you think of a doughy man in lederhosen and feathered Alpine hat screeching through "Lady of Spain" at the Sausage Queen Festival while everyone winces.
Then the other day I attended something called the Children's Festival with my 4-year-old, and it made me reconsider my choice of the all-time-worst musical instrument.
The danger at events such as the Children's Festival, of course, is that they might ask the parents to participate.
For example, years ago, I attended a father-son dinner with my oldest boy during which a teacher stood and announced: "OK, dads and sons, we're going to make you earn your dinner! Everybody up here to do the Hokey-Pokey!"
I thought it was a joke -- hell, they weren't even serving booze. And the only time adults will do that stupid dance is when they're half-loaded.
But sure enough, the teacher popped a tape in the cassette deck and suddenly the familiar irritating lyrics filled the room: "You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out "
So you never know what's going to happen at these events. My advice is to always prepare for the worst.
Anyway, things got off to a fairly promising start at the Children's Festival.
The kids did some finger-painting and watched a puppet show and had a few stories read to them.
Then midway through the program, we were asked to move into the auditorium, where the director jumped on the stage, grabbed the microphone and chirped: "We have a special treat for you."
Right away, I knew we were doomed and began reaching for my coat.
Because when they announce "a special treat," it's usually a mime or an overly cheerful woman with a parrot that talks and does tricks.
Let's face it, a children's festival is one of the few places where mimes and parrots can perform without the risk of being attacked by the audience.
Oh, it's not that the children don't want to attack -- it's just that their natural desire to please adults holds them back.
Plus their hands are simply too tiny to ball into fists that will do any real damage.
In any event, the "special treat" at this event turned out to be even worse than I imagined.
Because when the curtain went up, there were three men playing the bagpipes.
Well. The reaction was pretty much what you'd expect.
The kids sat there with pained, bewildered expressions on their faces as they listened to what sounded like a flock of geese having their necks wrung.
The adults, of course, began looking frantically for the exits.
But apparently the festival organizers had anticipated such a reaction, because a burly volunteer was blocking each door.
Me, I just sat there thinking: What kind of monsters are running this festival?
How could anyone be so cruel as to subject young children to this sort of thing -- especially in the name of entertainment?
It would be nice to report that the bagpipers played one song and quickly left the stage.
Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Horribly misinterpreting the audience's stunned silence for rapt attention, the bagpipers continued to play -- two songs, three songs, on and on.
Between songs, even though no one was applauding, the bagpipers would actually smile and wave at the kids, completely unaware of the suffering they were causing.
I don't know how long they played -- time has a way of standing still in moments of great stress.
When it was over, the bagpipers yelled "Thank yewww" into their microphones while the kids and parents filed out, pale and shaken.
As we drove home, I told my son: "Look, I'm sorry you had to sit through that. But you've got your whole life ahead of you -- don't let this one horrible incident spoil it."
It took a long time to get him to bed that night.
Me, I didn't sleep so well myself.