First was my Pop. He served in the Civil War, a drummer boy, and an excellent one at that. Somewhere buried deep in my drawers I bet I could find his badge he willed to me. He was only 16, but he still marched just as tall –if not taller– than the other soldiers. Fighting for the unity of our country, he was my idol. I never quite knew how he was able to play music after the war. He told me the bloody details that I was too young to hear yet remember fondly. And still, he loved to play music, at any moment he could spare. Whether it was his poorly tuned piano or his fiddle, he played with joy and vigor.
My father also had that vigor. When he was drafted to Europe, he brought Pop’s fiddle with him. He didn’t play music for fun, no, he played because it was one of the only things keeping him and his fellow soldiers sane. He never played when he came back from the war. Even now, almost twenty-five years later, whenever I play the fiddle, he either leaves the room or gets all teary-eyed. He never tells me to stop. He always says I play beautifully. But no matter how beautiful or horridly I play; I know that I will never mute the rhythm of gunshots I see in his eyes.
The civil war, the first world war, and now this. 1943, another war has come to destroy us all. Most of my friends enlisted, those who didn’t were often drafted. I count myself lucky, but I have always been guiltily jealous. For two generations my family had been musicians at war, fighting for morale. Here I was, not in the war.
I suffered from polio. My left leg from the knee down was about as useless as a dead stump. I got it in grade school, and recovered, Pop was with us then. Every day while I was sick, he would check to make sure I could feel his hands on each of my limbs. I still remember the day when I said I couldn’t. He didn’t believe me, so he pressed harder and harder until he snapped for a moment and punched my leg. I didn’t say anything. He started crying. I cried too.
I cried even harder because not a month later he was sick with the same thing. He wasn’t as lucky as me.
I still play his fiddle. I’m playing it right now –well not quite- I’m tuning it. It’s a tattered old thing, there are scratches strewn everywhere on the wood. Once a finely lacquered spruce, it has grown weary with age, nearly decrepit. I dropped it once when I was little. I got told off, but we didn’t buy a new one. On the front, a poorly done patch job marks the pathetic spot. I’m plucking the A; I can’t get it perfect.
I tighten it, then it sounds too sharp, but even a tad lower feels flat. I pitz the song, “Sing, Sing, Sing” It sounds fine, but I can’t manage to get past the A. The person ahead of me leaves for their audition. Whatever world I was in before dissipates, and everything in the room screams for my attention. I can suddenly see all of the other musicians, and I am just a crippled fiddler.
Bands are gathered. I hear someone practicing the same song as me. I have played for bars before, but that was before the war broke out. Since then, I haven’t had much work. What I would give to be famous, then I could play whatever and people would gobble it up.
I have two pieces prepared, my second is Mozart. What a figure he was, famous even at a young age. I’m saving that for last, my secret weapon. Symphony 41, it’s a lovely piece. However, no piece is lovely if my A isn’t right.
I struggle for another minute. I’m only satisfied when I feel it resonate just so. The other musician comes out of the room with her saxophone, she beams. What will I have to live up to?
My name is called, “Walter Ramsey.”
I gasp gripping my fiddle tightly in my right hand. I lean heavily on my cane as I hobble over to the stage. I stand tall, imitating the image I have concocted of Pop. A stool sits ominously in the middle of the stage. I slowly make my way to it and ease myself on, nervous that it will collapse beneath me. Three people are judging my audition. They are already scribbling things before I start playing, or even raise my bow.
I inhale once and secure the instrument underneath my chin. My hands are at the ready. “Sing, Sing, Sing” is a lively piece not intended for a fiddle, but if I am auditioning for the USO, I better make it entertaining.
I read an article just last week about how the USO was taking auditions. If I couldn’t be a soldier, what better to do than perform and raise their spirits. It would just be one more way to bring me closer to my Pop, and father.
One of the three judges calls out, “What do you have prepared for us today, Walter?”
I grin, “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
“Lovely, it’s a fun piece for everyone,” another one says.
“Start when you are ready,” the original judge says.
