The old man was one seat away from me in the Williams Lake, British Columbia, airport. At his side was a battered violin case.
“Do you play violin or fiddle” I asked.
“Both,” he said. “I entertained the troops with it back in World War II.”
We had time, and he had a story. He was a young Canadian soldier, stationed in Brighton. He walked into the pawn shop on a lark. “How much for the violin?” he asked.
The shop owner wanted 25 pounds. He didn’t have it.
A soldier’s pay was $1.25 a day. In those days the pound was worth five Canadian dollars. He couldn’t save enough to buy the violin, not in the time he’d be in Brighton.
“It took me three weeks to talk her down.”
He finally figured out the magic words: “I want the violin to entertain the troops.”
Her husband was a soldier. Maybe the young Canadian would lift his spirits one day. “Fifteen pounds,” she said, and the soldier walked out with the violin.
He was shipped off to battle. He’d tuck the violin in the storage compartment at the bottom of the tank, where it stayed safe through battles. Unless they were under fire, he would pull it out at every stop. He played for the troops. He played for civilians. He played for the life back home and for the peace he wished for the war-torn lands.
Fifty years later the memories were still fresh. “Do you want to hear a tune?” he asked.
I nodded, and he took out his violin. It still bore the tassel from which it had hung on the pawn shop wall.
There in the crowded, airport waiting room he played “Lily Marlene” and “White Cliffs of Dover”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”. He played his memories of blood and horror, of ragged dreams and eventual homecoming.
After half a dozen songs, he lowered the violin. There was a smattering of polite applause. The man was no great talent, but his music was true and clear and took him back to battlefields, frightened civilians, and fallen comrades.
As he returned the scratched violin to its battered case, I asked if he felt the violin had brought him luck.
“Yes,” he said softly, as he gently placed the instrument back in its case. “It brought me through.”
In war-torn Europe he played music for the ear and for the soul. It was a small gesture of normalcy, of pleasure in a time of war.
The violinist was a small man, perhaps five feet tall, thin, grey-haired, dressed in black. But his heart was large, and he shared a piece of it as we all waited for our flights to be called.