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Twenty-one

December 1942

 

Charlie left again as quickly as he had come. The days marched toward Christmas, another Christmas without Charlie. Mama was nervous, Daddy listened to the radio, the girls fussed about decorating the house. I heard Mama and Daddy talking early one morning, the way they did. Mama didn’t feel much like celebrating. Daddy said the birth of Christ was a wondrous thing, even in a time of war. Maybe even especially in a time of war. Jesus was the only true hope of peace in the world, Daddy said. It was important to celebrate. We had not been in the parlor since Charlie left in the summer. As soon as he was gone, Mama had put the sheets over the furniture and closed the French doors. But now she reluctantly opened the doors and made room for a tree.

It was a quiet Christmas. Grandma Goodman had gone to see her sister in Missouri, and Aunt Lennie and Uncle Chet had gone with her, so it was just our family. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve Daddy took me down to the lot behind the hardware store and we picked out a tall, full tree to take home in the back of the truck. Miz Clara had put her tree up two weeks earlier and it looked so nice sitting in her front window. But Daddy liked to wait until Christmas Eve, so that’s we always did. Some years the pickings weren’t so good by then, but that year we did all right. While we were gone, Mama and the girls got the ornaments out of the attic and made a huge batch of popcorn to string. We always ate more than we strung, but Mama never scolded us on Christmas Eve.

When Elizabeth and Virginia started squabbling about whether they had enough blue ornaments in proportion to the silver ones, I decided I needed a break. No one wanted my opinion anyway. I went outside and plopped myself down on the cement steps leading to the back porch.

I don’t know how long I sat there. My thoughts were disturbed when a man walked up to me and said, “Are you Billy Byler?”

It was the man from the music store! What in the world did he want with me. I had never even been in his store; I sure had never stolen anything from there.

“Well, are you?”

“’Scuse me, sir?”

“Are you Billy Byler?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

He held out a rectangular black case. “Your brother came to see me the last time he was home. He made arrangements for me to bring you this today.”

I sat down on the back step and set the case on my knees, trembling, and opened it slowly.

“My trumpet!” I said without thinking.

“After all the times ya’ll looked in my store window at it, I guess it oughta be yours.”

A simple scrap of white paper lay against the bell of the horn. I picked it up.

 

Dear Billy,

Thanks for sharing your dream with your big brother. Here’s hoping it comes true fast. I can’t wait to hear you play. Merry Christmas.

Love, Charlie

I lifted the horn and put it to my mouth and blew. An awful sound came out of the other end and I immediately jerked the instrument away from my face.

“Here,” said the man. “Let me show you how.”

He took the horn and curved his hands around it and set his lips tightly against the mouthpiece. A clear, even tone came out the other end. He smiled as he handed the trumpet back to me.

“Ya’ll come into the shop on Monday afternoon, and I’ll show ya how to play. No point in wasting your brother’s good money.”

Mama was flabbergasted when she first saw the trumpet. I’m pretty sure she thought I had stolen it, so I was quick to tell her what the man had said and show her the note Charlie had left in the case. Since she had never known I was remotely interested in music, it seemed truly odd to her that Charlie would spend good money on a dented old horn. But the trumpet was there in my hands, and I had Charlie’s note, so she had to accept that he had done it. She made me promise to play it outside and not in the house. I didn’t blame her. The noises I was making with it were not too pleasant even to me.

Holding Charlie’s note in her hand put a light in Mama’s eyes. She asked Daddy to light the logs in the fireplace. Nobody was arguing with anybody. Speedy Hanley came by for a little while with a box of chocolate candy for everyone to share.

When it came time to put the angel on top of the tree, I looked around for Daddy. He was the one who always did that. I couldn’t find him.

“Mama, where’s Daddy?”

“He had to go out for a few minutes.”

“What about the angel?”

“Speedy can do that for us.” Mama handed the angel to Speedy, who was only about half as shocked as I was that she would to that. I thought Mama would be annoyed that Daddy had disappeared mysteriously, but she wasn’t. She even smiled at Speedy as he stood on a chair and set the angel perfectly at the top of the tree.

With the tree trimmed, Elizabeth, Virginia and Amy disappeared to do whatever it was they do. Mama and Margaret went to the kitchen to work on dinner. Some years we just ate one of Grandma Goodman’s chickens, but somehow this year Mama had managed a ham, and I couldn’t wait to taste it. I sat in the parlor staring at Speedy, wondering if he was going to stay for dinner. He stared back at me without much to say. Eventually he excused himself to say goodbye to Margaret because his own mother was expecting him home. I was relieved. I wanted dinner to be fun, and if Speedy was there, Margaret would act like an idiot.

