Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Honor of Legacy

For me, life is a happenstance of connections to people, places and things, shaped by chance and inclination. I've never cottoned to the idea of a grand plan, a single path through existence that we create by our own efforts or discover through faith.

Instead I have a image of a Pachinko in which our own decisions, hopes and desires control only the force with which we launch ourselves to cascade down through a dense forest of life's pins, each of which represents a decision or event that in turn determines which path we'll take to the next juncture. Only in the rear-view mirror of my memory does that path resemble free will, fate, or divine plan. At just such a juncture I decided to acquire a Castagnari G/C diatonic accordion.

The ghostly imprint of a lover
My Castagnari definitely isn't a youngster; every surface shows a patina of experience and relationships.  On the exhale it whooshes a heady aroma, as if it resided for years in a library and spent its time inhaling fumes given off by leather-bound volumes and snifters of brandy. Under the bass strap is the ghostly imprint of a palm, showing precisely how someone must have held hands hour after hour with a true love. I became curious about who had embraced this beauty with such devotion. 

I inquired of -- a worldwide gathering of those who play button boxes -- whether anyone knew of its provenance. In response I got the suggestion to document the keyboard layout, which might provide a clue.
G#/G# indeed

For a melodeon, the arrangement of what note or chord a button sounds on the push or the pull typically follows a standard pattern, though there are many standards and instruments may be customized to fit a musical style or the whims of the player. 

My Castagnari had a typical layout except for the first button on the inner row, which obstinately played only a G sharp in either direction. As a melnetter commented, "Really? G#/G#??? That seems strange! Scary!!!".

This one button proved to be very distinctive and I received a gracious reply.

Joe Theriault
"You are the lucky owner of the instrument played for many years by my old friend Joe Theriault of Topsham, Maine. Joe passed away about four years ago, and was playing almost until the end of his life. He performed in several bands around this part of Maine (including one I also played in), on the street, and in a number of restaurants and cafe. He served on an oil-tanker in the merchant marine in WW II. After the war he worked as a ship-builder at the Bath Iron Works. He was also a recreational sailor and a great raconteur. For most of his life he was a pipe-smoker, hence the unique "atmosphere" of the instrument. He took up the melodeon after spotting an old Hohner in a yard sale, and picking it up for pocket change. He played all sorts of things, but was particularly fond of Finnish music, and he said the G#/G# was useful for some of the tunes he liked."

Joe's obituary provided additional details, "He spent most of his adult life sailing on Casco Bay; a passion that started during his years as a Merchant Mariner. A self-taught musician, he was also a devoted accordion player. He was a member of the band Raattikkoon, and was known as "The Old Port Busker."

For all I know objects also have a Pachinko animus. Perhaps my Castagnari decided to acquire me to be its person rather than the other way around. Either way we've been together this summer, getting to know each other. 

I now understand that Joe was a professional musician and played with a nuance and style that I could only hope to someday begin to imitate, after my own hand has added its ghostly impression. Even so, I too am a recreational sailor and I do like to tell a story now and then. I certainly hope that Joe's accordion knows why it decided to come on this boat, with me.


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