Pianos and Heroes

In a resigned response to last week's continued wet weather, I sat at the old upright piano at our place of business and played some somber hymns. 

The piano sits in the same room where my grandfather played hymns on another old upright when the ups and downs of business got to him sixty years ago. 

The piano I now play then sat in Grandma and Grandpa's living room. It is an ancient upright once covered in thick, black lacquer. 

In the 1970s, in a characteristic outburst of creativity and hard labor, my mother stripped the crusted layers of finish and found the piano's original beautiful wood, which she then stained. 

After spending the 1990s in an unheated garage, a fate which would crack the soundboard of lesser instruments and render them mute, the old piano found its way back to the farm. 

The tuner says we need to get rid of it. The hammers are deeply grooved. The low notes don't hold their tune. The pedals malfunction. The bench squeaks. 

No way, I say. The old piano stays. It is part of the family. 

Those who play know that some pianos draw you in while others put you off. Some instruments, new or old, feel like an old friend. They join you in making music, while other pianos, even the new and expensive, battle you from the first note. 

A piano's friendliness has nothing to do with its price or appearance. It has everything to do with touch and tone. A few have it. Most don't. 

"Oh, I have always wanted a baby grand," say social climbers, not realizing that they have just identified themselves as non-musicians. 

Baby grand pianos are for socialites who want charming accent in their perfect living room. The designer suggested an ivory finish. Nobody checked the instrument's sound or craftsmanship, which in many cases is that of a Cracker Jack toy. 

Baby grand pianos in expensive homes get played only when the party stretches past midnight. By then nobody notices the piano's atrocious tonal quality as some inebriated ham pounds out "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul." 

Baby grands are furniture, nothing more. 

A well-built concert grand piano, however, can be subtle, warm, friendly, or grand and rumbling. The rub: a quality concert grand costs up to ten times the baby grand. No wonder social climbers would rather buy the inferior baby grand for appearances sake and spend the difference on wine, which, in  certain quantities, will make the guests content with a kazoo. 

An inexpensive alternative? Find an old upright like Grandpa and Grandma's that still has its tone. Anybody who plays piano can tell in an instant whether a piano still has its magic, if it ever did. 

A friendly, quality, subtle piano is essential if you hope that your children will play. Electronic keyboards are an abomination. Cheap, new but bad pianos will send a talented kid crying to their room rather than suffer more ugly sounds.  

But the rare good old upright, which you can sometimes find for free if you are willing to break your back and the backs of five of your friends moving it, can make the difference in a child's musical career. 

As the rain poured on and I finished the hymn "Go to Dark Gethsemane," a grandfatherly voice behind me jokingly asked, "So, is this where I can order a beer?" 

I whirled around to find my friend and hero, former Minnesota State Representative Bernie Lieder. 

Bernie is one of the few World War II combat veterans still living. He is featured in the present exhibit on World War II at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. 

At nearly 91, Bernie is older than the piano, and every bit as warm, friendly and gracious. A savvy veteran of life's rougher side, Bernie is also a classy gentleman whose strongest expletive is "by golly."  

I have been watching World War II documentaries lately. Grainy black and white. Gruesome scenes of death which seem so distant. Unbelievable destruction, carnage and cruelty.

Bernie was there for the worst of it. During the ugly Battle of the Bulge, Bernie became separated from his unit and was almost executed by his own side as a spy because of his knowledge of German. 

And there he sat last week, visiting with me as the rain poured down. 

Are you dragged down by the rain? I was. 

But sitting at an old piano playing old hymns, then shooting the breeze with an old-timer who actually experienced the bloody, full-color reality behind those grainy World War II films, did wonders for my perspective. 

Old pianos and old heroes: Listen to them while we can!

And let the rain pour down.