I write novels that lend something to the Human Condition. Leaves readers with an intellectual curiosity…a sense that yes, this could happen…and the unwritten plea to have an open mind to the weirdness—the good weirdness—around us. #ThoughtsMatter
Today would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. He died this past February. This is his first birthday in which he wasn’t around to celebrate it, grumbling and gruff or not.
Below is my essay, “Seedlings.” I had originally written it for Adirondack Life. I wrote it in April and May of 2022. Since the magazine’s publishing timelines are what they were, the editor, Annie Stoltie, graciously tried to get it in earlier rather than later, which necessitated that the 1,600-word essay was heavily edited down to fit into the August 2022 Summer issue, and its title was changed to “Dad and Me.”
Though it was substantially changed, I am grateful that my essay about my dad had gotten into an earlier issue…but I really loved my original version. To that end I am publishing it here. I do have permission to do so from Adirondack Life’s Niki Kourofsky, Senior Editor, who stood in for Executive Editor, Annie Stoltie, who had been out at the time I’d asked. Said email exchange is dated July 11, 2022, at 1:01 PM Mountain Time. Thanks, Niki and staff of Adirondack Life. I greatly appreciate this.
Feel free to forward, but please give me proper attribution if done so.
Happy birthday, Dad. Love you.
One of my fondest and earliest of memories of my dad as a Forest Ranger was me as a kid riding along with him in his red ranger truck, while all of his equipment rattled and jangled around us. He had all this…stuff…packed away in his truck. Things to be used in all manner of emergencies and daily operation, and all of which he knew how to use. To this day such clattering in any vehicle brings me back to those nostalgic times.
My dad was a New York State Forest Ranger from 1967 to 1995. He died in February of this year, at 85 years of age, but for over 28 years of his life, he’d been a proud Adirondack Forest Ranger, working the Saranac Lake and Malone districts. He’d devoted the entirety of his being to this profession, and in the process “gave up the body,” in the form of a frost-bitten ear, a fractured hip joint, and a beat-up skeletal system. But he loved being out there, loved being among the trees…building lean-tos and bridges and fighting forest fires. Saving lives.
The woods and the waters of upstate New York.
When I’d grown up to the point where my height could be measured with a couple of yardsticks, he began to occasionally take me to work with him. It was on those days that I’d sat back in his truck, surrounded by his rolled fire hoses, chainsaws, steel “Indian tanks,” and more. His battered aluminum clipboard on the seat between us, loaded up with all manner of permits and other paperwork. During these ridealongs, he took me canoeing, motorboating, hiking, cross-country skiing, and even “observing” in a fire tower or two (at least once with my next oldest sibling, Chris).
One day, at Hickok’s Boat Livery (now called the Upper Saranac Marina) out on the Upper Saranacs, we’d been cruising along in a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) motorboat. Dad had taken off his Stetson as we tooled about on the lake. I’d reached down to put it on my head, when he quietly told me to take it off—that he was patrolling “undercover” and the hat would give him away.
I was undercover!
It turns out that “we” had “pulled over” a boat or two. I felt so a part of his life, out there with my dad as he “made a collar.” Well, he didn’t actually arrest anyone, but did more of a “catch and release.”
Possibly the best on-the-job experience I’d ever had with my dad was being allowed to help mop up the Panther Mountain fire, back in ’75. I was 14 and it had been my first official paycheck, the stub of which I still possess. I’d sported a full Indian tank on my back, wore a steel DEC hardhat, and was issued a mattock, as well as all the other gear I’d needed. I had officially become part of a fire-fighting crew, and, along with the professionals, had attacked the occasional smoking clump, charred trees, and the otherwise damaged earth and vegetation. Did what the real firefighters around me told me to do, as we all made sure that that fire stayedout. Though I wasn’t a huge cog in that wheel, this was serious business, and I did all it was that they had done or had directed me to do…picked-and-hacked at logs and earth and poked around and under rocks and stumps, and, well, everything. It was perhaps the first time where I’d been given such a huge responsibility, because, you know, it wasn’t like these folks could check my work. I had to rely on my own thoroughness, integrity, and decision-making—and I was allowed to do so. At 14 years of age.
On another day, Dad and I had both come in from outside, into our Lake Clear house. We’d headed into the kitchen. My teen-self stood beside my dad as we looked out the kitchen’s picture window. Turns out that Dad had been eyeing a guy in a boat way out on the water. Without warning, Dad had bolted out of the house and charged on down to the lake. For some odd reason I don’t remember much about the outcome, but he’d gone down to help a guy-he-didn’t-know without a moment’s hesitation, that’s what I remember. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.
In much the same way, Dad had disappeared out into many middle-of-winter nights with arctic-like temperatures to pull dead (and living) bodies off mountaintops. He’d risked his life in more forest fires than I can remember and participated in over 200 search and rescues, but in addition to his brawn, he’d also used his brains: he’d seen the need for an on-site Command Post trailer for use during fires and search-and-rescues and bulldogged it into reality. He’d also provided forest-ranger liaison with the news media during many searches and rescues. That trailer is still in use today and, according to Johnny May, also a retired ranger, it had come from an idea Dad had had while he’d been a Paul Smith’s College Adjunct Instructor for Environmental Law. That trailer, along with many of his other accomplishments, directly led to him receiving the U.S. Forest Service’s highest honor, the Silver Smokey, in 1988. At the time he’d been the first and only Forest Ranger to receive that award.
