Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 7

Saturday at supper, Jamie’s mother reminded the family that their pastor, Reverend Hawbecker, was retiring after forty-five years and the new pastor would take over Sunday.

His grandpa said, “That’s right. Guess Jamie and me better do some practicin’ so we’ll sound real good for the new reverend.”

Between bites of cherry cobbler, Jamie said, “I’ll bet he’ll be impressed with our music.”

Jamie’s church didn’t have an organ and so for years, Jamie’s grandpa played his harmonica to accompany the hymns. A few summers ago, he gave Jamie a harmonica and taught him to play and now they both played every Sunday.

Jamie’s mother said, “Jamie, you can practice, but don’t forget to take your bath tonight.”

“But I took one Monday. Isn’t that good enough?”

“No, it’s not. Monday was almost a week ago and I want you to look nice tomorrow.”

“Yes’m. Can I take it now so Grandpa and I will have more time to practice?”

“Go on then. Grandma and I can clean up.”

Jamie jumped up and went out to get his water. He didn’t like taking his third bath in a week, but he got to skip washing dishes so he called this one a draw.

Later, his grandpa hammered on the door of the machine shed. “You about done in there, boy, or you drowned?”

Jamie was pulling on clean clothes and yelled, “Be there in a minute, Grandpa.”

“No rush. I’ll be out back.”

Jamie dashed out of the machine shed to the shady spot behind the barn where they practiced. He sat on a log and said, “What do you want me to listen to first?”

Smacking his harmonica on the heel of his hand Jamie’s grandpa said, “Ain’t tellin’. You gotta listen to the music and figure it out on your own. That’s the only way it works.”

Jamie leaned against the sun-warmed wall and closed his eyes. “I’m ready.”

“Listen close and you’ll know.”

Jamie’s grandpa took a breath and played. He couldn’t read music and told Jamie when he wanted to play a new song, he imagined pictures of what he was trying to say with his music. Then he checked in his heart to find the feelings that went with the pictures. When he put them together, he had the music he wanted and he’d let it out through his harmonica.

Jamie had gotten to where he saw pictures and felt what they meant, but he couldn’t get his music to come out of his harmonica and sound right yet.

To help Jamie learn, his grandpa played tunes so he could practice getting the pictures and feelings from the song. Today, he played a song with a high soaring melody. “Okay, what did you see and feel?”

Without opening his eyes, Jamie said, “An airplane. I’ve never been in an airplane, but that must be what it’s like.” Jamie paused and scratched his head. “It was sad, though.”

“Good! How ’bout this?”

Jamie nodded in time with a song with sharp, fast rhythms and said, “A train. I’ve never been on a train either, but I can hear the wheels on the tracks, clickity-clack, clickity-clack. It makes me feel like I’m going away, but I don’t want to.”

“One more.”

Jamie’s grandpa played a short, slow tune. Jamie sat for several minutes letting the music make pictures then snapped his fingers. “Got it! Mountains. They’re far away and it’s raining.”

“That’s a fine picture.”

Jamie opened his eyes. “Am I getting better?”

“Sure are, boy. Learnin’ to play from the heart takes time, but you’re gettin’ there. Tell me what you felt?”

“Those were all sad songs about things that were moving.” Jamie paused and scratched in the dirt with a stick. “Wait a minute, I know. They were about the pastor leaving.”

“That’s just what they were.”

“What do they mean to you, Grandpa?”

“Can’t tell you. You see it one way and I see it another. Every song belongs to the person hearin’ it and they all hear it different.”

“I understand.”

“Anyway, you’re right and them songs are for the Reverend. I met your grandma at one of his services. He married us, then your ma and pa and finally, your brother. He’s the one who asked me to play for Sunday services and I been doin’ it for more than forty years.”

“Will people notice? Won’t they just hear the music and not what it says?”

“Some will and some won’t, but Reverend Hawbecker, he’s gonna know what it means. He’s a rare man in the way he’s helped folks for so long. The likes of him ain’t comin’ our way again anytime soon.”

The next day, Jamie and his family got up earlier than usual to finish chores before church. While Jamie worked with his dad and grandpa, his mom and grandma cooked their Sunday special breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, fresh biscuits with butter and cooked fruit. To keep from getting hungry in church before dinnertime, Jamie ate so much he had a hard time getting his church knickers buttoned.

As he struggled with his church clothes, he complained silently. He didn’t know who decided boys had to wear knickers, but he’d like to see him wear them. By the time he got the pants and knee socks on with a tie around the starched collar of his white shirt and feet crammed into his Sunday shoes, he could barely breathe or walk.

He hobbled downstairs where his mom tried unsuccessfully to flatten his hair while they waited for his grandma. Then they got into the car with Jamie’s dad and grandpa sitting in front while he was squashed between his mom and grandma in back.

