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My Sea Story Of My Strad, And Other Amazing Tales As Well

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I am a 12 year US Marine, and former licensed Merchant Marine Engineering Officer, now retired, or just plain tired, and as you know, both these occupations are known for their affection for sea stories. The difference between a fairy tale, and a sea story, is, a fairy tale starts with, "Once upon a time", while any sea story worth it's salt starts with, "Now this ain't no shit..." So, I shall begin. Now this ain't no shit, but my Great Grandfather, known as Toad, in Nebraska, Grandpa Toad to us kids, had an old ancient looking violin he played, and believe it or not, it was well known it was a Stradivarius. He developed arthritis, in his fingers, and could no longer play it, so, when I was in the third grade, he generously gave it to me.  I immediately began to regularly hack away on it, in a cloud of rosin dust, as I could bow rosin decidedly better than I could bow this old fiddle. I was never given any lessons, Grandpa Toad lived way in Nebraska, us on the west coast, so he could not help me. No matter though, prodigy I was, in just two years time, in 5th grade, I could repeatedly without mistake, flawlessly even in my sleep, play the first 4 notes of, "Here Comes The Bride" by ear no less, and had completely mastered the art of applying rosin, I had sawed my way though a third of a cake of it. I had a real knack for rosining. Enthralled as ever with my instrument, I looked Stradivarius up in my Encyclopedias, to see how old he was when he made it, the date was on the label, 17__, the blanks filled in hand written, 36, 1736. Remarkably, my encyclopedias were wrong, as they claimed he had died sometime before that year, or, Mr. Strad had simply just made a mistake when he filled out the label, or one of his workers, or, master that he was he actually could still make them, or his ghost could, even after he was dead. I continued on in my life, giving up the violin eventually, and pursuing other interests, girls, cars, football, you know, the truly important things in life.

Fast forward to about 2005, home from sea for awhile, I made a sentimental journey far away to my parents old house. In my old room, now a den, in my old closet, was the Strad, and in a paper sack, the fallen apart pieces of my grandpa Sam's violin, which he had given me in about 4th grade, in that very paper bag, he had found to his dismay that some of my little cousins had gotten ahold of it, and, not being the violin aficionados I was, rather destroyed it. I had never even really looked at it before, it was just a mess. I asked my mom if I could take the violins to the music shop to see about getting some work done on the Strad, as being bored at sea so much, and enjoying Blue Grass, and old time fiddle, I had often entertained the thought of being a fiddler. I entered the shop, and placing the Strads decrepit case on the counter, and the paper sack next to it, the owner came with interest to see what I had brought in. He examined the Strad with the familiarity and knowing look of a US Marine Officer during rifle inspection, and announced it was not a Strad, but a probably German piece made for Sears, or Montgomery Wards or such long ago. And it was in bad shape. I had a just fleeting thought that this man was going to gyp me out of it or was just an idiot, and simultaneously that the World Book Encyclopedia was in fact correct, and a man that can make a violin can fill in the date, and dead men cannot make violins. To fix it would cost about $250, as there had been farm repairs made with common glue (probably Duco) and etc. I asked him if repaired what it would be worth, and he turned around, took a violin off the wall, handed it to me, said this is one just like it, mint and clean, and I am asking $175 for it. At this point, I was almost too embarrassed to hand him the 40 year old paper bag, but did, he looked inside, removed the neckless body of the poor thing, looked in the f hole, and said,"This is a French souvenir violin." As I spent much time ashore in Honolulu on my sea going travels, I was all too familiar with the souvenir Hawaiian ukulele, and being a ukulele player of sorts, knew what a piece of junk they are, and immediately made a correlation. I said, "So, its a piece of junk too" and he considered a moment, and replied he had seen many, and in fact they are often good sounding instruments, and although it was missing the tailpiece, some pegs, and what not, he could fix it for about $100. They are just called French souvenir violins, but were not made for the tourist trade, he went on to say, and were in the teens and twenties a higher end student instrument. And that violins were glued with hide glue, so they could be disassembled, all he really had to do was reset the neck, and basically put it together. I looked at it, all scratched up and in pieces, noticing the wood was not cracked or broken, but thanked him, put it in the bag and left.

Back home in Coos Bay Oregon, I would rosin up my ancient bow, and hack out my rendition of Here Comes The Bride in a cloud of rosin dust on my, um, "Strad", from time to time, and in time began to look at the French violin's pieces and consider this project. In the Marine Corps, we had done so much with so little it had became possible for us to do anything with nothing, and being a sucker for a lost cause, I decided one alcohol influenced night that I would fix the poor thing. Not me, but someone would. So, my search began. Coos Bay Oregon is a small place. But, I found a Coast Guard dentist, a full bird Captain, (which would be a colonel in USMC) who built and played cellos, who said, upon examination, he could fix it, $100. I said, "Doc, you got the job." When I went to pick it up, he took it off the wall, all strung, looking not all half bad polished, and assembled, but decidedly salty looking, placed it under his chin and played the Marine Hymn for me. The instrument did sound good. Actually very good. I could not believe it. I was so pleased.

I do not use so much rosin anymore, but, between learning what I can from people, just messing around, and internet research, I have progressed rather nicely from the first 4 notes of Here Comes The Bride. Not a whole bunch, but better. I could not believe it when the first guy showed me the first position notes, I was just like, "You mean that's the secret? that is all there is to it?" The first day I could play The Wabash Cannon Ball. Not good, but I could play it. I tell people that the fiddle is not hard to play, it is just hard to play well. The moral? What appears to be gold may be junk, but right next to it, what you think is junk may be gold. Or at least highly polished brass.




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Sofia Leo
Sofia Leo


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Created 12/4/2011
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