During another year, Dad, our neighbor, Marie Mussen, and some or all of us kids had planted acres of seedlings in a section of empty field, way up behind our Lake Clear house. Evergreens—spruces I believe. It was a large field.
Fast forward some forty years.
My wife and I had returned to my old homestead and had met the current residents. I’d explained that I’d grown up in this house and could we, perhaps, check out the place? The owners, ever so gracious, took us on a tour throughout the entire house and even lent us the use of one of their ATVs and told us to “Go have fun!” My wife and I took off and disappeared into the trees up behind the barn.
As we toured the “back 40” and my memories of it, we’d come to an abrupt stop into a wall of trees. We’d “T-boned” directly into an evergreen wall (note the subtle different color of the long rectangle in the previous link). I was confused. Even while accounting for 40 years of increased vegetative growth, something was off. I did not remember—
When it hit me: this must be the field where Dad had planted all those seedlings!
While and sure these are all memories, much more can be made of them.
Pretty much everything that happens to kids can be a learning experience and living with a first responder, well, there is much to be learned, even if many moments were not so much “teachable” as just “having happened.” To be honest, I don’t know if I learned as much from these particular moments as I should have, or that I had just learned from Life in general later on, but these experiences with my dad had given me a firm foundation upon which to build.
I do know that I’d learned to always be prepared from my dad, and that it had started from sitting in that rattling truck and seeing his constant state of preparedness. On the Upper Saranac, there had been his treatment of wrongdoers with fairness and respect. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation and not cuffs.
Mopping up after forest fires to make sure everything is out requires extreme meticulousness, along with the integrity to make sure that you’d properly done your job—mistakes can be costly, if not deadly.
To this day, I can still hear my dad’s voice forcefully schooling me not to wait to be asked, if I see another needs help. And much like my dad not giving a second thought to helping that guy out on Lake Clear, I try to make myself as useful in my circles-of-influence.
Though I doubt that someone had asked my dad to plant a field full of seedlings, I can see my dad having done that on his own. He was always improving things. I, too, try to be a force for Good and always try to leave my world a little better than how I found it. I may not be pulling people off mountaintops in the middle of the night, but I give my all in everything I do.
We all need to heed the rattling of our own internal equipment and capabilities and be prepared and knowledgeable in the employment of our own mattocks and Indian tanks. We need to rise to our own challenges and be there for those who need our help. We need to be just and fair, but also respectful. We need to be agents of Good, whether it’s a smile, a helping hand…or the planting of seedlings in the empty field of another’s life.
Just for kicks, here’s an image of me when I was studying modeling and acting in my late 20s, at the John Casablancas Modeling & Career Center. I went on a few commercial go-sees way back then, but nothing’d materialized. I quickly realized it was far more expensive to start collecting a wardrobe and associated props (not to mention all the time practicing and working the craft…) then continuing as a writer with just paper and a typewriter, so I left the biz, such as it was. I was also an Air Force captain during all this.
A friend of mine, Marc Schuster, is creating a really fun mockumentary that he asked me to be a part of. Marc and Brian Lambert that is. I’m not going to say anything else, except to watch this trailer he put out last week. I’m the very first clip in it.
Okay, I WILL say…that whatever Marc does is exemplary! He’s extremely talented and FUNNY AS HELL.
I’m still working on some of my other parts to this project, which will be completed by early next week (though not sure how much of it he will use), but, man, I cannot wait to see what he puts together! I just love the feel to this trailer! Haunting…resonant….
You know…the older I get (I’m in my early 60s), the harder it is for me to write nasty scenes. Or some nasty scenes. Or the nasty scenes that I’m currently working on but don’t want to be. Even if they’re warranted for the story. It simply comes down to that I just don’t want to write them anymore. I don’t want to focus on “those” kinda things for any length of time.
So, why write them?
Well, you kinda need to when you’ve attempted to create verisimilitude with life in your stories.
When I started this post, I was at a part of the my current work-in-progress (WIP) where I could no longer can put off doing that (focusing on the nasty bits). The really nasty bits. I have a very bad person–excuse me, character–that is now being exposed for what he is, and I simply have to “go there” to some degree. And, much like when I wrote Psychic, I now have to “flesh out” this evilness, as it were. It is quite distasteful. But I managed to muscle through it.
How does something like that affect one’s writing?
Well, it could very well affect it in real, damaging ways–you know, in so far as it’s just writing, and not the real world. But not being able to “go there” can definitely affect stories you’re trying to tell. It could just be the subject matter…and this may well be the issue. This WIP involves domestic abuse.
In order to write good stories, [it is said that] you need conflict. Contrast. Struggles. Overcoming said struggles. And in most of today’s publishing and reading those are pret’ near immutables. But…even more so…how does a writer write such a story without writing about the nasty that happens so very frequently in real life? Some can write “puppy-and-kitten” (P&K) type stories. Mine are not like that, but I can see the need for them. I even take to reading some now and then for fun, relaxation, amusement…but, largely, stories do need texture…realistic, gritty stories do, anyway.
I’ve often said that in all jobs, we usually have to do something we don’t like. And this is (well, was) certainly one of those times.
To make matters worse for writers, it is of our own making!
I’d literally written myself into a corner.
And just how was I supposed to get out of it?
Also as I’ve said and/or thought many times…we just have to write ourselves out of it.
When it comes write (heh-heh) down to it…it’s not that I couldn’t do it…I just didn’t want to, and it was weird how it became such a “thing.” I really wondered if that was why I was having…issues…with wrapping up the initial draft. Well, it did appear to be the case.