After dinner Elizabeth played carols on the piano and we sang. Even Mama sang, and I saw Daddy smile at her when she finally joined in. The clock ticked way past my bedtime until it was time to go to the 11:00 Christmas Eve service at church. The girls put red and green ribbons in their hair. I rolled my eyes.

I knew Mama loved the Christmas Eve service. Well, most years she did. This year, after the preacher read about the shepherds in the fields watching their flocks by night and the congregation was supposed to sing “Silent Night,” Mama hardly moved. I looked at her sideways and saw that her eyes were wet. Most of the service was quiet and dark. The candles around the church barely gave off enough light to read the hymnal by, but I guess that was okay because everyone knew the words anyway.

In the dark, and I guess because I was watching Mama, I didn’t notice when a young man stepped up close to the organ before the final hymn. At the stroke of midnight, the preacher said, “Christ the Savior is born!” and a trumpet blasted into the stillness with the tune of “Joy to the World!” The congregation rose to sing as the organ joined the trumpet. I suppose my mouth moved to the words. I knew them by heart and we’d already sung that song at home after dinner. But I didn’t so much hear the words as feel the trumpet. What a sound! Brilliant, pure, clear, joyful. I stared at the horn player, studying how he held his mouth and marveling at the way his fingers pumped the valves. On the last stanza, he played a descant higher than any of my sisters could sing.

No sound could be more perfect for Christmas. We’d never had a Christmas trumpet in church before, at least as long as I could remember, which I grant was not all that long. I vowed that someday I would play a Christmas trumpet, my Christmas trumpet. That would be one way I would always remember the Christmas Charlie gave me a trumpet. I didn’t care if I got a single other package. I had my Christmas trumpet.

When we got home, Mama insisted that we all go to bed. I knew I was too excited to sleep, but I also knew that if I didn’t go to bed, there would be no chance for Mama and Daddy to get the packages from their closet and put them under the tree. So the girls went off into their crowded room and I climbed up into my bed in the alcove and squeezed my eyes shut and lay perfectly still. After a while, I heard my parents rustling around, and then their bedroom door shut and it was quiet again. The house was ready for Christmas.

In the morning I woke early and went out to the parlor by myself. The tree seemed even more beautiful than it had the night before. It felt strange to be sitting in this forbidden room all alone, but I enjoyed it. Our house was so small for so many people; most of the time it bothered me that Mama made us stay out of a perfectly good room. But on mornings like this, it felt like a special room, and I was glad to have it to myself.

My sisters and I had been down to Fred’s Dime Store to find small gifts for each other. We had not always done that, but when I was about six, Mama had gotten sick and tired of hearing us ask for everything for ourselves and she made us go out and buy presents for each other, even if it was just penny candy. Now I sort of liked it. Everyone had a nice pile of small packages, and then Mama and Daddy added their gifts to each of us on Christmas Eve. I looked at my package this year: long, rectangular, not too large, very neatly wrapped. I got out of the comfortable chair and picked it up; not too heavy, with a dull thud as it slid from side to side in the box.

“Go ahead, Billy, open it.”

I hadn’t heard anybody come in the room. Daddy was standing in the doorway.

“Don’t I have to wait for Mama and the girls to wake up?” I asked.

“They’ll be along soon enough. Go on, son, open it.” Daddy sat down in the chair I had just left and leaned forward to watch me tear the paper off and open the box.

Inside lay the pieces of a metal music stand, shiny and bright, waiting to be put together. I had not asked for anything special this Christmas, and until yesterday I didn’t even have an instrument, so this was a real surprise. I looked up at my father. He smiled back at me.

“Every fine horn player needs his own music stand,” he said, and I knew he was proud of me. “Merry Christmas, Billy.”

“But how did you know? Did Charlie tell you about the horn?”

Daddy shook his head. “Santa just had this idea last night.”

Now I knew where Daddy had disappeared to yesterday and why he wasn’t there to put the angel on the tree.

“Merry Christmas, Daddy,” I said. Daddy understood what Charlie was trying to do for me when he bought me that trumpet. “Thank you.”

“Actually it was your mother’s idea. She sent me out before Mr. Spooner could close up his shop.”

“Mama thought of buying a music stand?”

“Don’t be so surprised, Billy. She’s very proud of you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I simply sat on the floor fingering the pieces of my music stand.

