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Country editors boy, p.14
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.14

           Hal Borland
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  Finally every child had been visited, called by name, given the precious bag and package by Santa Claus himself. The baskets were empty. The candles had burned down and been snuffed. And Santa Claus stood there at the foot of the aisle, looking up at the tree again. Then he turned and looked out across the crowded church and lifted his hands almost in benediction, and he said, “Merry Christmas to all! Merry Christmas, and to all a good night!” And he hurried up the aisle, out of the door, and was gone, only the jingling of the bells echoing behind him.

  There was a final song, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” but it was sung softly, almost in a hush. And after that there was the slow exit, that whole big crowd getting itself organized and up the aisles and out the doors, and all without loud talk or confusion or pushing or anything but patience and courtesy and a kind of quiet sense of peace and good will. The spell was still upon us.

  Then we were outside, in the clear, cold starlight. Quiet good nights were said, there was the sound of soft laughter, and over everything there seemed to be the echo of bells.


  I GOT THE USUAL and expected things for Christmas, a new mackinaw coat, a sweater, socks, mittens. We were a practical family, and when the homestead experience was added to that there wasn’t much tendency to spend money on frippery. Father did get Mother a bottle of perfume—not the kind Mr. Hall had advertised; and he got a book for me, Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages. I had heard about that book, had never even seen it, but wanted it. Now I read it, fascinated; but it was about a far-off, foreign land, a woodland place, with the trees and plants and brooks and birds and animals of a forest. It wasn’t quite as alien as a book about the moon would have been, but almost.

  Mother gave me the most unexpected Christmas present of my life—music lessons. She had made arrangements with Mr. Knies for me to learn to play whatever instrument I chose. When she told me, I did my best to show proper appreciation. I liked music, and I was willing to learn to play almost anything but the piano. But there were other things that seemed more important to me. I can’t remember what they were, but I knew then. There it was, though: I was going to take music lessons.

  Both Mother and Father had what might be called musical impulses, perhaps even talents. Neither of them could play any instrument, but both could sing. Father’s baritone was clear and true and he could carry an air accurately. Mother’s soprano was beautiful and strong, and though she had never been taught to read music she could follow the notes, knew something of their value, and could hum a tune she had never heard by following the score. From time to time they both sang in the church choir. I never did. Maybe that is why I got the music lessons. Anyway, I thanked her and a few days later went to see Mr. Knies.

  He was a pleasant little man with a bristly brown mustache and a slight German accent. He was in the Beatrice cream station, wearing a long white apron, taking samples from big cream cans, putting the samples in test tubes, adding a few drops of acid, then spinning the tubes in a centrifuge turned by hand crank. When he took the tubes out, the percentage of butterfat could be read on the graduated scale on each tube. Farmers were paid for their cream in proportion to its butterfat content.

  He glanced at me, said, “In a minute,” and finished reading the test tubes he had just centrifuged. Then he wiped his hands on his apron and said, “My new pupil! And what are you going to learn to play?”

  I had no idea what I wanted to play. But before I could find a proper way to tell him that, he said, “Well, now, Atwood plays the cornet. Winfield plays the trombone. Miriam plays the cello.” Atwood and Winfield were his two sons, Miriam his grown daughter. “But Miriam will be away most of the winter. Why don’t—the cello! That’s the instrument for you! The cello.” He spread his hands, then clapped them together in triumph. “Then we have a quintette all winter, with Mama at the piano and me with the fiddle.”

  I had no objection. At least with the cello you played only one note at a time. It would be simpler than the piano.

  So I became a cellist, simply because Miriam Knies was going to be away most of the winter. The Knieses lived in quarters back of the cream station, and for the first month I went down there two evenings a week to learn how to use the bow, how to run scales, how to read music. Fortunately, my ear was fairly accurate, because the cello has no frets—you guess where the right note should be, put the proper finger on the right string at that point, and use the bow. You can ease up or down a bit to true up the note, but not very far. So I sawed away at those strings two hours a week for a month, and the best I could do was run the scale in three different keys. Mr. Knies said I wasn’t getting enough practice and wondered what to do about it. It would be much better, he mused, if I had my own cello. Miriam’s cello was much too expensive to let me take it home and practice with it. It probably cost three or four hundred dollars, maybe more, for all I knew. Then Mr. Knies said, “Maybe I could find an inexpensive one in Denver. A used one. It would do to practice on.”