I don’t like focusing on negative and evil things for any length of time, never have, and the older I get the less I want to. In my retirement years I want to focus on good things, pleasant things (like learning the violin). When I have to write about nasty shit it puts me in a negative headspace. Granted, context is everything, I’m just writing fiction, but still.
Maybe it is just this particular subject matter.
To all of you who will read what I came up with, it will only be a few minutes of your time and focus, and you’ll probably never even give it much thought or think it not a big deal–or at least think it was well done–but for me it will involve hours and days of concerted effort and focus on my part, as I labor on getting the scene…the words…just right. That all takes time. Thought. Displacement into a “place” I don’t want to visit. But will.
BTW…I’m at around 127,000 words into this behemoth (literary agent swoons…faints…convulses on the ground…), so there is no turning back. Even if I cut “a few things.” This story is my biggest yet. I hadn’t planned on it getting so big, it just did. I’ve done everything in my power to mitigate this, I’d outlined (I did–and I’m not an outliner), I ran the outline past my agent (she told me I was trying to do too much, so I cut out still more stuff), I cut and cut some more, but it just kept creeping back…the story showing me more and more that needed to be documented–I mean written.
It’s funky, the story, that is. Its turned around inside out. Intertwined. My view at how fantasy and reality…mix. Exist. Coexist? And, to wit, it’s about relationships–and in this WIP mainly bad ones. It’s probably (seriously?, you say, shouldn’t I know at this point in my life?) the Big Story I’ve been shooting for my entire writing career, the Great American Novel. But as I say this I do remember that there is at least one other Big Story I haven’t yet tackled and hope to before I die. And it would be a Big Story, for sure, in concept, expanse, reach. Perhaps it will even be my last published work, so those who want to give me shit can’t (basically, I’d write it, shelve it, give it to a lawyer, them tell him/her/it, when I die, give it up to So-and-So to try to publish it).
Annnywaaay, I am…plain and simply…no longer a fan of writing nasty scenes.
Or at least in my current state of mind, with all the stupidity, shootings, juvenile political behavior going on with all of those who are supposed to be running our country, et cetera…and not to mention the war that is currently being waged upon a peaceful country. As I’ve said, I’ve written myself into said corner and really need to write myself out of it. To cut it all out, tame it, would be to kill the work. Pull its punch. Those nasty scenes I’ve written focus on domestic abuse. The scenes are set in the 70s, but still, they are not scenes I want to spent any more time on than I absolutely have to. But they are necessary. Advance the story. Inform the characters and the readers. Without them, the story itself would cease to exist. I didn’t pick the story…it picked me. Remember, it kept forcing itself on me when I kept trying to cut things–these very things.
Sooo…I wrote them.
But with all this comes good news!
I’m happy to say, I am THIS CLOSE to completing the initial draft!
I say “initial draft,” because I have yet to have written the entire first draft without having gone back over many sections of it, as I vomited it out. I just couldn’t blast right through on this manuscript (ms). It involves intricacies. So much so that the ms had to be properly fitted into other parts, and I’d had to move so many sections around–delete/add/you name it–that I got dizzy.
But I am nearly there!
And I am pretty damned excited! It’ll be around 128,000 words, my largest work to date, but also, I hope, my most thought-provoking one. I know publishers may balk at its size, but that’s because they’re going to think this is my first book or some stupid thing, since I’m not “New York published.” As I’d warned my agent, I’ve been writing 55 years and I should be allowed to branch out and tackle far more complex, intricate work. I should not be held to a literal novice’s submission standards. I’ve written countless short stories and X-number (I no longer remember) of novel manuscripts, not all of which will see the light of day.
I am getting my cart before the horse, here: this ms will not be ready until at least deep into next year. Maybe even 2023. I thought I might be able to finish it next year, but now I’m not so sure. As I’ve said…it’s big. We’ll just have to see.
Because of rhythm problems in my violin instruction, my instructor had recommended that I might look into a “wearable” metronome. So, I did.
For the month of May I tried this really neat invention called the Soundbrenner “Core.” And while initially it felt like it was helping a lot…in the end, it did not. It doesn’t work all that well at higher speeds, say above 80-90, and definitely in the 100-200+/- bpm range. I just couldn’t discern the individual beats well enough–and I really wanted to be able to! How professionals employ it in gigs/concerts is beyond me–but further that professionals would even use it stuns me, though I’m told this is a very common problem even among professionals.
The other thing about it is the app. You can use it without the app, but you can’t adjust some of the items as well or at all. Since I’ve already sent it back, I can’t verify what items you can’t change without the app, but I think the severity of the “thump” was one. You needed the app to adjust how hard the “thump” hits you–and it can be pretty intense!
And why NOT use the app?
Because, like every [allegedly] greedy company out there they want to track you for life.
Maybe some of you out there no longer read your TOSs, but I do. If I can do without it, I will not buy anything that INSISTS I allow them to track my every move. I do not believe that should be a “thing” for businesses out there just because you bought an item from them. Oooh, I could easily go on, but I won’t. Please read your TOSs.
Soundbrenner was also real good about getting back to me about any questions and even the return, though, at times, it did seem to take them longer. But they always got back to me.
Another thing that did not work well was the “smartwatch” function: it totally failed outside in full sunshine. By this I mean that I could not see a thing on the watch face. Totally useless. 100% design failure in my opinion.
One thing that was cool, was a decibel meter. If you accessed the function, it would read the loudness you were experiencing, say in a concert hall, and alert you to if it was too loud and cause possible hearing loss, so that you could insert ear plugs, which also came with the device.
