Papaw written by David Donnelly

The following is inspired by the music of Jean Sibelius and my experiences filming the orchestra rehearse his 3rd Symphony.  This is one of many stories detailing the impact classical music has had on my life.  

The rehearsal hall used by die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (DKAM) in Bremen, Germany is connected to a middle school.  Students are regularly invited to stop by and sit amongst the musicians on stage.  I look around and wonder where this music is taking them.  I know where it takes me...to a time when the world was perfect.  

Most of my childhood memories involve my Papaw.  He had the Popeye-like forearms of a mechanic, one bearing a Navy tattoo in blue ink as deep as the seas he voyaged.  He was a handy man who conducted his magic in a meticulously organized workshop filled with an array of odds and ends.  I would watch in amazement as complex puzzles were solved with a tool, a part, or simply sheer determination.  He was a fixer of all things broken; an invincible superhero armed with a swiss army knife and a smile.             

My childhood hero, Raymond Abner.

My childhood hero, Raymond Abner.

A handy man must be prepared to fix anything.  To keep the workshop stocked, we sifted through every flea market and yard sale we could find.  On Friday nights, we’d map out the next morning’s routes.  The first people to arrive are the most likely to find the best deals, so Papaw would wake me at the crack of dawn to hop in his lime green 73' Chevy wagon.  My hands couldn’t get to those shiny chrome door handles fast enough.  I was always ready for an adventure with my best friend.                  

Time passed.

My teenage years brought with it a desire to fit in.   I embraced all things “brand new” and “brand name.”  Friday nights were spent at the movies with friends, instead of plotting out weekend yard sale strategies.  Even the wagon that was once a gateway to adventure became a hindrance to my new social paradigm.     

When I saw that junker of a wagon waiting for me after school, the bullies and mean girls with perfect hair laughed.  Rust had chipped away at the shiny chrome, and the faded green looked like a dying fern in need of water.  I rushed to that wagon with my head down and cap pulled over my eyes.  I let my body sink deep into the seats, swallowed by cracked leather and humiliation.

I agreed to another Saturday morning of crossing off addresses from newspaper clippings.  I didn’t have the heart to say no to Papaw.  As we rummaged through the half-broken items on some other person’s lawn, a teenage girl came out of the house to help her mother. I recognized her immediately as my classmate.  My very popular, very beautiful classmate.  And I was sorting through her junk.  From that point, I started making excuses why I couldn’t go to yard sales anymore.  

Time passed.

I didn’t recognize the frail figure in front of me.  The Navy tattoo that was once the anchor of a family was now cracked like worn leather.  His eyes swelled when he saw me.  I tried to ignore the IVs and my mother’s tears.  All I could see was my best friend who fixed things that were broken.  I wanted to fix him but I was helpless.  He didn’t say anything.  Neither did I.  We both knew it would be the last time we would see each other on this earth.   

The summer before my junior year in college, I got the call.  Jolted.  Jaded.  Confused.  Time had new meaning.  The five hundred mile drive felt like five hundred years.  It was fitting that my Papaw passed away on the Fourth of July.  He served his country.  He served his family.  And he was my hero.   

I look around the rehearsal hall.  I see young faces.  I wonder where the music takes them.  I know where it takes me... It’s early in the morning.  The grass is still damp with dew.  I look outside the window and my Papaw is waiting for me in that lime green Chevy wagon.  My hands can’t get to those shiny chrome handles fast enough.  He smiles and grips the wheel with his Popeye like forearms.  I hold my head high.  

There’s no other place I’d rather be.