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Veterans Day (Armistice Day)

I’ve spent some time lately thinking about those people who seem to have stepped into my life now and again as the brother, sister, father or mother that I might have wished for, had I been a “wishful” child. I'm talking about 15 or 20 people who have made a profound impression by inspiring me and encouraging me to create a sense of purpose and direction in my life ...... to forge patience, skill, humor and humility (self knowledge) into a social contract that I could live with and live by. One of the very first of these was my accordion teacher, Mr. Radosta.

I first met him in 1952 when I was 7 yrs. old. He was taller than me (pretty much everyone in MY world except my little brother was taller than me), but not by much. He was maybe 5’ 6”, maybe less. He was younger than my grandfather, but not by much. (I’m guessing he was born in the 1890s.) He wore out-of-date, double breasted suits and wide neckties with pheasants and other curious things on them. He spoke with an accent, but he spoke English in a very eloquent, exacting way. In fact, there was nothing about him that was approximate. Everything about Radosta was particular — the way he dressed, the way he spoke, the way he approached music ...... he loved/played opera, waltzes, marches and sonatas, Gypsy music, folk music, showtunes and ballads. His love of music was genuine and apparent to me in the way he taught me to explore & interpret any piece of music we happened to be working on.

The following year he invited me as a guest & protégé to a St. Joseph’s Day (a BIG saint’s day among Italians) feast/celebration. A triple-tiered buffet extended through 2 rooms, trimmed with flowers and loaded with food that was, well ...... beautiful! (Food as art.) Bread shaped like turtles and alligators and 25 or 30 platters of food that seemed to keep coming in a never-ending array of flavors & colors. There were maybe 50 or 60 people present at any given moment (some left, others arrived) who definitely showed up to participate, not observe. Accordion/mandolin/guitar/violin players, singers, babies, parents, big kids, grandmas, little kids, old guys with interesting hats, shy teenage girls with long hair and pretty smiles. They treated me with respect and warmth .... I think I would call it affection.

He also invited me to participate in a recital at the local VA hospital along with 2 or 3 of his other students. The St. Joseph’s Day event had been a lot of fun, so I went. When it was my turn to play I went out onto a big stage that faced a main floor and a balcony that was packed with veterans. Many of these guys had been in combat in Korea a few months (some of them, just a few weeks) before.

I wasn’t anywhere near bold enough to take a good look at the audience and I couldn’t have seen the guys way up in the darkness of the balcony in any case. But I could feel them - their energy and presence. I did venture a quick scan of the people that were visible in the lightspill from the stage. What I saw were amputees with bandaged stumps, faces stitched (big stitches) and stapled together ...... and the burn/blast victims, guys with melted faces — wounds I couldn’t begin to understand at all back then, and couldn't easily describe today. (About 12 years later I would come to learn exactly how these wounds are created.)

In what I’m sure was a state of shock, I launched into Hungarian Rhapsody #9, one of my best performance pieces. I got through the first and second parts pretty well, but then — with the bellows of my accordion fully extended — I completely blanked on what came next. I had 4 beats to figure out where to go and what to do next. Those 4 beats came and went and - there I was, with my temples throbbing and my face burning. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t fathom what had just happened. All of the oxygen in that auditorium vanished. It was as though about 300 guys all inhaled at the same time and then held their (collective) breath. In a silence best described as a vacuum, I simply turned and wobbled offstage.

Radosta was there, his suit jacket off, his arms open and extended. He was smiling. “Johnny, what’s wrong?” I was so angry at myself and so embarrassed that I began to unravel — big time! He caught me by the shoulders and started softly singing the 3rd part. “Hey, it goes -- tya-da-da-da-dadum-dadum-di-da ....… remember?” I guess I sort of nodded (yes), because then he told me to go back out there and play it.

I couldn’t believe it! Life as I had known it had just ended .... and Radosta was suggesting that I voluntarily go back out onstage and compound the devastation! I don’t know what I said in response, but I’m pretty sure that it was some sort of feeble, bleating protest/complaint combined with a plea for a quick death.

He put his suit jacket back on, buttoned it up and then, with eyes that grabbed me like the talons of a golden eagle, he drew himself up to his entire 5’5” or 5’6” and quietly spoke:
“Johnny, you really love the music a lot, yeah?”
I nodded ..... yes.
“Good! Now, take it out there and give it to our men. Don't take anything else with you. Don’t worry.”

I couldn’t even imagine going back out there, but that’s exactly what I did. I'd like to think that it was my ability to take control, or maybe some new-found courage that guided me, but it wasn't a matter of courage or control. What he said about taking nothing but the music with me somehow allowed me to release all the drama and noise that was jamming my brain waves.

For some reason I just let it go - dropped it like a hot rock. I don't know ..... he made it sound so simple and direct that suddenly it was as self-evident as gravity. There was nothing to discuss or even think about. He didn’t offer me several (or even 2) options to select from, because there was only one right thing to do. Radosta had offered me only one choice — to go out there and do the one & only right thing, nothing more and nothing less.

So .... I went out into a completely silent auditorium and played it from the top, pretty much without even thinking about it. The music was in my heart and in my hands and fingers. All I had to do is get my head out of the way and let ihe music roll. Well, that's what it did - it rolled! For the next 5 or 6 minutes I took everything I had and everything I was, and poured it into that music and out into that hall. I wasn't trying to "get through" anything or survive anything. I was there to give something away.

The cheers and whistling and applause that came rolling back from the vets lifted me up like a giant wave - like the "Banzai Pipeline". I heard shouts like, "All right, kid!" and "Good job, little man!" The energy was so powerful that I thought I was either about to levitate or pass out. Fortunately, I did neither. I took a bow and left the stage. But when the program was over we were able to go out and meet some of the vets and I got to say hello and shake hands with a few of them.

I didn't understand at the time what it might have meant to those guys to see an 8 year old kid wipe out and then get back up and get on with it — but apparently it meant something to them and THAT meant a lot to me. The idea that I could offer "our men" anything that they might consider to be even slightly worthwhile, after all that they had been through, was too amazing for me to grasp. In that moment I felt like I was part of something .... something very real .... something very big .... and it felt VERY good.

I recall that only 2 or 3 minutes had passed between the moment I walked offstage in a blind panic and the moment I went back out and started to play. It took a while ( It took years) for me to consciously realize what Radosta showed me that day, but eventually I began to understand that I don't have to feel like doing the "Right Thing" in order to do it. I can do what I know to be right no matter how I feel, or don't feel.

Thanks to Radosta I began to discover a way of being in this world that has allowed me to play music I don't know how to play and go to places that I don't know how to get to. He isn't the only one that has guided me, inspired me and enriched my life (I have been very fortunate in that respect) but he was one of the first and, right along with each of the others, he remains a distinct and vital part of my life today ......

 

Here's to Our Men, Our Women ...... and Radosta. To say "thank you" doesn't begin to cover it.

 

 

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