The extra strap that comes with it can be used to fasten the device to other parts of your body, like an ankle or your chest. I tried both and neither were as good as having it on my wrist. When I used it on my chest, it felt far too much like I was having a heart attack! And what effect would it have on the heart if it was pounding away at your heart at maximum force, at 200 beats-per-second? Yeah, it really felt weird “thumping” against my chest, so, that was freaky….
I really did want this to work! It has some really neat functions! But in the end I just couldn’t justify it. Some obviously like it, because it continues to be manufactured and improvements were made to the initial models, but it just didn’t work for me.
In that vein I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who has serious rhythm issues and needs to try another route, and I do wish you luck in employing it–or something else–to help you in your ongoing rhythm issues, but, yeaaah–nope.
My essay, “Dad and Me,” about what I’d learned from a Forest Ranger dad, has been published in the August 2022 issue of Adirondack Life!It’s in the Barkeater section, on pages 76 and 77. It is my first sale in a long time.
I’d originally titled it “Seedlings,” and it was about twice as long, but Annie Stoltie, Adirondack Life editor, wanted to get it into an earlier version of the publication, and I’m ever grateful that she got it in earlier rather than later–and in the summer issue! She’d originally thought it couldn’t get in until perhaps the Fall, so it came as quite the surprise when she’d contacted me and said if I could get back to her with my comments that next morning it would make into the next issue! I had gotten her e-mail in May after having just buried my dad, while we were quite literally getting ready to leave my Stepmom’s in upstate NY and head back to Colorado.
I will publish what I’d originally written a little later, since the two articles are quite different. I have also been given permission to do that from Adirondack Life.
June 20, 2022: I have updated this since initially posting it. I’d just talked with my uncle and he filled in a lot of holes!
I have written a lot of my interest in the violin starting with my interest in my paternal grandfather’s violin. To be honest, myself and my siblings don’t remember much about my grandfather playing it, though Greg, my youngest brother, and I seem to remember a vague recollection of Grandpa playing, when we was but young tykes. But what really began to germinate my interest in it happened immediately following his death, in June of 1992.
Now, get this: Grandpa died on a June 4.
I began my violin lessons on a June 4.
I just now realized this as I wrote “…in June of 1992,” above! I verified his death date with my copy of his death certificate. I had not tried to match that date at all. It was purely a case of fitting into my instructor’s schedule before things were all filled up. But…wow.
Grandpa had actually been getting ready to fly out to be at my wife’s and my wedding, but when he died, I ended up flying out to see him. At his funeral. Irony? As my dad, Greg, and I were sorting through Grandpa’s things at his apartment, we found his violin. Even then I was fascinated by it. Taken by it. It was-and-is magnificent. Maybe not in perfect, not top-of-the-line shape and quality, but magnificent to me just the same.
Over the years, the number of times I again saw the violin could maybe be totaled up on one hand, but it always stayed with me. Dad now had possession of the violin. Once or twice, when I’d fly home to see him, he’d have it out somewhere, but he usually kept it hidden away in trunk or something. And every time I’d ask him anything about it he had little-to-nothing to say about it. He just didn’t seem all that interested in it, which is fair given my dad’s Forest Ranger work, interests, and a host of so many other reasons (for one, Dad was an actor and singer on the side). My dad was always doing not one thing–but a host of things! But by now my interest was definitely simmering and growing. I’d start noticing all the violin music played in movies, over the radio, wherever, and one thing in particular really kick-started my interest and fomented it into a defined goal: The Alamo, with Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett.
Or at least I thought that there was such a scene.
You see, I cannot for the life of me find the scene as I remembered it! I really do not think it’s the “Deguello de Crockett“–but it could be…but I severely doubt it. The scene I “remembered” was a moving, atmospheric, and emotionally charged piece played at night…on top of a hill…showing the player’s silhouette…but I just cannot find it.
So it might have been an entirely different film–and actor–altogether.
In any event “that” [further] reignited my passion to learn how to–and to play–Grandpa’s violin.
In 2018 I went back to see my dad and stepmom. Dad once again had Grandpa’s violin out on one of his office desks. I took some pictures of it. It looked great! Dad told me that he’d just had it refurbished by a local university “music guy [who was not a violinist].” I told my dad about my future plans for the violin. Once again, I picked up the object of my revered fascination and examined it in awe.
Tried reaching back to Grandpa across time while I’d held it…it was from the early 1900s and my grandfather had played this. Touched it and had made music–good, bad, or ugly–with it. My paternal grandfather who was quite the character and was always goofing around and making jokes…being funny in whatever way he could at the moment. Always laughing or smiling. Tinkering with things. Geez, he was always tinkering with things. He had learned to play this to some degree, and did so, usually (I had once-and-finally managed to weasel out of Dad) during the holidays–Thanksgiving and Christmas and taht kind of thing. And he usually played “funny songs” I learned after Dad’s death, in a note Dad’d written to his brother and had put in the violin’s case.
Otherwise, as often as I’d asked my dad about the violin and him, Dad continued to have little-to-no information on Grandpa playing it, except that “…he was bad….” He just didn’t seem to appear interested…and never seemed to really “get it” that I’d all-but asked for it. So it was cool to discover a little more about Grandpa’s playing in that abovementioned note.
I was set to retire three months later (2020), so I immediately began researching instructors. I’d wanted traditional, orchestral instruction. And through all this, I was still hoping to (at some point!) gain possession of my grandfather’s violin. I wanted to use that violin as my instrument and not have to rent or buy a new one. But it was not to be and was now my dad’s, and I just didn’t feel right asking him outright for it. I mean, it had belonged to his dad, and maybe that was why he never handed it over, or never talked about it much: maybe he was overcome with emotion he just didn’t want to exhibit to a family member.