  I asked how much it would cost. I had fifty-five dollars, money I had saved from my summer pay at the printing office.

  “Thirty-five dollars, maybe?” he suggested. “Could you pay that much?”

  I said yes, I could pay that much for a cello to practice on. He seemed greatly relieved. He had to go to Denver on business the very next day, he said. He would see what he could do.

  He brought back a cello for me, a second-hand instrument, probably from a pawn shop, and not a very good cello to begin with. But a cello. He showed it to me, and he wiped the dust from its belly with his handkerchief, and he gave me the bow and said to try it. I bowed a few notes and said it sounded almost as good as Miriam’s. Mr. Knies beamed, then shook his head. “No, no, it’s not that good! But for the price—it’s really very good for the price, a nice tone.” Then he turned solemn and pulled at his lower lip. “I—uh—I have to tell you it cost more than I hoped it would. It cost forty dollars. I knew you only had thirty-five, but I said to myself, ‘This is worth the money, this cello. And he is an honest boy and serious about music’ I said, ‘He will pay me the extra five dollars when he gets it.’” He smiled at me, hopefully. “You will?”

  “I’ll pay you right now,” I said, getting out my wallet. “I’ve got fifty-five dollars!”

  He gasped. “Oh.” He was hurt and couldn’t conceal it. “You should have told me. For fifty dollars I could have got a really good instrument, a good—uh—” He took the forty dollars I gave him, counted it, and pocketed it. “Well,” he said with a sigh, “we do the best we can, huh? So take your cello home and practice. Maybe we get somewheres yet.”

  Anyone who has heard a beginner on a violin can imagine what my parents went through the next few weeks. A cello can squeal just like a fiddle but three times as loud and with ten times the resonance. After a couple of days of it, Father left the house every time I started to practice. Mother stuck it out, though it must have been real punishment. But Mr. Knies was right. With my forty-dollar cello I finally began to learn.

  Flagler was a musical town, with enough real talent to be tolerant of beginners and serious amateurs but sharply critical of all others. There were two orchestras, that of Mr. Knies, which was basically a family group, and that led by C. A. Anderson, a tall, handsome Scandinavian cobbler and harness maker who also played the violin. Mr. Anderson was moody and temperamental and he played the violin with verve and flourishes. I am sure he was a much more exciting teacher and leader than Mr. Knies. But the temperamental cobbler from time to time publicly announced that if Flagler wanted to listen to “that milkman’s tum-tum-de-tum fiddling” it had no need for Mr. Anderson and his music. He would disband his own musical group, glower for a month or two, bitterly and no doubt honestly criticize every musical event in town, then gather his own group and start playing again. Mother preferred his music, even the wild Hungarian dances of Liszt and the strange Norwegian melodies of Grieg, to Mr. Knies’ quiet semi-classics. I don’t remember being surprised
by this at the time, but now, looking back, it strikes me as almost unbelievable. Half German by birth and strict Methodist by upbringing, she should have called such music “heathenish.” But there were contradictions in her that I still can’t explain. In any case, Mr. Anderson was in one of his glowering, bitter moods when she arranged for my lessons.

  But it was unschooled talent that kept cropping up in unexpected places. That, of course, was characteristic of the old frontiers, where people had to create their own amusement, and it continued in the rural areas west of the Missouri right down to the age of vicarious music, of radio, records and tape recorders. Until then, you made your own music or you did without it most of the time.

  Only a few weeks after we arrived in Flagler we went to the hotel for Sunday dinner and, to our surprise, found the dining room crowded. Sunday dinner cost 50 cents, 15 cents more than a weekday dinner, so nobody was there to save money. We looked in, saw the crowd, and Mother said, “I wonder if it’s a wedding, or what?” Mr. Blancken came past and said, “I’m sorry, but you’ll only have to wait a few minutes.” Mother asked him what was the reason for the crowd, but he had already hurried away. Before long the dining room began to clear out a bit and we got a table.

