I just gotta know! When can we expect to see more of “A Winter Tale”? You’ve done a great job with the first two parts. They remind me a lot of the old fiction stories about Scouts from about the time of WWI. (Bob Elliott, Northern Star Council, MN-WI)
Thanks for asking. You’re one of a surprising number of readers who’ve asked if there’s more, and the answer’s yes. In fact, the original story’s become a manuscript for a full-length novel I’ve written for middle-graders and Scouts, and parents and Scouters. The working title is THE MANTOOTH BONE. It’s in revision stage at the moment, but you can expect to see the complete book in 2015. For now, here’s an excerpt.
As the scene opens, eleven year-old Eddie Starling is at his grandfather’s house. Grampa is a pre-Vietnam Era veteran who lost his wife—Eddie’s grandmother—just a few years ago. Eddie’s parents are working this Christmas Eve day, so he’s helping his grandfather decorating the house…
“Thanks for coming over today, Eddie. I’d been tempted to just let the Christmas decorations sit in their boxes again this year. It hasn’t been the same since…”
“I know, Grampa. It’s just not the same without Grandma. But I’m glad we’re doing this,” I say as we stretch a string of lights across Grampa’s front porch railing. “It’s gonna look nice when we’re done. She’d like it.”
“Yes she would, Eddie. She and I did it together for, what? More than fifty years, I recon. I’m sorry your mom and dad have to work, but the good part is I get you for almost the whole day!”
Grampa’s house is a few miles from ours. It’s on the edge of town, where the fields and farms and woods begin. It was built nearly a hundred years ago. It’s the only house Grampa and Grandma ever lived in, and it’s where Dad was raised. They bought it right after Grampa came out of the Army and married Grandma. It’s a tiny house—a “Cape Cod,” Dad told me—but it’s totally organized, just like Grampa’s tools, all hanging on pegboard in the basement and more in the old garage out back. They’re from when he owned his service station, after he became a master mechanic and then bought it from the original owner. He sold the service station a couple of years ago, right after Grandma died.
With a small Christmas tree in the front window, and the outside lights nearly all hung up, it’s beginning to look a lot more like Christmas here than it has in the past couple of years.
“Eddie, how about while I’m connecting these to the extension cord, you get the last box of lights from the basement?”
I haven’t been in Grampa’s basement for several years, so I have to remember where things are. Wandering around, I notice something that seems different; I don’t remember it being here before. It’s against the far wall. I can see it only dimly because the lights aren’t on back there.
It’s a big square thing, with a couple of old blankets thrown over it. I’m puzzled, but I leave it alone. Grampa’s pretty private, just like Dad. But after I find the last lights, bring them up to the porch, and we string them on the other side of the porch, I take a chance.
“Grampa, what’s that big thing against the wall in the back of the basement?”
“What big thing?”
“That thing with the blankets over it.”
“Oh, that. It’s just something I thought I’d try, but it didn’t work out, so put it down here, instead.”
“What is it?” I persist.
“Well, come on with me and we’ll take a look,” he says. So back to the basement we both go, and he tells me I can pull the blankets off it.
It’s an upright piano, like the kind in old western movies.
“Can I try it out, Grampa?”
“Well, no harm, I suppose. Go ahead, Eddie,” Grampa says as he goes behind some storage boxes and comes back with an old piano bench.
I flip up the curved key cover. Taking a seat on the bench, I try middle C, then a couple of chords. The keys are ivory. It must be really old, because they’re all yellow and a lot are cracked and chipped. It’s in tune and has a nice, mellow sound.
“Can you play it, Grampa? Do you have any sheet music?”
“Nope. Never needed ‘em, Eddie?”
“I play by ear. Whatever I hear, I remember. And once I hear it, I can play it. I’ve never figured out how that happens, but it does.”
“So, can you play this?” I ask him, as I play the first lines of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
“Of course I can play that. It was your grandmother’s favorite piece.”
I move over a little so he can sit next to me on the bench, and he plays it all the way through, gently and as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it played.
“How’d you learn that?” I ask him.
“My own father had an old record, and after I heard it, I just sat down and played it, simple as that.”
“When you were a kid?”
“Yup. My father played, too, and he let me play whenever I liked. But that piano was lost in the fire we had when I was about eight or nine. I never really played much again until your grandma and I got married.”
“I’ve never heard this story. Can you tell me about it?”
“Well, I enlisted in the Army right after high school and stayed in for four years. Your grandma wanted to get married first. But I wouldn’t do that, even though I loved her like crazy, just like I had all though high school.
“This was way back in the late fifties, just a few years after Elvis Presley was inducted, and…”
“Elvis Presley—the king of rock n’ roll, of course!”
“Sorry, Grampa. Never heard of him.”
“Well, never mind. Ancient history, just like me. Anyway, my unit stayed stateside. We weren’t sent to Lebanon when they had their political crisis over there and Ike—that’s President Eisenhower—had to send troops there. At least you’ve heard of Ike, I hope?”
“Yeah, Grampa. He’s in our history books.”
“Well, he sent a bunch of troops to Lebanon, to help the government there. It was a small war, but it was a shooting war, and I lost some of the high school buddies I’d had—we all enlisted together. I lost some more pals in the early sixties, when President Kennedy started sending Special Forces to Vietnam. But, for better or worse, I wasn’t in one of those units. I was discharged in sixty-two. Your grandma, God bless her, had waited for me.
