An Ace of Spades



Once upon a time, there was a young man, born in Seattle, Washington, raised in the dense forests of western Sweden, who dreamed of playing the clarinet like Benny Goodman.

(Many years later, he would stop playing the clarinet, and turn his musical passions to the piano, instead. He loved to play, and would become a very good piano player, but he would never quite be satisfied. He would always openly envy people like Oscar Peterson, who could play better than him.)

* * *

One day, in 1945, this young man found himself on a boat. He was an American soldier. There were many other American soldiers on the boat with him. It was crowded.

There was nothing to do. To pass the time, the soldiers all sat around, reading books, playing cards, talking, taking naps, watching the waves go by.

The boat was headed in no known direction. It had no known name. Only the young man from Seattle had a name. He was named Sigurd. Sigurd’s mission, and the mission of the other soldiers, was unclear.

* * *

Somehow, at some point, Sigurd got off the boat. He found himself somewhere in Germany, shortly after V-E Day. It was a somewhat cold day. He wore a coat.

He felt like doing something silly. So he put a playing card in his hat. The card was an ace of spades.

The End.

* * *

The young man in the above story was my father. He died, quite suddenly, almost exactly a decade ago, at the age of 67. What I know of his life resembles that story: fractional, incomplete, constructed from random photographs and half-remembered tales, a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing.

* * *

This past Sunday afternoon, my father-in-law Calvin passed away. He was 81.

Like my father, my wife’s father was born in the 1920s in the Pacific Northwest (Butte, Montana) to immigrant parents (China). Like Sigurd, Calvin came of age during World War II, and served in the US military. Like Sigurd, after his enlisted days were over, Calvin worked for the US Military as a civilian for most of his career.

And like Sigurd, Calvin left us with many untold stories. For example, we know that Calvin served as an mechanic servicing airplanes during the “Flying the Hump” airlift in the Burma-China-India theater. What was that like? We can only guess. Calvin didn’t care to talk about it much.

* * *

How wonderful would it have been to read a blog entry alongside that photograph of my dad on that boat? I would love to know what book my dad was reading, what he thought of the book, who those other soldiers were, where they were all going, and above all, how they felt about the whole experience. Sadly, there were no blogs in 1945.

This is why I blog. I want to record my stories as they happen, so that when I’m gone, my children and grandchildren won’t have to feel bad that they never got around to asking me to tell my story. I want them to inherit a jigsaw puzzle with a lot more pieces.

* * *

Last evening, the five-year-old granddaughter of Sigurd and Calvin had her first piano recital. She had been looking forward to it for weeks.

She adores music. She loves to play around with songs, to twist the words and notes around. When she’s satisfied she knows one of her piano assignments well enough, she’ll transpose it, taking a song in a major key, and turning it into a song in a minor key. Lately, she has been singing the chorus to that Hawaiian Christmas song as “Mele KaliKenMacha is a famous man”.

I’m glad that the news of her grandfather’s passing went almost completely over her head. The recital was probably the most exciting event in her young life so far; I am grateful that not even the saddest of news could ruin it for her. Let the adults grieve the untold tales; let the kids go build the stories of the future.

My daughter was by far the youngest and smallest student in the show, but she stood out. While most of the other kids three or four years older than her struggled just to play the right notes, my little five-year-old seemed to be working on another level. She wants to get the notes to feel right, to sound smooth and polished, with just the right volume at just the right spots.

When I told her afterwards that I didn’t think she could play her two songs any more perfectly, she disagreed. “My dynamics on the second song could have been better,” she said.

I smiled. That kind of passion for music hasn’t been seen in my family since once upon a time, when a young man dreamed of playing the clarinet like Benny Goodman. But that’s a whole nother story. Someday, perhaps, I’ll get around to telling it to you.

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  • Alex Belth

    1.  Beautiful, Ken. I loved those images. The sounds of Benny Goodman’s clarinet are ringing in my ears this morning.

  • Jon Weisman

    2.  That’s just a lovely story to be able to put together amid such sadness. So sorry.

  • Xeifrank

    3.  Very touching, and a great tribute to your childs grandparents. vr, Xei

  • Rich Lederer

    4.  Nice, Ken. Very nice. Your father and father-in-law both live on through their granddaughter and your daughter. This is what lasting life is all about.

    I’ve had the good fortune of meeting your wife and daughters. Give everyone my condolences and regards.

    Best,

    Richard

  • Bob Timmermann

    5.  Ken, very touching. When I’ve found old photos of my parents I’ve always been amazed at how good the composition of them is.

  • Vishal

    6.  thank you for writing that, ken. my sympathies to you and your family.

  • Derek Smart

    7.  I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s loss, Ken. Thank you for sharing those stories. They are truly lovely.

  • Sushirabbit

    8.  I continue to be surprised (although I shouldn’t be by now) at the incredible quality of writing on the Toaster.

    Great Stuff, congrats on the daughter and her passion for music.

  • moodhairboy

    9.  Thank you Ken for a great story that is causing me to think of some unsolved puzzles in my own life.

  • Telemachos

    10.  Wonderfully written…

    As I grow older I find myself thinking more about my father and his father, and what they were doing when they were my age. The gaps of my knowledge never bothered me that much before, but they do now.

  • Strike4

    11.  At my dad’s memorial service six weeks ago, I remember looking out at the row of his grandchildren and finding him in each one. A gratifying legacy.

    How nice that your dad’s passion for music infuses your daughter and she can make it her own. And your story has made for a more meaningful day. Thanks for the gift.

  • scareduck

    12.  My sincerest condolences, Ken. I feel very much the same way towards my great uncle Donald, who died when I was 18 and not nearly old enough to appreciate him. He was an architect who spent nearly all of his professional career in Saudi Arabia working for Aramco, and in the absence of a real husband and father, provided for my grandmother and mother. It’s ironic that while he spent a good bit of his retired life unearthing family history/geneology, he himself remains something of a mystery to me.

  • bearlurker

    13.  My condolences, Ken. What a nice tribute.

  • Kenny

    14.  I offer my condolences too, Ken. As a son of a father who is getting up in his years (and is having a noticible decline in health recently) I fear the day when I have to say good-bye to my dad for good.

    As far as your daughter’s musical talents goes, the way you described her zeal for music it reminds me of a very important lesson I learned in college. Music is not just playing the correct notes with the correct rhythmic values with the correct dynamics; it’s also about feeling. In music, just because something is correct that doesn’t mean it’s good.

    Your daughter is very precocious, I remember those Mark Ellis obersvations she made a that game.

  • Jay Jaffe

    15.  Ken, my condolences. A very nice piece here.

    As a few of you reading this may know, my blog was started shortly after the death of my grandfather, who used to regale me with tales of seeing Ruth, Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and others play. He had more than a few blanks in his own personal background, including most of the details of his childhood and adolescence (including a baseball career that included his being offered a pro contract) and exactly how he and my grandmother escaped Vienna as the Nazis took over.

    The urge to record my own thoughts and stories — some mundane, some much deeper — for my future grandchildren’s sake is something that keeps me going at this.