But there was one other reason I didn’t outright ask for it that I can now admit to: in 2018 Dad’s health was getting much worse…and I really didn’t want to seem like I was an anxious vulture looking to swoop in to “get any of his stuff” before he died. Add to this that Dad could have totally been within his rights to bequest the violin to his brother, since Grandpa was also his father. I respected that.
In any event, there was just so much “to” all this that I just let it go. If it was meant to be, I (and my wife) reasoned, it would be.
However, to keep things short, there were some twists and turns in the “chain of custody”…but I did eventually receive Grandpa’s violin: on March 26, 2022!
After nigh 30 years of dreaming about it, hoping about it, thinking about it, I’d finally had it before me. And it was just me. My wife was on a business trip at the time, so it was just me and the object of my life-long obsession.
It really was…a moment.
Magical. I am not normally “about” things-material, but this one item, it just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
Have I made that clear enough?
So…I opened the package…opened the case…and looked in. Just stared down at it before even touching it.
There, before me. I don’t know long I actually did this, but I just stood there and took it all in. The object of my Arthurian quest.
My paternal aunt and uncle, who’d had possession of it the last few years, were extremely gracious in sending it to me, and I am forever indebted to them for doing so! In fact, about a year or so prior, my uncle had actually called to tell me that I could have it. Yes! Out of the blue! I was floored! He said that he couldn’t play it, so I might as well have it [you know, given that I was actually learning the violin now]. He offered to ship it, but it was either the end of the year or the beginning of a new one, and I said they could continue to hold onto it until I came out to get it. I was worried about shipping it in the then-cold weather and having it sitting around inside a cold van.
More Monkey Wrenches and a Decision
I could have actually gotten it much earlier…but COVID hit…then I had several planned travel plans fall through…and I did not want it shipped in the height of summer, nor the depth of winter, nor have it spending all that time in sweltering or frigid UPS or FedEx trucks. So we agreed that my aunt and uncle would keep it until I could make it out there. But with the death of my dad this year, I just…I just couldn’t wait any longer.
For some reason I awoke one day with an increased sense of urgency like I’d never had before. Words something like “Get the violin!” ran over and over, around and around in my head literally like a crazy broken record. I actually felt like I was in a movie or something. It was quite unreal.
I simply and suddenly couldn’t wait any longer.
Life is short.
As it turned out, it was early spring, so the temperatures were actually perfect for a shipment! Not to mention yet another canceled trip on my end once again stifled my
(Get the violin!)
I cannot thank them enough. I know it had to be hard for my aunt and uncle to part with it, but it has come into a wonderful home and since receiving it, I do play it pretty much every day in the course of my lessons. Practice bowing exercises…practice rhythm exercises. I also mess around with other non-lesson pieces of music, like the X-Files theme, “Three Blind Mice,” or “Shenandoah.” No one else in the family plays the violin and it is finally being used again…as it was meant to be…as all musical instruments beg to be so e[njoy]mployed….
However, since receiving it, I’ve had to have some work done to it to make it functionally useful for me:
The bridge that had been on it when I received it was cut far too short, so short that the strings were barely above the ebony neck. Juan Mijares, the local luthier I use, fashioned a new one for me.
Also far too low was the really cool and illustratedchin rest! I really wanted to keep this in place, but it’s simply far too low and I would (I’m told/have read) develop neck problems if this was not corrected–at least for me and my skill level; I know some professionals can pull this off, but I ain’t there. I replaced it with a Wittner Chin Rest, like I have on my other two violins. I love the Wittner Chin Rest!
Also (as mentioned) I had to purchase a shoulder rest. The violin did not some with a shoulder rest. Back in the early 1900s, and from what I’ve read, shoulder and chin rests weren’t a requirement in ergonomic violin protocols. In fact on the back plate (underside) of the violin you can clearly see wear on the finish where the violin rubbed against shoulders. Not a good thing either for the violin’s finish or the musician’s form. No shoulder rest prevented me from properly (and ergonomically) anchoring and holding the violin in the proper position, between neck and shoulder, at least by today’s standards. Currently I use the Everest Shoulder Rest on all of my violins, but it’s also the only one I’ve ever used, so I really have nothing to compare it to, short of no shoulder rest at all (which is uncomfortable!).
Lastly, I should get a new violin case for it. The original case does seem to be in pretty “decent” condition, considering how old it is (and I did clean it up and apply leather protectant to the exterior leather), but it’s not perfect, isn’t as “weather protecting” as it should be, and isn’t able to contain the shoulder rest in its case. I did some research and found a good German-made one (a Gewa “Maestro“), in the same hometown that the violin was made, one I’d love to get, but have put that off for now for a few reasons. They’re hard to find now, these Maestro cases, especially in the green interior I want, and what with the supply chain issues, Gewa told Juan (when he called on my behalf) that it would be no earlier than September of this year before they were again globally available. But I really don’t want to part with the original case! Even when I do, eventually, get the new one, I will (of course!) hold on to the original. Man, if inanimate objects could talk….
All righty, then. I began researching the violin’s lineage. It has proven to be a wee bit difficult, but inside the violin is stamped “Hans Schirmer Germany Adorf iv” and that’s where I started:
Okay! Now I know the violin’s maker and location! But what about the date? Dang it, no date!