Soon everyone else was up, and the floor was strewn with Christmas wrapping paper and torn ribbons and bows. Daddy went out for some wood and lit the fireplace to take the chill out of the air. I took out my trumpet, and no one seemed to mind that I played inside the house, though Amy did make some faces at the awful noises.

 

Twenty-two

December 1943

 

I spent the whole next day trying to get my lips to fit that mouthpiece the right way so I could make that clean sounding pitch on my trumpet like I heard at the Christmas Eve service. During all the Saturdays I spent roaming Front Street and looking in the music store window, it had never occurred to me that I would ever actually own the horn I admired, so I had never spent even a moment thinking about the work that would be involved in learning to play.

Monday afternoon finally came, and I went into town to see that music store man. Mr. Spooner was his name. I had never dared step inside the store before, and to me it was like walking through the middle of an orchestra. There were so many instruments, most of them used, and stacks and stacks of music. Other than the hymnals at church, where I only looked at the words—and only because Mama made me follow them with my finger—I had never seen what music looked like. Little lines and circles and jiggles—I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to make sense of it.

There was no spectacular miracle that Monday afternoon; to my disappointment, I didn’t suddenly know how to play the trumpet. But Mr. Spooner invited me to come again, and I did. I went every day that week while I was out of school. I started to feel guilty that I couldn’t pay him for the lessons, but he just waved his hand and said he was doing it for the young man who was serving his country. He showed me how to make different notes by moving my fingers and tried to explain how to read a page of music. Daddy never really looked at music when he played the guitar, but he told me it was important to learn to read music and that I should pay close attention. I practiced constantly.

My sisters mostly just groaned and walked away whenever I took my trumpet out of its case. But I didn’t care; I went ahead and kept practicing what little I had learned. Other than the entrance of my trumpet into our lives, the family’s routine pretty much went back to what it had always been before Christmas. Mama scrubbed and cooked and went to ladies meetings at the church. Amy spent a lot of time out in her playhouse by herself, ignoring the chilly temperatures in the early mornings. Virginia and Elizabeth were busy trying to figure out a way to get some new dresses before school started again in January. Daddy and Margaret went to work every day, and Margaret usually came home with Speedy Hanley and sat on the porch, even thought it was cold.

There was the one afternoon when Mama greeted Margaret and Speedy when they drove up and asked Speedy if he would like to stay for supper. While Speedy politely said he’d be honored to have supper with us, Margaret shot me a don’t-you-dare-try-anything look, but my mind was already churning.

Except for Thanksgiving, Speedy had never had supper with us before. Maybe Mama didn’t like him very much, or maybe she didn’t want to admit Margaret was old enough to have a steady boyfriend. In any case, for some reason she broke down and asked him to stay. I only wish that Randy was there with me to help with ideas. Or Charlie. Maybe I could write him a letter about it when it was all over.

I knew Margaret was nervous. We still ate in the kitchen like we usually did when it was just family, but Mama put out a nice tablecloth and made Amy be extra careful about how she set the table. So Margaret knew—and I knew—that this was an important night in her relationship with Speedy.

Every time I looked at Margaret she gave me one of her sternest big sister scowls, even though I hadn’t done anything. I was having almost as much fun doing nothing as I would have if I’d had a great idea for a way to bother her. Just having Speedy and me at the same table seemed to make her nervous. Whenever she scowled at me, I just smiled at her and took another bite of mashed potatoes.

After a while I noticed that Margaret hadn’t taken a bite in a long time, an awfully long time. In fact, her hands were in her lap, which was a strange place to put your hands at supper time. All the while looking at Daddy while he talked small talk with Speedy, I set my fork down near the edge of the table, and then managed to knock it off. It clattered to the linoleum floor.

“Billy Byler!” Mama huffed. “Ya’ll be more careful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Pick up that fork.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Things were going according to plan. I smiled to myself as I ducked my head under the table to look for the fork. What I really was looking for was Margaret’s hands. Sure enough, they were in her lap—both of them wrapped around one of Speedy’s. If she was trying to impress Mama with Speedy, this sure wasn’t the way to do it. I grabbed my fork and straightened myself up in the chair.

“Margaret, ya’ll ain’t eatin’ much. You all right?” It was Daddy asking after Margaret. Maybe he had figured out where Margaret’s hands were, too.

“I’m fine, Daddy. I guess I ate too much popcorn at the theater today.”