  We had just started to eat when the music began. Someone was at the piano in the corner of the lobby. Through the doorway I could see only that people were sitting in all the chairs and standing along the walls. And whoever was at the piano was making it do tricks, everything from ballads of the Nineties to dance tunes.

  I hurried through my food and excused myself, went to the doorway, and wormed my way inside. There at the piano was a short dark-haired man in a blue shirt with red sleeve garters, a vest but no coat, and blue serge pants so old they had a green shine on them. He had big hands but stubby fingers, and they danced all over the keyboard. As I watched he swung into a dance tune and began to bounce up and down on the piano stool, and he threw back his head and laughed. Then he turned to the woman in the big chair beside the piano and said something and laughed again. She was a chubby little woman, very blonde, and she had a baby in her arms and a toddling little girl at her knee who watched the man at the piano with solemn concentration. Standing beside the little girl was a big dark man who looked like an Indian. Ed Probst, the well digger. Then I recognized the man at the piano—Bob Probst, Ed’s brother, who worked with Ed digging wells and ditches and cesspools, any kind of pick-and-shovel work.

  Bob Probst played that piano for an hour without a stop. Now and then someone suggested a tune and Bob nodded, went on playing until he reached a place for a break, then switched to the new tune. Finally he played “Little Brown Jug” with a lot of runs and flourishes, and people began to leave. He finished with three loud chords, drew a deep breath, and got to his feet. He put on his coat, took the baby from his wife, who took the toddler by the hand and followed him across the lobby. Ed, who looked like an Indian who had lost his braids, brought up the rear. The concert was over. The Probsts crossed the street to where their team was hitched, got into the lumber wagon with its two spring seats, and left.

  About once a month Bob Probst came to town for Sunday dinner at the hotel, which always was free to him and his retinue. People saw him or heard he was in town and gathered to hear him. He ate, then sat down and played. He didn’t know one note of music, and he played in odd keys full of sharps and flats. So far as I knew, he never played any other piano. He had none of his own. The story went that one Sunday two or three years before we went to Flagler he sat down at the piano in the hotel and began to play, just like that, for the first time in his life. We heard him play maybe half a dozen times, that summer and fall. Then he didn’t play again. I don’t know what happened. He and Ed were around Flagler for several years after that, but Bob never played the piano again as far as I know.

  Late that winter we heard another kind of music at a country square dance. It wasn’t called a square dance because a good many of the farmers out north of town were strict Baptists who disapproved of cards and dancing as sternly as Mother did in her Methodism. They called it a game party, and that made it possible for Mother to accept an invitation to go. Father would have gone with a clear conscience, no matter what they called it. He was brought up as a Campbellite, and his church wasn’t that strict. Anyway, we were invited, Father said he wanted to know those farmers better, and Mother said she didn’t mind going. So we went.

  The dance—or game party—was held in a big one-room sod house about six miles north of town. It was March, almost spring, and the weather was fairly mild. When we got there the dooryard was full of furniture—everything had been moved outdoors, even the cookstove. The only thing left in the house was an old reed organ, off in one corner. There were benches along the walls, and there were about forty people there when we arrived.

  We walked in and for a moment it looked as though even Father didn’t know a soul. Then a tall thin man came over to us and smiled, bowed to Mother, nodded to me. “Hello,” he said. “Glad to see you here. They’re going to have quite a party.” It was Dr. Neff, a physician who had been in Flagler I don’t know how long. He was one of the old saddlebag doctors who had gone on horseback to remote soddies where men were dying and women were delivering their own babies. I doubt that even he knew how many crucial operations he had performed by oil-lamp light on kitchen tables, or how many babies he delivered without even the help of a midwife. Now he was saying to Mother, “Have a good time,” and with a gesture to Father he turned and was gone. Mother asked, in a whisper, “I wonder what he’s doing here.”

