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The Miracle of the Harmonica

Bill MacWithey

As a child, back in the late forties, even though we were among the poorest of the poor, Christmas was, then, as it is today, a very special time for me. My favorite project of every school year was the making of paper and popcorn chains to decorate the tree in our classroom. And, inevitably, when school let out for Christmas vacation, mine was one of the lucky families in our neighborhood that got one of the classroom trees. Of course, by that time, half the needles had dropped onto the classroom floor, but it didnít matter. It was a Christmas tree!

Approaching Christmas of 1947, as a ten-year-old, I was beyond many of the toys and things most children want at that age. With my father having deserted us when I was eight, and my mother in and out of the hospital with cancer, I had to grow up rather quickly. When the weather turned cold, I always prayed for snow. Snow meant going out to shovel peopleís sidewalks and driveways to earn money - money that bought something special in the way of food for a change. Or, perhaps a new pair of gloves or a scarf. Winters in Springfield, Illinois could be nearly unbearable, especially if one didnít have the proper clothing. A few months before Christmas, mom made aprons and potholders for we kids to go door to door selling a few days before Christmas. We always went to the wealthier neighborhoods and, many times, the people would give us the money, but tell us to keep our merchandise to sell elsewhere.

Our Aunt Ethel, in Warsaw, New York, always sent several boxes of gifts for Christmas. That was the main thing we looked forward to each year. This Christmas, a few days before school let out, and with it still being permissible to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the schools, everyone was in a festive mood - students, teachers, principal, and especially, Mister MacGruder, our janitor. He came around to every room and played Christmas Carols on his harmonica. After hearing him play the only thing in the world I wanted for Christmas was a harmonica! I had to have a harmonica! When he told me what they cost, of course, I knew it was out of the question, but I told my mother probably a thousand times I wanted a Harmonica for Christmas.

As Christmas day came perilously close, and the boxes had not arrived from Aunt Ethel, I was worried to death. Mister MacGruder told me he would teach me to play the harmonica if I got one for Christmas. I thought perhaps by some miracle, Aunt Ethel would send me one. But, it was only two days before Christmas, and the model "T" truck our mailman drove came and went, bringing only the few pieces of mail that would fit in the mailbox. I sat out in the cold on the railroad next to our house and felt so sorry for myself, now, it is comical.

Then, something I considered an answer to my prayers happened. The mail truck came a second time in the same day. And, sure enough, he unloaded four huge boxes with a New York return address.

There were several presents for each of us, mainly clothes, but one small toy each. When everything was passed out and had been greedily opened, I sat with the shirt and mittens in my lap and tears in my eyes.

Mom asked, "Whatís wrong, Billy?"

"I didnít get a harmonica."

She smiled and said, "Maybe Iíd better look in this box again and see if I missed something." She reached in and pulled out a small box exactly the right size to be my dream come true.

I grabbed the box and ripped off the paper. It had to be the shiniest, best harmonica anyone ever got. A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica! (key of C) Needless to say, I was the happiest kid in that end of town, and also, I drove everyone in the family crazy with that harmonica. Of course, I didnít know how to play it, but I blew through that thing all day long, listening to the beautiful sound. Eventually, Mom told me to go sit on the railroad or in the outdoor toilet to play "that thing."

Over the next few years, I did, indeed, learn to play the harmonica well. Eventually, everyone liked to sit and listen to me play. I played Silent Night and White Christmas in the middle of the summer. Because of being so poor and having so little, I was pretty much an introvert, and suffered terribly from a feeling of inferiority. As I became better and better on the harmonica, it was never out of my immediate possession except when I was asleep. Today, being a writer and looking back on those years, Iíd have to say I spent more time practicing that harmonica than I do at the keyboard, now.

Barely a month and a half before I was to turn thirteen and also graduate from the eighth grade, the hospital called and gave us the news we knew would be coming. Mom had died. I spent a lot of time sitting on the rail of the Wabash Railroad, playing my harmonica until the funeral. Mom had become my greatest admirer for my expertise on that small instrument. Somehow, playing it and imagining her sitting and listening to me eased the pain of her death. When she was buried and the graveside service was over, instead of getting back in the family car, I walked away and waited until everyone was gone. Then, as three men filled her grave, I sat in the trees at a distance and played for her one last time. She especially loved the Christmas Carols, so in the middle of April, I played Christmas music.