I was pretty full myself, but I took another scoop of mashed potatoes and plopped it on my plate.

“Margaret, may I have the gravy, please?” I asked sweetly.

The gravy bowl sat right in front of Margaret. For some reason Mama always made way more gravy than anyone could imagine eating, so the bowl was still nearly full. It would take both hands to pass it over to me without spilling. She was irritated, but she couldn’t very well refuse to pass the gravy. Not with Speedy sitting right there, not under Mama’s nose. Up came her hands. But she didn’t quite get her fingers loose from Speedy’s and her knuckles bumped the table pretty hard on the way up.

“Did you hurt yerself?” I asked in the most brotherly concerned voice I could muster.

“No, I’m fine,” she said, with her jaw firmly set. She set the gravy bowl next to my plate and glared at me when her face was turned away from Mama.

“Thank you for the gravy.”

Mama looked at me odd right about then. I guess I was being a little too well mannered to be believed, so I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead.

After supper, we all sat out on the back porch. Daddy strummed his guitar. After a while he started humming “Amazing Grace,” which made me think about Charlie and probably made everyone else think about him, too. No one really talked about Charlie much during those weeks, but his presence hung in the air, thick, all around us. The war was getting worse; we couldn’t avoid being worried about Charlie. We hadn’t heard anything from him since Thanksgiving but one letter, which only made Mama scrub everything harder and bark at me for more water. But Daddy kept saying that no news was good news.

One Saturday I went into town early with Daddy instead of waiting for Aunt Lennie to come buy and drive us all in. Mama had been nagging me to get a haircut and kept threatening to do it herself if Daddy didn’t. Daddy finally surrendered and took me in to the shop to get it done properly. He did it himself while he was between regular customers. I liked going into the barber shop where Daddy worked. Usually we were under strict instructions not to bother him there, so it was almost a treat to go in for a haircut and sit around for a while. Daddy gave a real good haircut. He had a lot of men who came in every couple of weeks and always asked for Jesse Byler. At home Daddy was so quiet, almost serious, but at the shop he chatted with his customers, calling everyone by name and asking after their families.

As usual, the radio was going in one corner of the barber shop. Most of the time there was just music playing, and on Saturdays the place was busy enough that it was hard to hear it anyway. But even while he worked and talked, I could see Daddy was keeping his ear cocked toward the radio. When the war news came on, no one seemed to notice. His barber scissors were poised over an old man’s head, the blades open, and he was motionless while the announcer talked about the war, first in the Pacific and then in Europe. I sat along one wall looking at old magazines, and at first I didn’t hear the news either. But I noticed the change in Daddy out of my side vision. I saw how he stopped to listen and then I realized what he was listening to. The information was always general. It would never tell us anything about Charlie. But Daddy always kept well informed about the war. He knew that the Americans had heavy losses right after Thanksgiving, and the day after Christmas there was another battle in the North Atlantic, and in January German submarines destroyed tankers taking supplies to troops in North Africa.

We had Charlie home for Thanksgiving, and my trumpet came at Christmas. But still the war went on, and Charlie was somewhere in the North Atlantic now.

When the announcer finished and the music came back on, Daddy saw me looking at him. He smiled slightly and nodded, as if to comfort me and let me know everything was all right. He couldn’t promise me that, of course, but I think he wanted to, and I wanted to believe him.

After a while, Aunt Lennie came in to fetch me. A part of me wanted just to stay there in the shop with Daddy all day instead of looking in stores and going to the movie and eating ice cream. But I knew I would never be able to explain to anyone how I felt, so I decided to go along with Aunt Lennie and the girls. But all day long I thought about Daddy with his head tilted toward the radio, listening to the announcer read the news report.

When I got home, Mama scolded me for not bringing water in before I left in the morning. I didn’t argue with her; I just went and got some water, and then went out in the yard with my trumpet. I didn’t care that the air was chilly these days. No one wanted me to play in the house for as long as I wanted to play, but so far the neighbors had not complained. With their windows closed for the winter, I guess they didn’t hear much. I wandered around the yard, practicing the only scales I knew, trying to blow the air through just the right way and make my fingers move just a little faster than they had the day before.

I lost track of time. I don’t know how long I was out there that day, but when I walked back toward the house, I saw Mama settled on the back porch, wrapped in a shawl against the chill. She didn’t talk much about Charlie, but she was out there every day at this time, with her Bible open in her lap and her eyes closed, praying.

And every time I wondered, would God answer her prayer this time? I know she only prayed for one thing.

 

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