The Piano Tuner Man
Yep! That is what we called him, “the Piano Tuner Man!” I was eight years old when I met and discovered the piano tuner man we called, Al. Just the fact that he found his way to our door was something of a miracle for our piano tuner man was blind.
When our doorbell rang that first time, we saw this very slightly built man with a white tipped cane that tapped along as he walked. One wanted to take him by the hand and help him find his way but he insisted on being very independent of that. We ‘showed’ him the way to our living room to where our very humble ‘learner’ piano stood with its marred finish from so much usage by this large family of eight children. Al, the piano tuner man, fingered the piano with his educated hands to get acquainted with its setup. He then opened the upright piano from the top and put a stick under the lid to keep it open. Wow! I had never looked inside a piano before. It is strange that I had never had the curiosity to see how a piano was made.
There were so many wires inside the piano and I couldn’t imagine how one could keep them separated to meet each piano key. Al explained to me that those wires had different lengths for a reason – to determine pitch. He set his little satchel of tuning instruments on the floor close by and the first tool was a three pronged, silver, type of instrument. There were other tools in that little satchel also, but this one intrigued me the most. Al called it his tuning fork and demonstrated how it was used. Al even let me try the tuning fork and, of course, it was magic to me.
Starting with that special note that the tuning fork gave off, Al started to press notes, eight keys apart. He explained that every eight keys was called an octave. He went up and down the piano keyboard touching and tuning just one note every eight keys, tapping the note hard and soft as if there were something within each key that held a secret only he knew. He explained that he was listening to the vibration that each note made Now my brother joined me in this awe and curiosity and we asked many questions of, “The Piano Tuner Man.” “How did he learn to tune pianos?” “Was it fun?” “How could he tell if a note was off key?” “Why was he blind?” “How could he walk and find his way around the city?” “Did he ever get lost?” Al answered all of our questions very graciously, and, in fact, seemed to relish in the limelight and attention, but feeling that we were getting a bit too personal, and perhaps in the way of his work, our mother told us that it was time to sit on the couch and watch from there so that Al could get his work done!
Al continued to go from key to key, up and down the piano keyboard, listening like a bird does when he cocks his head to grab a worm. He adjusted the strings for just the right tone and vibration, only he could hear. Gradually, so gradually, he went up the scale then down. Soon he added notes or chords, as his experienced fingers became pleased with the sound. Once in a while I could determine a quick short tune that he squeaked in just to see if us kids were alert enough to hear it. He talked with us as he worked, explaining each and every task.
Finally, the pedals were adjusted and musical notes started to ring throughout the house. What was to happen now was the biggest surprise of all. Al started to play the piano like it had never been played before. Now the rest of the family started to gather around as music flowed from those humble hands. Al’s fingers flew from note to note making the most beautiful, melodious, harmonic sounds that I had ever heard. It seemed that our little ‘ole piano was saying thank you from tip to toe, as Al continued his ascent and descent on the keyboard. The whole family gathered around the piano in glee, as Al played and played. Dad was home now too, and he and Mom joined in to watch Al play. Our Piano Tuner Man asked if any of us had a favorite song and, of course, we all did. He played them all, prettier than we had ever heard them play. We sang songs with Al, we laughed with him, we marveled at him and his talent. We learned he played professionally at one time and that he was born of musical parents. Truly, if Al would have been an angel, he would have been the piano player for the Angels on High Choir.
Mom and Dad asked Al to join us for dinner but he refused saying he had to be home by dark and when the buses were on schedule. My Dad paid him and it was interesting to watch Al feel of the bill to see if he needed to give change. Then Mom sent the two youngest children, my brother and I, to walk him to the bus stop which was only two blocks away. Being the youngest, I was thrilled to be privileged enough to spend extra time with him, and of course, ask more questions. I hated to see him go. I wanted to get on the bus and go with him but we bid him a fond farewell as he tapped his cane with familiarity and went up the steps of the bus. We waved at him as the bus departed until we could see him no more. (We never thought that he could not see us waving)!
What a delightful memory of Al, our “Piano Tuner Man.” He instilled determination and stick-to-itiveness to practice as children, even though it seemed hard, because after all, look at what this handicapped man, a blind man, accomplished in that short time in our home – he captured the dreams of a child.
The end of the hallway opened up into a dimly lit room where pictures of what looked like faraway places hung on dark matted walls. He strained his eyes to take in all of the eerie furnishings. What secrets did this strange room hold? Why was it so far from the rest of the house? It didn’t have the feel of a restful place to unwind at the end of the day. His curiosity was really peeked. The longer he stayed in the room, the more uncomfortable he felt.