I wait for a few seconds. Then I launch myself into the piece. I focus on each bouncing movement of my bow, each finger, the sweet sound of my fiddle. With all of the damages it has suffered, a pleasant noise must’ve seemed impossible. Everyone loves an underdog. I crescendo, decrescendo, and bring out each step.
I pay little attention to the judges, but they’re grooving along to my tune. Who doesn’t love a song like this?
I lean in as if pushing the music out of my body. My fingers are their own tornado. Some moments last an eternity, and I am glad this one follows suit. How could they deny me now? No one would, not with an audition as smooth as this. Even the parts that I worry about seem to go fine.
I reach the bridge of the song, getting softer. Idling in the calm, the climax of the piece comes. I finish with a bang. I place my fiddle in rest and wait for what they have to say. They don’t take notes, but I cannot imagine why.
“Would you like me to start on my next piece.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Oh?” My face falls. Have I done something wrong?
“I’m sorry but we just aren’t inclined to accept anyone with your condition, we wanted to hear your piece though.”
My face goes red as I try holding back tears. They're just like everyone else. I find my words, “It isn’t like I will be fighting off those damned Nazis. I just wanted to help my country.”
They don’t say anything for a long time. Then one says, “We appreciate that you care for your country, but there are other ways to help, perhaps making a donation—”
I shout, “No, there is more to this, this isn’t just about me.”
“I see, but you must understand we would not be able to properly accommodate you…”
Out of spite I rise from my chair and hobble around like a maniac. “I can accommodate myself! There isn’t a reason I shouldn’t do this.”
They are visibly mad now. Someone shouts at me this time, “You want to know the truth? Walter, your music was horrible too, now leave.”
I am already packing up fuming. The world is far from fair, even to those with two working legs. I wasn’t a good musician in their eyes. I was just a crippled young man that would cause more harm than good. They have no regard for the harm they are causing me. I understand –maybe better than anyone— but I expected more from them.
I hear a mumble from afar, “We can’t let a cripple boy play, what message will that give to the soldiers? We need someone to lift their spirits, not a pity party.”
When I get outside back into the street, the sunny bright day taunts me. The bitter tears finally fall, but I keep silent. I stay right there in front of the building, another act of defiance. I snap open my case. In my rage I failed to properly put it away. Once it opens, something about the fiddle calls out to me. It's begging me to play, so I lift it again to my chin. My soul is crushed, and I attempt to revitalize it by playing Symphony 41.
I won’t be playing in the war. I won’t be honoring my Pop or my father. I cannot help, not if no one will let me. I hate it. My heart does nauseating somersaults with each wave of disappointment passing over my body. I try to channel it into the music, closing my eyes I put in the grief of three generations. I only wanted to make things better, I only wanted justice for our nation, and instead, I’m stuck on a block.
If I can’t help the fight, what left is there to fight for? As soon as the war broke out, I knew I wanted to live up to the legacy that had been placed in front of me.
“Sir, that is very pretty,” a small voice says.
I open my eyes and blink at the child tightly gripping her mother’s hand. I smile at her, and she cowers underneath her mother’s arm. I stop playing, “Thank you.” The girl’s petite face is hidden in the dark shadows of her mother’s overcoat. Her face is obscure, but adorable, nonetheless.
Her mom speaks as a representative, “She is just a bit shy.”
“It’s alright, I’m glad at least someone likes my music.” The way that children don’t make assumptions is incredible. Through her eyes, I might look like I could run a marathon. Children are brutally honest, and I know she doesn’t lie. I’m not looking for validation, but I accept it anyway.
“I can’t imagine who wouldn’t, it’s lovely,” her mother smiles at me. She puts a hand on my shoulder. “It’s much nicer than anything on the radio.”
The things on the radio are bleak, deaths everywhere.
She drops her hand, telling me she has to run some errands.
I thank her again, and she leaves, the little girl in tow. The child glances back for a brief moment and I wink at her.
I raise my fiddle to the world and let them hear whatever I want them too. I still have more to give.