It is German-made, but, as of now, I have been unable to pinpoint it’s inception into this world of ours. Originally, I wasn’t quite sure when my Grandfather began using it, whether as a child or an adult, but as you’ll see, below, my uncle informed me that he had learned it as a “kid” (not an adult). When I had it looked at by multiple violin experts, they all figured from the style and finishing that it looked like perhaps the 1930s or 40s…which tracks with what I’d found of the maker of the violin, Hans Schirmer. But after talking with my uncle the violin simply cannot be from the 1940s, it might be from 1930 at the latest, but that can’t even be, since he began learning the violin as a kid. That has to put the violin more in line with the 1920s or earlier. But, so far, I just cannot find anything definitive. And just the other day I did reach out to a German Kerl on a German travel site that appeared located in Adorf’s neighborhood. I hope he can point me in the general direction, dort drüben, gerade aus!
The stamped “Hans Schirmer Adorf iv” appears to stand for “Hans Schirmer, Adorf in Voigtland (Saxony).” Hans had been inspired by a violin that had been made by Josef Klotz in Mittenwald, in the year of 1795. That’s cool to know!
According to one post in the above URL, Schirmer violins had usually been found in low-grade Schönbach trade violin shops. Ooh, hurt me with insults!
I have also contacted Princeton Violins for more info, but was politely told by a staff member that “If he finds them worthwhile for appraisal,” their luthier/appraiser might get back with me. Since he/they have not contacted me, it must not be worthwhile enough! Well. Okay then. I didn’t want it because of any appraised value…it’s the emotional and ancestral value I’m concerned with. I’ve already had it appraised (and of course insured, as is all my violins), I just wanted its creation date…or a more definitive date range. I have also contacted a London-based organization and await their response.
But, also curiously, how the heck did my grandfather come into possession of a German violin? Especially in the time frame of WWI and II? That puzzles me! My grandfather was too young for WWI and was declared 4F for WWII. So it is very curious that he came into contact with a German-made instrument! Were those sold in the US at that time period? Had someone they’d known given it to them? Geez, there is so much mystery (okay, allow me the literary license, bitte, I am a writer…) surrounding this instrument….
I had my instructor play the violin and it sounded incredible! I wasn’t sure how good a violin it turned out to be, since it is talked about as a “production” model, especially given that one comment above (“…low-grade Schönbach trade violin shops“), but when my instructor played it, it sounded just like any other high-end instrument, or perhaps this is better described as how any instrument would sound with a professional playing it (there is some discussion about how much a more-expensive violin organically contributes to its sound then the skill of the musician playing it, but more professional-grade violins are mind-blowingly more effective than a student or intermediate violin)! My instructor also told me that Grandpa’s violin would be more than adequate for myself [once I “graduated” to it], which also presupposes that it is better quality than my student starter-violin. Nice to know! The Germans are highly rated in pretty much everything they engineer and/or build, and according to a passage I can not yet [re]find in the big book, The Violin, by David Schoenbaum, Germany had come into their own in building violins, somewhere around the late 1800s/early 1900s, I think it was?
I am exceedingly honored to now be in possession of my grandfather’s violin, and that I am using it as it was designed to be used and is no longer languishing away in a trunk. I am using it in the performance of some of my lesson drills, as well as playing “Auld Lang Syne” on it. And, one day, I will be playing it as it was ultimately intended to be employed (at least I hope so…).
Now…after having completed this post…I was looking at some photos that my dad had sent me, when I came upon this:
This is a photo taken back when my dad was a teenager! And he’s hamming it up on my grandfather’s violin! It looks like my uncle is in the lower-right foreground and my grandfather is standing in between Dad and [what must be] my uncle. It’s curious to see that there are also tapes on the violin’s neck, just like on my student violin. Those are used to learn the notes.
Dad has to be around 17, or so in the above photo, but could also be in his early twenties, which would put this image at least around 1949 or less. This picture would then put Grandpa at about 37 years of age.
In any event, my uncle told me that Grandpa learned the violin as a kid (not a teenager), so this would make place the violin in at least the 1920s–but definitely not the 1940s. And since we’re talking “as a kid” (it was “those times” my uncle also said, when kids “did that sort of thing,” e.g., learned instruments at a young age), that would make it much earlier than 1930s and 1940s. That would have to make it no later than 1922 +/-, keeping it in the pre-teen years, so it could possible be much earlier, especially if it was “brought over” from overseas, when my great-grandparents (Grandpa’s parents) immigrated! Maybe even the 19-teens! My uncle said that my great-grandparents had “brought it over” (from overseas; my brother, Greg, said he found some document that showed my great-grandparents immigrating into the USA in 1900…maybe June?…but he said such specificity is not to be necessarily trusted! Language barriers and immigrants-of-the-time probably would just “say ‘yes'” to almost anything thrown at them to “get in” for a variety of reasons, etc x 2…) with them and basically told Grandpa (my uncle said jokingly) to “learn it or else!”
In addition pulling the violin out just around the holidays, my uncle also said that Grandpa used to “play around” with the violin in making it sound like it was talking, or was a human voice. Yeah, that was Grandpa–always fooling around! It’s ironic (or perhaps because of this…), because the violin has long been characterized as the one musical instrument the most closely associated with sounding like the human voice.
How funny! And all this is fabulous information!
So what an interesting photo! I can’t believe I found this–a photo of a photo I’d gotten from Dad from around 2009. And all this new information about the violin’s history to add to my knowledge of this violin! It is proving to be quite the conversation starter!
I am exceedingly grateful for all involved for making this happen!