As his eyes frantically searched the room, Lou tried to discover a key to unlock the mystery. He saw what looked oddly like a couch, but not one that looked very comfortable. In the corner of the room were fancy looking chains hanging from a wall. He wondered if they were some sort of macabre decoration. He was surprised at how somber the room seemed and didn’t see it as a place where many happy things occurred. He tried to imagine who would be comfortable in a place like this. It certainly wouldn’t stir up stimulating conversation or encourage a guest to return. As he spotted what must be a whip of some sort, he was really confused. Could this be a den for sadism?
Lou thought about the owner of the house, who had invited him and a few of his friends over for the afternoon. He seemed to be a rather happy go lucky type of guy, not at all one who would find enjoyment in a room like this. He thought he was a pretty good judge of character, but evidently he had really blown it on this guy. Lou would never have taken him for someone who would have a room of this sort.
Suddenly he heard a noise down the hall and decided he didn’t want to be caught in this room. He didn’t want the man to know he had discovered it. This was something to be better left untouched. He slipped out the door, but was spotted by the owner who greeted him with, “Oh, I see you found my secret room.” Lou froze in his tracks and didn’t know what to say. The man went on, “I can tell by the look on your face you are wondering what it is all about.” Wow, that was an understatement and Lou didn’t know how to respond. The man continued, “Most people think I’m a weirdo when they see that room, but actually it is very inspirational to me.” “What”, Lou thought? “You see,” the man went on, “my real ambition in life is to be a writer, but eventually a screenwriter of macabre stories, I use this room to try to get into the right mood.” Lou breathed a sigh of relief as he began a discussion with the man about his ambition. “Maybe I should have been a writer,” Lou thought.
What a Veteran Believes
Fifty years ago, unsure of what I wanted, eager to get out of a small town and see the world I meandered over to the Recruiting Office in Salem and spoke to the nice man in the trim blue Air Force uniform. I thought to myself how he looked happy with his occupation and how I could somehow see myself doing that same job in the near future.
I raised my right hand and after a battery of mental and physical tests, I said goodbye to my Love and my Parents and boarded a plane for Texas. Arriving at Lackland AFB with 50 other recruits we were promptly and unforgettably jolted into the reality of military service. Yes Sir, No Sir, became the only phrases uttered with any sort of confidence as the Tactical Instructors methodically tore us down to bare metal and began the rebuilding process that would consume eight weeks.
Through basic training and tech school we learned the Air Force way. Though some would argue it was not the best way, it was the only way to survive without being sent home as categorically unfit for military service, a designation no one wanted to have on their life history record. Feeling fit, educated and ready we branched out to our various assignments with an eagerness and some apprehension as to what lay ahead. We could not yet imagine ourselves as Veterans, even though that was what we were to be. Nothing we could do legally from then on would alter that status. We were destined to become Veterans of this great nation, following in the footsteps of those who had bravely gone before us and charted the path to honor.
No one can imagine himself to be a Veteran. It is a status that is built up over time, after serving your country. Everyone who has served at any time becomes a Veteran. He or she cannot choose it, they cannot will it away. They are Veterans. Campaigns or wars become the background for Veterans again not by choice. It is simply acquired by the era the Veteran served. I spent my time in the Military from 1962 through 1969. This was the time the Vietnam War was raging. Whether you went “in country” or served in a support position elsewhere, you were still a Viet Nam Veteran. It was a contentious period. Few wanted to go and those that did were treated badly when they returned as if they had a choice or if they had committed a crime by the anti-war protesters who somehow envisioned themselves above the Veteran, by either opting out of the draft through various means or simply leaving the country, burning their draft cards and becoming criminal draft evaders.
Serving in a non-combat zone was not a choice. It was the assignment you were given. You might have been able to volunteer duty “in country” and those who did often returned for several tours. Those who never got near the combat zone were still necessary parts of the machine. It was said seven people were needed to support one combat troop. Having been one of those support troops for eight years from 1962 through 1969, I considered myself lucky. After discharge I continued to wonder if I had really done my part. At the time I was married with two, then three children and would have missed them terribly had I been sent off for a year. One year not so long ago while visiting the traveling Viet Nam Memorial, I was talking to an old grizzled vet. He asked me if I had been “in country.” I replied that I had not but often felt torn by the fact. He shot back, “Never feel guilty about serving! You were there. You could have been sent just as anyone else. The only ones who should feel guilty are the ones who could have served and did not.”
After that I never again felt guilt or wondered if I should have. Each year I feel more and more proud of the time I served that made me become a Veteran. On a recent trip to the Viet Nam Memorial in D.C. I spotted a new patch. It said “Viet Nam Era Veteran.” I bought it and had it sewn to my jacket so I can wear it proudly. And I can explain the difference to the many who ask if I served in Viet Nam. I answer first with, “Yes I did.”