Finally, I left the cemetery and walked slowly along the railroad toward home, playing the harmonica all the way, tears dripping steadily from my eyes. It was nearly dark when I arrived home, but I sat out on the railroad playing Momís two favorite songs, Silent Night and The Old Rugged Cross, over and over, perhaps believing down deep it would somehow bring her back.

I graduated from the eighth grade, and for the next two and a half years, lived on the streets with a number of other displaced kids, rather than go to an orphanage. At age fifteen, I changed the date on my birth certificate and enlisted in the army. My harmonica remained with me all through infantry basic, artillery basic, jump school, ranger training, Officer Candidate School and Army Intelligence School. I was in training long enough to miss the Korean War, and my expertise on the harmonica not only hid my feeling of inferiority, but made a lot of friends. Finally, I realized how well I was doing as a soldier and began to lose the feeling that everyone else was somehow smarter and better than I was.

Then, I went to Vietnam in late 1968, and that same Hohner harmonica went with me. All the shiny chrome was worn off the brass, and it had been taken apart and cleaned probably a thousand times. I was in charge of a small unit of Rangers who went out on extended, long-range reconnaissance patrols. Everything we wore and carried was designed to never make a noise of any kind. There werenít even the normal metal buckles on our belts, lest we tap something against them. But, my harmonica went along. It had become my good luck charm, having often pulled me from the throes of loneliness and having been such a comfort to me in trying times.

It was early morning, Christmas day, 1969. We had been out in the jungles for six weeks and were making our way silently toward the south through thick undergrowth at the base of the low mountains. Suddenly, we came under intense fire and scattered through the trees. I dove into a particularly thick clump of brush and sat silent, my weapon at the ready. The firing seemed to move south from my hiding place, and for the next two hours, I peered from the thick brush, not seeing or hearing anything that would indicate the enemy was close-by. All the while, I absentmindedly fingered the harmonic in my breast pocket, and eventually pulled it out to hold in my hand. I had been under fire and in some tight places before, but it seemed I had a guardian angel, who always saw me safely through. Somehow, I knew my guardian angel liked my music, and as long as I had my harmonica, I would be safe.

Finally, I moved cautiously from my hiding place, my weapon cocked, my finger on the trigger and all my senses tuned toward spotting the enemy before he spotted me. It would be at least a two-day trip to safety. Mid-afternoon, and I still had seen nothing of the enemy or my comrades, when I stopped to rest a few minutes and have a drink and a ration biscuit. I donít mind admitting, it was a scary thing to once more be all alone. Just as I had been at the cemetery. And, especially, knowing there were people out there anxious to kill me. The area afforded far less cover than my previous hiding place, but I sat between the trees, fairly well hidden from anyone at any distance. After eating the biscuit and another drink of water, I took the harmonica from my pocket and slowly massaged it between my hands, as I said in a near whisper, "Well, whoever you are, guardian angel, thank you again, but stick with me a while longer. If you donít mind, that is."

The young boy appeared from nowhere. He looked to be perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. But I knew the weapon in his hands quite well. Iíd seen a good many dead Viet Cong with their AK47 alongside. Iíd also seen a few live VC with the same weapon. And this "kid" had his weapon pointed at my heart. I sat with my own weapon across my lap, and slowly raised my right hand, which held the harmonica, high in the air. Then, I took hold of the barrel of my weapon with my left hand, laid it on the ground and pushed it away with my foot.

The boy stood silent, not moving or speaking, and with the AK still pointed at me, looked to see what I had in my hand. I worked the harmonica out of my palm and held it between my fingers, so he could see it wasnít a weapon. With my left hand still high in the air, I slowly brought the harmonica down to my lips and began playing Silent Night.
His eyes seemed to grow to twice their normal size, and a slight smile brightened his face. I tried to act as if I didnít even see them, when a dozen VC came from the surrounding trees and encircled me. I kept my eyes on the boy and kept right on playing, as if they were invisible, as the evident leader moved to stand next to the boy.
Then, something strange happened. The man said something to the boy, which, of course, I couldnít understand, and the boy soldier lowered his weapon, as did the other of my "enemies." As I continued to play Silent Night, the boy sat down on the ground in front of me and the others moved to the front to join him. The young soldier reached inside his shirt and pulled out a finely woven leather chain from which dangled a small hand-carved wooden cross. He held it out for me to see, so I would know he was a Christian.

