Most people don’t remember a peculiar moment of temporary insanity in America’s culture. We speak nostalgically of our hula hoops. We all remember where we were when we first heard The Beatles. But who waxes fondly on the accordion orchestras that flooded the nation in the early 1960’s? The Lawrence Welk Show was top rated prime time TV, and Myron Floren’s accordion solos were a high point of each episode.
Although the accordion’s tarnished image has recently been rehabilitated thanks to world music’s rise, many accordionistas still cringe at the memory of an era that focused on cheesy renditions of Lady of Spain, Flight of the Bumblebee and of course, the Too Fat Polka.
My immigrant parents couldn’t afford a piano. A rented accordion seemed just the ticket. Thousands of six to thirteen year olds were doomed to lug twenty pound suitcases containing our glittering squeezeboxes to competitions, recitals and Aunt Sonia’s birthday party. We were the children of the damned.
When I began to study, I was blissfully unaware of the stigma that would haunt me through adolescence. The challenge of memorizing the one hundred twenty buttons on the left side was a mnemonic game that comforted me as I practiced in my room, trying to ignore the family battles raging downstairs. I became adept; there were murmurs of prodigy. My parents dreamed that someday I too would star on Lawrence Welk.
During this heady time, my father, in an attempt to motivate me further, offered to pay me one dollar each time I played a song perfectly. And when my BIG recital came up, he told me if I played perfectly, I would get FIVE dollars. The song he insisted for my solo was a Russian folk song: Ochi Chernye – Dark Eyes. It was a challenging song for a nine year old, but I would do anything to please my Dad.
The day came. I sat with the sixty five other accordion players at the outdoor stadium. Mr. Semonski conducted us in an accordion symphonic arrangement of My Blue Heaven. He was a dashing figure, with a patch over one eye. I imagined that he had been a pirate but had to give it up and learn the accordion after he lost his eye.
Then it was time. He nodded to me. I hauled myself up to the front and faced the thousand spectators. My fingers danced along the keys, I could hear the crowd murmur. “So small, look at her go, that thing is almost as big as she is.” I got to the coda, and repeated. As I crescendoed towards the final note, my hand seized in the air. I couldn’t remember the last note. I stood frozen, my vision whirling like an over the top panorama shot in corny movies, whirling over the audience, my father’s horrified face illuminated in the sea of people, the roller coaster from the nearby amusement park careening down the track, the screams seeming to come from Mr. Semonski’s open mouth. He finally stage whispered, “B flat!” I hit the note and ran from the stage in mortified tears. I knew in that moment that my career as accordion princess was over.
But my parents, unwilling to give up their investment, pushed me on. I resentfully continued playing till I was seventeen. My father, by now a violent alcoholic, would periodically confront me. “Play me Otche Czarnia. And it better be perfect.” I had long ago stopped practicing seriously, and I only played for him out of fear of a beating. Since he only asked me to play when he was drunk, perfection was a flexible standard. It seemed he didn’t really notice if I made a mistake, as long as I kept playing. I felt a little guilty taking the dollar each time, but I figured if he didn’t notice, he wouldn’t remember giving me the money either. One day, as I sat on the stairs playing Otche Czarnia yet again, my father slowly slid down the wall till he also sat on the stairs, his head bowed. I finished the song and when he looked up at me, his eyes glistened with tears. I never played the song again for money.
A few years ago, I was visiting my now aged parents for a few days. We talked about favorite folk songs of Russia and Poland. My mother mentioned Otche Czarnia. “Ah,” said my father, “Otche Czarnia. Now that song nearly got me killed during the war.” My ears pricked up. My parents rarely spoke of the war. Although we were raised in the shadow of the horrors they had experienced, they had refused to share details with their children.
“How could a song nearly get you killed, Dad?”
My father grinned. “Well, you know, it was in Vienna. I had just gotten out of the damn prison camp and I was sitting with some friends at a club. A band was playing and we were all drinking and having a good time. I guess I had been drinking a bit because I went up to the band leader, gave him a bunch of money and said, ‘Play me Otche Czarnia!’ The bandleader shrugged and began to play. Suddenly, the doors to the club burst open and in walk these two Gestapo officers in their long leather coats and those boots. They stand and listen to the band, then stop the music. ‘How dare you play a Russian folk song?’ one of them demands. The bandleader says it’s not his fault and points to my table. Suddenly everybody at my table is sliding down in their chairs, and I think to myself, ‘Dammit, I’m screwed.’ But I’d rather die than go back to that camp. The Gestapo come over and say to me, ‘Your papers please.’ Now I had no papers, but that’s another story, I think to myself, well Leo, you have nothing to lose.
‘Why should I show you my papers? First you show me your papers! Who the hell do you think you are?’
Taken aback, the head Gestapo says, ‘What are you, an idiot? Can’t you see we are Gestapo?’
‘That’s what you say. But any idiot can go buy himself a leather coat and some shiny boots and say they are Gestapo.’
‘You asked them to play a Russian folk song.’
‘Yeah, so? What’s your problem with that? I can listen to any music I choose. You have no idea who I am, do you. Well, listen to me, my friend, if you don’t want trouble with the Reichstag, you better not let me know your name. Because once I report to my buddy Goebbels, maybe you’ve heard of him, well let me tell you, Goebbels and I are like this,’ (I figured what the hell, I’m a dead man anyway) ‘what a pain in the ass you were to me, your career is finished. Now get the hell out of here before I really lose my temper!’
‘Yes sir! Heil Hitler, Sir!’
‘Heil Hitler, ‘ I said, and waved them off.” He laughed. “Of course, the only reason I got away with it was because I spoke perfect German, you see.”
I tried to imagine how boring life must have been after the ultimate adrenaline rush of facing down the Gestapo.
“My God, Dad, that’s an incredible story. I mean, that took a lot of guts!”
“Kid, I was scared shit.”
“And yet, you always made me play that damn song on my accordion.”
“You don’t remember? The concert? All those times you made me play for you?”
He shrugged, smiled and repeated what he’s said throughout my life whenever I asked about unpleasant memories. “Hey, it’s the past. The past is the past, it’s over and done with. Forget about it and live for today.” He smiled impishly. “What do you say, I’ve been a good boy. How about a little vodka?” And he sang Otche Ozarnia at the top of his lungs as he poured.