  Before Father could even guess, a red-faced man who seemed to be in charge shouted, “Attention! Attention, please!” and people quieted down enough to hear him say, “I want to introduce some special guests. Most of you know about him, but I want you to know him. And his wife, and his boy, too. Come on over here, Will Borland! All three of you.” Mother blushed with embarrassment, but Father urged her and the crowd made way for us. We reached the announcer and he introduced us one at a time, and there was loud clapping and shouting of welcome.

  Just then there was a stir at the doorway and we were forgotten. A wizened old man came in carrying a violin case. With him was a boy about my age with long, ragged blond hair, a freckled face, and a solemn look. Way was cleared for them and they crossed the room to the reed organ. The boy sat down on the stool, pumped the pedals a few times, and struck a chord or two. The old man got out his fiddle and bow and asked the boy for a note. The boy pumped again, held down the key, and the organ groaned the wanted note. The old man began to tune up.

  The red-faced man who had introduced us shouted, “Partners all and get ready for the figures!” Sets were formed, six sets of four couples each, all the room would hold. The others, most of them older men and women, seated themselves on the benches.

  The old fiddler cleared his throat, bowed a few notes, and said, “We’ll start with ‘Darling Nelly Gray,’” and he nodded to the boy. The organ began to wheeze, the boy struck the opening chords, the fiddle began to sing, and the old fiddler called, “All hands round and circle to the left.” He was caller as well as fiddler. The dance began.

  I was fascinated, not so much by the dancing as by the music. The boy at the organ did what was known as chording. I suppose it was equivalent to a guitar background, or maybe even drums, because it set the beat and provided the background for the fiddle’s melody. The fiddler carried the tune while he called the figures. But I never heard anything like the way that boy brought the beat of the music out of that wheezy old organ without once playing a melody note.

  The dancing went on, from one dance to another. At the first break the red-faced announcer came over and asked Mother to be his partner. “I don’t know how,” she protested, but he insisted. “Nothing to it. Just follow the lead, do what the other ladies do.” Father urged, and reluctantly she went. And a moment later the announcer’s wife asked Father to be her partner. Father was a good dancer, with natural rhythm. Mo
ther would have been too if she hadn’t been so deep-dyed Methodist about it. But she did all right, and she danced another set later, though she wouldn’t allow herself to enjoy one minute of it.

  After two or three sets the dancers began to call for special tunes. One of them was “Possum up a Gum Stump,” apparently a favorite of the Missourians in this crowd. The fiddler said all right, he would try it, but he wouldn’t guarantee he could keep on the right track. He started in and got about halfway through, then obviously lost the tune. The dancers shook their heads at him, then laughed as he slid off into “The Arkansas Traveler.”

  Dr. Neff, who had been standing on the sidelines, started across the floor, signaling to the fiddler. The music stopped. People looked around, saw Dr. Neff, and began to talk and whisper, excitedly.

  Dr. Neff said to the fiddler, “You kind of lost the tune, didn’t you Jim?”

  “Sure did, Doc! Lost it like the old dog lost the cold coon track.”

  “Mind if I take it once through?”

  “Be mighty pleased if you would, Doc.” And he handed the fiddle to the tall, lanky doctor. Dr. Neff tucked the fiddle under his chin, turned to the crowd, said, “Places all.” Then he said to the boy at the organ, “Let’s take it in G, Orville.”

  The boy looked baffled. “I don’t know them by name,” he said.

  Dr. Neff shifted the bow to his left hand, said, “Pump,” and reached down and struck the basic G chord, ran the major sequence, up and back. The boy grinned at him. “Oh, that one!” He ran the sequence himself, then ran it with all the minors thrown in. His fingers knew. All he didn’t know was the names.

  Dr. Neff nodded. “That’s the one. Let’s go!” He lifted the bow, struck a long, firm note while the organ chords began. Then he was off. You never heard such playing. It was “Possum up a Gum Stump” straight through, simple and clear, and then it was “Possum up a Gum Stump” with flourishes. Then it was “Possum up a Gum Stump” with flourishes, ruffles and embellishments. And the boy at the organ followed him, every note, every turn and flourish. So did the dancers, for the doctor called the figures—sang them, in fact—as he played.

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