“So as soon as I was discharged we got married, and within that first year your dad was born. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was just an apprentice mechanic starting out, and your grandma, being pregnant, stayed home. That’s what most wives still did back then—not like today. We had a little apartment in town, near the gas station where I worked, and…”
“Is that the one you bought from the first owner?” I interrupt.
“The very same one, but that was about ten years later. Anyway, we couldn’t afford a record-player or any fancy stuff like that, but some neighbors down the street wanted to get rid of their piano. They were willing to give it to anyone who’d haul it away for them. So I rounded up a couple of buddies and sure enough, we rolled it down the street and humped it up the stairs to where your grandma and I were living.”
“But how did you know you could still play it?”
“Oh, I knew I could play, all right. There was a baby grand at my school. I’d sneak into the music room any chance I could, and tinkered around with it. Found out I could still play just about anything I heard.”
“So what happened to the one you brought home?”
“Oh, I played it for years. If you ask your dad, he’ll remember. I played a lot in those early days, before we got a hi-fi and a TV and all. But then, after I bought the gas station, I didn’t have much free time anymore. I’d still play for your grandma every now and again. She loved it. Especially some old stuff you’ve never even heard of, like Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’ and ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ and some Gershwin show tunes and such, and your grandma’s favorite, ‘Für Elise’.”
“What happened to that piano? In all the times I visited with you and grandma, I never remember seeing a piano anywhere.”
“Oh, I sold it. We were never poor, Eddie. Poor’s a state of mind, anyway. But there were times we were pretty broke. One of those times was when your dad wanted to go to college, to be an engineer. I said okay. After all, he was one smart student; smart as a whip. But tuition was pretty steep and I didn’t want him taking college loans. College loans put you way behind the eight-ball the second you graduate. All through college he worked two jobs—one at the gas station and the other as a salesman at Siegel’s Sport Shop, where he got a commission as well as hourly pay. To help him out, I sold a couple of things, and one of them was the piano.”
“Didn’t you miss it?”
“Oh, yeah, you bet I did. And Grandma missed it even more. But your dad deserved a shot at a better life. Your grandma and I never regretted that decision, not for a minute.”
“So, what’s this one doing here, then?”
“Well, after your grandma died, this was a pretty empty house. So I thought, maybe a piano might bring some life back into this old place. I found a used piano for sale in the local paper. I went to see it, liked its sound, and bought it for a good price. I didn’t make any big fuss about this because it was sort of an experiment and I wasn’t sure it would work or not.”
“So it didn’t work, I guess. What happened, Grampa?”
“It just wasn’t the same. I most always played for your grandma. Now, I played for nobody. So within that first week a couple of old friends and I moved it down here.
“But still, you played for yourself… Didn’t you?”
“Not the same thing, Eddie. You see, that first piano was a sort of connection between your grandma and me. Sometimes we’d be on the outs with each other. This happens, Eddie, even when two people love each other the way we did. But that first piano always brought us back.
“Your grandma might get in a snit, or I’d get ticked off at something, and we wouldn’t talk. But after a little while, I’d sit down and start playing. And Mary would quietly come and sit beside me on the bench. She’d put her arm around my waist and her head on my shoulder, and we’d just sit there together. I’d play gently and she’d listen just as gently. That piano got us through some rough spots—maybe even saved our marriage—dozens of times over the years.
“But you and grandma never had an argument that I ever remember. And neither do Mom and Dad. They’ve never once been angry with each other!”
“Of course they have, Eddie. I know that for sure, because your dad and I used to talk about it sometimes. Privately, of course. I’m no snitch, and I don’t hold grudges.”
“Well, they never argued that I ever saw.”
“Then they made a big mistake with you, Eddie.”
“People get miffed, or sometimes angry, with each other from time to time. Even your parents. It happens. And it’s okay to show it. And work through it. If you don’t, it just sits there and becomes a bigger and bigger gulf between two people. They don’t mean for that to happen, but it does.
“So the best way to handle it is to let it out, even if they’re parents, and their kids—like you—are around.”
“But why? I don’t want to see Mom and Dad fight.”
“Fighting’s different. That’s not healthy. But having differences, and letting it show, can be a good thing.”
“Good? How’s that, Grampa?”
“Well, Eddie, how are you ever going to learn how to deal with anger, and resolution, if your parents don’t show you how? Unless you get to see that even people who love each other can get angry with each other sometimes, you’ll never see how to cope with it, and never get to see how to work through it. You won’t get to see that love doesn’t come to an end just because two people may sometimes not agree.”
“I never thought of it that way before.”
“No, I guess you didn’t. But that’s alright. I’ll have a little chat with your dad. He and I still do have father-son talks, you know. In the meanwhile, this is just between you and me, okay?”
“Sure, Grampa,” I say, but I’m still feeling uncomfortable, so I change the subject.
“So, how about Christmas songs? Have you tried playing any of those?”
“Yup. I sat down here, just like you’re sitting now, last Christmas. But, like I said, with no one else in the house, it just wasn’t the same. I come down here every so often and just sit on this bench. I don’t have to play, for all the tunes and all the memories to come back.”
“I know ‘Jingle Bells.’ Would it be okay if I played it for you?”
Grampa nods and so I do, and then he and I play it as a duet. Then, sort of caught up in the moment, we share playing “The First Noel,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and then “White Christmas.”
We end with “Silent Night,” and after the last notes drift away we sit together in a glow that’s all our own. Grampa puts his arm over my shoulder. I lean my head against his chest. We sit there for a long while. There’s no need to talk.
Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)
[No. 428 – 12/25/2014 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2014]