Hero on the Bench

My piano teacher’s husband made beautiful grandfather clocks. After 30 years, a masterpiece of his still stands in solitude and great reverence in my parents’ living room, peeling out the quarter hours with all the grandeur of Big Ben. Whenever I hear it, I think of my piano teacher, warily teaching me middle C, the bass clef, and Minuet in G major by Bach.

It’s not often that we venerate heirlooms. I mean, do you still sit on Oma’s brocade chesterfield rubbing the fabric and recalling the smell of mothballs? Yes, I’ll admire the grainy black and white photos of the great gate of Rotterdam. Perhaps a few Delfts Blauw plates, or intricate cross-stitched windmills. But carefully tucked away against the inside wall, far away from the awninged windows, and covered in pictures of my ancestors stands The Heirloom. Great-grandfather’s upright piano. The centre of entertainment. The silent witness. The leader of hymns. And the bringer of sadness, and great joy.

Today, I met a Canadian army WWII veteran. He was born in 1921 in Wroxeter, Ontario to immigrant Brits, and on his 9th birthday his dad bought him a black Lab. And a Heintzman upright piano from Toronto. I was there to tune his piano.

Arriving in a downpour, I was greeted warmly by Vernon and Marie who quickly urged me in. They were dressed impeccably: he in buttoned-up vest, dress shirt, and ironed slacks. She in knee-length skirt, blouse with a large brooch, and gloriously combed silver hair. And there it stood. The 1930 Heintzman upright piano stood quietly and majestically beside the grandfather clock, an anthology of hits from the roaring 20s sitting diffidently on the music desk. Still a glorious upright, its beautiful book-ended and burled Walnut music desk radiated even in the darkened living room, the white ivories still in perfect condition. I set about my work, opening the lid and carefully removing the music desk and resting it against the wing-backed chair. Marie, having brought me coffee and cookies, urged Vernon, who was peppering me with questions, to leave me alone so I could work quietly. They both sat down in the kitchen.

Interrupted recurrently by the grandfather clock, I started tuning, working up and down the keyboard as I always do, setting up the perfect equal temperament and then tidying up the unisons. The years had not obscured its fantastic engineering, and the old Heintzman, after 87 years, finished perfectly at concert pitch. The tone is warm, shifting seamlessly across the break. Inviting and full. I quietly thanked the craftsman, long dead, who built her in the early years of the great depression in Toronto.

Breathlessly, I started to play the piano as I always do; this time a variation on Rameau’s Gavotte avec 6 doubles. It’s a great test of simple intervals and quiet playing; for me, always the true test of an instrument and its tuning. After a little while, Vernon wandered in from the kitchen and quietly sat down beside me as I finished.

“Mark, I wish my dad coulda heard that.” He paused, settling back in the chair. I turned on the bench toward him and patiently folded my hands. “I’m a World War Two vet. I wanted to join the RCAF when I was 18, but they told me I was colour blind. Damn! Imagine living for 18 years not knowing you were colour blind! To hell with that. I was going to Europe, so I joined the army."  He paused, stared out the window, and began again slowly: "I landed in Normandy, fought in the Scheldt estuary, and liberated the Netherlands.” 

My heart skipped a beat. Had he noticed my last name? After a pause, “Would you do me a favour?” “Of course”, I replied. “Could you play for me ‘God Save the King’?" “You mean ‘God Save the Queen’!" I protested. “No. 'God Save the King’. When I got home to Wroxeter in ’45, my dad - they were all crying - asked me to sit down and play the national anthem on the piano.” Realizing the gravity of the moment, I turned on the bench and laid my hands on the keyboard. 71 short years ago, the young Vernon, army veteran, survivor of WWII, and Marie’s young, handsome groom had placed his hands on the self-same piano. Was it G major? It was my best guess at the moment. And so it was that the Heintzman upright, doing righteous battle with the neighbouring grandfather clock chiming 4pm, played “the national anthem” once again. The 96 year old warrior, now standing beside his war bride, stoically wiped away invisible tears from moistened eyes. “Thanks, Mark”.

I quietly packed up and wrapped up the paper work. I left and, standing outside in the rain, I paused. He had sat down at the piano and began softly playing some flapper tune from the ‘20s.

We’re often invited into the private spaces of our clients. Sometimes we work on the most precious possessions they own, even their oldest friend. And sometimes, -sometimes- we step back in history, and relive it with them, and even for them.

“A good man”, I whispered. No, a great man. 

Thank you Vernon, and all veterans.