Jamie’s family had always gone to the Methodist Church in town. Jamie wasn’t happy with the arrangement because Methodists couldn’t go to movies and they didn’t allow dancing, card games or cussing. They were also against tobacco, which is why Jamie’s grandma and mom were always trying to get his grandpa to quit.

Last year at the county fair, Jamie sneaked into a Tom Mix movie with Homer and fell in love with westerns. They also played card games in Homer’s barn for horseshoe nails and when Homer got some store-bought cigarettes, they smoked one apiece down by the creek. They were so sick afterward that Jamie decided the rule about not smoking wasn’t so bad after all.

Grandpa only went to church to play his harmonica. Jamie’s dad didn’t care one way or the other and drove everyone on Sundays and to other church activities. For Jamie, it meant two hours of misery and the only thing that made it bearable was playing his harmonica with his grandpa to lead the singing.

Jamie’s dad pulled into the churchyard and parked under a tree. They always arrived early so the adults could socialize before the service.

According to all their moms, the only thing Jamie, Homer and their friends were allowed to do was ‘not get dirty’. So they stood motionless and suffering in their Sunday clothes waiting for the service to begin. Jamie thought they looked like a bunch of fancy-dressed scarecrows staked up on the front lawn of the church.

Homer and his family pulled up as Jamie walked to the front steps. Homer’s dad and mom and Wilbur were dressed like everybody else, but not Homer. He was barefoot, wore dress up pants instead of bibs, a white shirt and a necktie tied around his collar like a piece of rope to a fencepost. His hair looked like a horse’s mane after a fast ride through tall brush. Homer told Jamie that his parents could force him to go to church, but he wasn’t going to make it easy. It looked like he was putting up a good fight, but he was still there every week.

Homer waved at Jamie and plodded to the door. As he did, Jamie noticed all sorts of things at the church that he’d always taken for granted. By the door, a piece of towel hung from a nail for Homer to use to clean his bare feet. There was a ramp for people who had trouble climbing stairs and the back pews were farther apart than the others so women with babies had more room to take care of them. All over the church were little things Reverend Hawbecker had done to help certain people. Jamie’s grandpa was right and Reverend Hawbecker would be hard to replace.

Jamie’s family filled the first pew on the right side with Jamie sitting next his grandpa. When it was time for a hymn, they’d stand, turn to face everyone and then play their harmonicas.

An usher rang the bell and everyone settled into their usual places. Reverend Hawbecker came in from a side room followed by the new pastor who was about as different from Reverend Hawbecker as could be. Reverend Hawbecker was tall and round with thick white hair combed straight back. His red, happy face made him look like everyone’s favorite uncle.

The new pastor was thin and balding. Everything about him was gray including the gray suit and tie he wore. He had gray eyes in a thin, pale face and his lips were thin to the point where they were gray too. He walked so stiffly that it seemed like he might crack into pieces if he sat down.

Reverend Hawbecker went to the pulpit, welcomed everyone and read announcements. He said he always did that first because people were still awake then and would likely remember them. Then he gave the page number and name of the first hymn. Jamie and his grandpa stood as everyone pulled hymnals from racks on the backs of the pews. Then Reverend Hawbecker led the singing while Jamie and his grandpa played.

After the hymn, Reverend Hawbecker went through the usual service. When he got to the sermon, he introduced the new pastor whose name was Reverend McIvor who had just been ordained at a seminary in Chicago. Reverend Hawbecker shook hands with him and sat down.

Reverend McIvor stood ramrod straight behind the pulpit and when he read from the Bible, Jamie was surprised at how deep his voice was for someone so thin. He finished, took a stack of notes out of an inside pocket, spread them over the pulpit and launched into his first sermon.

If anyone wasn’t paying attention after the first few sentences, Jamie figured they were either deaf or dead. Babies in the back pews started to howl and their moms took them outside. Jamie thought they were lucky, although he was sure they could still hear the sermon from out there.

Reverend McIvor went down a long list of things real Methodists weren’t supposed to be doing. He didn’t spare anybody and started with grandparents and worked his way down to kids.

He went on and on until Reverend Hawbecker looked at his watch, something Jamie had never seen him do before.

About the time Jamie’s stomach growled and he began to worry that he might not make it to dinner, Reverend McIvor finally quit. Reverend Hawbecker wrapped up the service with a hymn and asked the new reverend to say a final word. From the rustling from behind him, it seemed to Jamie that most folks had already heard enough from him today. Jamie sure had.

The reverend thanked everyone for attending his first service and announced he was starting a special fund to buy an organ. He knew times were hard, but with a little sacrifice, we’d be able to raise the money. After all, an organ for a church our size would only cost three hundred dollars.

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