For the next hour, I played every Christmas song it was possible to play on the harmonica, my enemy sometimes clapping in time to my spirited playing of Here Comes Santa Claus and Jingle Bells. Playing the harmonica makes you thirsty, and I finally had to stop to get a drink from my canteen. How I wished I could converse with them and tell them how sorry I was that this war even had to exist. I knew they were only people fighting for what they believed to be a just cause.

Iím still not sure what happened, but a voice from somewhere told me to give the boy my cherished harmonica. I silently answered that I couldnít, but the silent voice repeated the order. When I handed it to him, he hesitated, but when I motioned again for him to take it, he cautiously leaned forward, retrieved the harmonica and put it to his lips. He blew hard into the harmonica, making a terrible sound. This brought loud laughter from all his companions, and the leader motioned for him to give it back to me. When I refused to take it, the boy took the leather chain and cross from around his neck and insisted I have it in exchange. At this point, I was understandably confused at the outcome of all this, as I placed the chain around my neck.

The entire group conversed for several minutes, then one of the men picked up my weapon and slung it on his shoulder. The evident group leader indicated for me to get up. We walked steadily south until dark. When he called a halt on the edge of the mountain, the man who had taken my weapon handed it back to me. First, the boy, then each of the men shook my hand and said probably the only words they all knew in English, "Merry Christmas." Their leader pointed out a hill in the distance and indicated I should go toward it.

I again moved slowly and cautiously until dawn, when I walked right into another trap. At least I thought it was a trap. Once more, VC surrounded me. They escorted me to the top of the hill, pointed to a clearing, some thousand yards away, and indicated I should keep moving.

As I neared the clearing, two of my own men stepped out of the brush with their rifles pointed my way. When they saw it was their missing comrade, they looked as though they were seeing a ghost. Iíd been given up for dead or captured.

The next evening, we arrived in friendly territory, without further contact with the enemy, and I slept well into the next day. Iíd been a long time without sleep. It had been years since I dreamed, but this night, I dreamed. I sat on the railroad, playing my harmonica. Then, I was sitting in the trees at the cemetery, playing Momís favorite songs for her. The strangest dream of all, I sat in the mountains surrounded by Viet Cong, and a young VC played Silent Night and Oh, Come All Ye Faithful on the harmonica my Aunt Ethel sent me twenty-two years earlier.

After a good, long shower, and while sitting down to the first real meal Iíd had in a month and a half, I vowed regardless of the consequences to my army career, Iíd fired my last shot in that stupid, unforgivable war. Never, would I think of taking another life. And, I didnít.

My tour was up and, although before meeting the boy in the jungle, I was going to stay for another tour, I decided to come home. The minute I hit the Philippines, I found a harmonica and bought it. An exact duplicate of the one I gave the boy in Vietnam. Only this one was bright and shiny. It wasnít like that severely worn, out of tune harmonica that had protected me for so long, and it might seem silly, but with the new harmonica in my pocket, I once more felt nothing could harm me.

That was nearly thirty years ago. Now, the new harmonica I bought has the chrome worn off and has been cleaned countless times. The box in which it came is frayed and ragged around the edges, the paper hinge a thing of the past, as it sits in a prominent place on my desk. Although my main audience today is the pack of four little dogs lying on my office floor, as I sit at the computer writing, the harmonica is a symbol of something truly good. It not only gave me great pleasure, but hopefully, many others, as well. It is a reminder of everything good in my life. And, it is a constant reminder of the miracle that took place in the hills of Vietnam that day. Mostly, it is a reminder that I have a guardian angel looking after me. I wouldnít doubt for a minute that her name might be Aunt Ethel. The homemade cross the boy gave me? It hangs over this computer, this miracle of modern science, on my wall, so I might remind myself that even "enemies" can believe in the same God, and God surely doesnít look kindly on us killing one another, whatever the cause.

Thereís an old saying about there being no atheists in combat. When people ask me if I went to Vietnam during my career, I smile and tell them, "As matter of fact, I did." When they ask me about my experiences there, I only tell them, "Well, it was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me." I always smile at the strange look this evokes. But not nearly as strange as when I tell them a harmonica saved my life.

Yes, I do believe in miracles. I do believe, to a large extent, prayers are answered. I do believe that if and when we need them, we have a guardian angel. By the way, did I mention that although I told my mother a thousand times I wanted a harmonica for Christmas, she had never mentioned it to Aunt Ethel? Aunt Ethel later swore it just came to her that I might like to have one, and she hadnít even had a letter from my mother for months.

Guardian Angels and Miracles? Why not?

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