I hope to do all of you and my grandfather proud. I mean, I am already playing it, so in a sense, I’ve already hit that goal, where two years ago I couldn’t pluck a single string without being nervous. I also find that much like my friend, Marc Schuster, I, too, am quite taken with creating music. As I wrote in the 2021 post, I have finally understood Marc’s obsession with music [“over” writing]. I can’t seem to get enough of this new passion of mine, and while I wouldn’t say I’m learning the violin at the expense of my writing, yes, some of my writing has “suffered some” on the backburner, because of the violin. I have to practice, which takes time that I would have used writing. I guess if it (my writing) was actually going anywhere, I’d devote more time to it, but right now, I’m really enjoying learning this new ability, and I sandwich in my writing where I can….
(In all fairness, I have re-invigorated my latest writing work-in-progress in an effort to get the initial draft completed, and it is coming along! No, I am not giving up on my writing, not in the least, but I enjoy and am thrilled in adding the violin to my life!)
So, this is the extent of my knowledge on Grandpa’s violin!
I thank you, Dad…thank you, Aunt E and Uncle R…as well as give respectful nods and thanks to my two cousins, D and R.
I always think of you whenever I play your violin and I do feel just that much closer to you in spirit. I don’t believe in “June 4th coincidences” but do believe that you had, indeed, had a incorporeal hand in causing all of the pieces to fall into place. And maybe my Dad was also up there with you, helping me out in the more recent information gathering….
Today marks two years that I’ve been studying violin! That is so amazing to me! I’ve come such a long way, but the more I learn, the more I learn I still need to learn!
What has surprised me the most on this journey so far is how long it takes for the body to “get something right” (i.e., learn something). It seems that no matter how much I feel I’ve understood a technique, the body still has to perform it. And that seems to be the hard part for me. At least in my case. And there are so many other things you have to do right to make things sound so good.
Another thing is just exactly how much there is to learn about all-things violiny. Like notes. And bowing. Something called “musicality.” And the bane of all musicians: rhythm.
Ah, yes, the term with the villain’s pencil-thin mustache.
Every musician (I’m finding and I’m told) seems have issues with rhythm! I never realized that before! It’s “okay” to not be rhythmically perfect if you’re just playing for and by yourself, but, geez, if you’re going to play in a band–you know, with others–you simply have to be spot on.
There really is so much to learn about music and the violin. I don’t know how long it typically takes to be half-way decent at all this, but it seems like it’s got to be something like at least six years? Perhaps 12? I don’t know, but judging from how I’ve seen my nieces progress through the school system, it has to be something like 4 – 12 years.
Another thing that has really amazed me is that I’d managed to learned enough to perform at my dad’s funeral and burial services. In front of quite a lot of people. I couldn’t have done that in June of 2020. Yes, it’s not great, probably makes professional musicians cringe, but I was able to make noises emit from a weirdly shaped wooden box that were, well, recognizable.
And get this…in Chicago’s O’Hare (or Midway?) Airport earlier this year, a young lady had passed by me while I’d had my violin slung over my back. She, too, had her violin slung over her back. She saw my case, and quickly doubled back to ask: “Do you also play the violin?” I smiled and said, “Yes“–and barely resisted my innate urge to qualify that statement, given she was hurrying by. The young lady smiled and said “Cool!” and continued on her way.
Yes, that was cool!
So, yes, I have come a long way and have much to be thankful for! I have learned a lot and have a lot still to learn. I can’t thank her enough, but I have a terrific instructor who is very and properly supportive of adult learners like me. I do not exaggerate when I say that she is saintly kind, has four degrees in patience, and actually created the term “Understanding.” Yeah, she did, with a capital “U.”
But another person I also can’t thank enough is my wonderful wife! She puts up with me as I generate all kinds of amplified sound propagation that reverberates, and, yes, even rearranges the molecular structure of our house, and probably not in a good way….
She so graciously allows me to do all this (you now, once she leaves the house for work, her daily errands, gym, drives, etc.), to allow me the time and space to perform my lessons. And sometimes…sometimes she even stays at home (yeah–I know…) while I practice, sporting something like no less than seven pairs of ear plugs. I certainly can’t blame her, and I do question that I even properly considered how loud all this would be when I first started. It is a lot of noise. I’ve even looked into better ear protection to dampen the violin (I’ve even contacted a Wired techie who’s into music) and have been told they just don’t yet exist, at least as recent as the end of last year (UPDATE: the same day I posted this, this Wired article comes out). So, my saintly wife makes do with the multiple sets of ear “plugs,” a white noise generator, and a whole lotta patience….
I also have to thank all the rest of my family members who I’ve played for! Thank you for your attention and kindness!
And my dad. I am so glad that he lived long enough to see me starting to learn this. He seemed, yes, so proud of me doing this. When I’d express frustration a couple of times, he’d calmly tell me to just keep doing it. Keep at it. My dad was a badass, a retired Forest Ranger who, before that, was a submarine radio operator. He was severely “banged up” by the things he’d done in his life, and he rarely conversed with me about things in my life toward the end of his life, but on this—this he seemed so proud of me taking up. He’d also expressed his lifelong goal to learn the piano, which, sadly, he never did. And in his last-wish requests he’d said that if I had “conquered” the violin enough, he’d like me to play the “Navy Hymn” at his burial. Well, I can’t say that I’ve conquered anything, but I certainly did play a beginner’s rendition of the “Navy Hymn.”
I do feel so enriched with having taken this up! Really getting into the world of music…the world of the violin. I have even noticed that my memory actually seems to have improved a touch–and I have never been known for my memory. I just really feel as if a whole new world has opened up to-and-for me. The world of music. It’s far more than just listening to songs or instrumentals, which I’ve always enjoyed. Making music (or trying to!) is not only fun, it’s an amazing act. Striking an object to cause various wavelengths of sound to emanate into the air…and to have those sounds be consistently pleasing…and to consistently strike the same locations in rapid succession without frets or other indicators and cause those sounds to be wonderful in unison?
Well, that’s magic.
So, onward I continue!
I continue to practice and visualize myself getting better. Hopefully some time in the not-so-distant future I will one day be able to genuinely entertain others with consistently beautiful and wondrous sound propagation emanating from this weirdly shaped box that people will want me to play for them.
And hopefully all that I play will be highly...recognizable!
Okay, since posting my last post about watching a more learned-violinist perform Handel’s “Bourrée” and wondering about my ability to do so, I’ve since been practicing more with it.
Now, for the record: I never really doubted my ability to play “Bourrée,” but it was quite an eye-opener to see that that was to be my next piece to learn. It really made me think about where I’m going to go with this instruction. It’s instruction that is going to force me to push myself to actually become somewhat functional-if-good at this instrument. If I have my way, proficient.
So that was what all “that” was about. It was a “Holy Cow!” moment about where my abilities were headed. It really hit me. It’s one thing to intellectually “know” what a thing is, and entirely another to internalize said thing.
While I’d been away in NYS last week, I did manage to practice in my dad’s workshop, which was nice on two accounts: 1) it was in my dad’s workshop, and 2) it was using the violin he’d made for me from a StewMac “Fiddle Kit.” Here is where I was with this piece on May 9, 2022:
Now, after returning back to Colorado, here is what I played today, and it blew me away:
I’m far from getting “cocky” about my abilities, but I am quite excited about just how far I’ve come in nearly two years (June 4th is two years), through the incredibly patient instruction of my instructor, Autumn Deppa. Through my constant, daily practice sessions, sometimes twice a day. It is amazing what you can do, even when you never really did “the thing” before.
I have never considered myself to be any kind of a “musician,” but now I seem to be headed in that direction? I LOVE the violin. It really speaks to me (screams to others…), and its music, well, I could listen to it all day, with the proper violinist. Music does so many positive things to the body, mind, and spirit, but it’s also just so damned much FUN to perform! I am not that great, but I have performed in public several times already: I did my first violin recital, I played for-and-WITH my family during the 2021 Christmas holiday, I performed to a crowd of some 100 people at my Dad’s funeral service this past February, and, lastly, at his burial May 6th. Again, not that I’m any “Great Shakes,” or whatnot, but it’s more of just how far I’ve come from June 4, 2020.
It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. Even it I never perform with an orchestra—though I’d really like to at this point—it’s all freaking amazing.
And, of course, to my dad, who was so damned excited when I actually began doing it. He was really proud of me, or he wouldn’t have put together that violin for me. He always asked about my progress during every phone call. My last visit with him—even asked for me to perform for them!
So, given all of this, onward I go in that roller coaster! Up and over! It really is a fun ride, and it’s one I will continue to do as long as I possibly can!
A note…this post may be hard for friends and family members. He was my father. I loved him. Respected him. I mean no disrespect to him, but I am presenting some images that might be…overwhelming…to some.
I’d written about him in other posts, but he was a retired NYS Forest Ranger of over 28 years and a Navy veteran of 12 years, submarine service. He died February 13, 2022, but in the extreme upstate of New York State, they don’t have the equipment to bury the dead in winter, so they are put into a refrigerator and buried when the weather breaks. Early May turned out to be the date, so we flew back to NYS and buried him in the Essex County Veteran’s Cemetery, near Wadhams, NY. Since he was just buried last week, his name isn’t on this list yet, but he’s in the fourth row from the back, somewhere around four to six headstones in from the right, if I remember right.
The cemetery is relatively new, I think created in 2016, so there is a lot of open space. In this open space we had an incredible showing. I didn’t count them, but we’d been expecting 40 – 50, and we certainly got that and then some.
Once again, The Department of Environmental Conservation’s Honor Guard again stood guard, and one of their members played the bagpipes.
It was incredibly moving. Though I’ve only been learning the violin two years this June, I played “The Navy Hymn” on the violin my dad made.
When the burial service had ended and people dispersed, I then played “Auld Lang Syne” on my grandfather’s (Dad’s dad’s) violin. Family and good friends were then each given a rose each to lay on Dad’s casket. Mine is at the very head of his casket.
It appears that the new standard, at least in a Veteran’s Cemetery (which I haven’t yet researched) is no longer six feet under. Dad’s plot was lined with concrete and a water-resistent liner.
And this is how it looks after you pass. Life goes on. People going about their business, shopping, writing blog posts, going to work. Missing those who have moved on.
It’s extremely weird not having the force-of-nature that was my dad no longer in my physical life, but I do believe he is in the nonphysical realm now…experiencing yet more excitement and the continuation of his journey—as it is, I believe, we all continue do when we pass.
Maybe now…after many years in incredible physical pain that he had not always let onto…he can finally rest in peace.
Maybe now he can finally meet the sailors of the Thresher, with whom he cheated death by suddenly being diverted from its final voyage.
Maybe now he can also finally meet and have a damned good talk with the 23-year-old man whose place he was supposed to have taken, Joseph Alfred Walski, Radioman First Class, Thresher, SSN 593. And give each other a long overdue hug.