Author: Karsemeyer, John

Dinner With Hitler

The guy was sitting on my right at the round oak table, along with seven other people (my relatives) who were serving themselves ample portions of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and vegetables. Adolf had a closely cropped hair cut, that unmistakable weird mustache, and he didn't say anything. I knew who he was, and the kind of power he wielded, and I made it a point to make sure that he got his plate full of all the food selections that were on the table. I took the liberty to serve him some green beans, feeling greatly intimidated by his presence. And then I woke up, and remembered the dream. Some of my relatives are of German decent, maybe that's the link to the maniac that was sitting next to me in the dream, who knows? Somebody once said, “We're all abnormal in our dreams.” As I was lying in bed at two in the morning, in that gap between being awake and going back to sleep, I started thinking about Leonard.

Way back in my high school days, in the fifties, I made friends with Dan, Leonard's son. Dan was a kid that stood out in the high school crowd. He didn't blend in. At six foot eight inches and one hundred and seventy five pounds, invisibility wasn't his problem. Definitely big-time basketball player potential. Anyhow, one day I made my way to his house for a Saturday visit.

Dan greeted me at the door, said, “Come on in,” so I did. It was about two in the afternoon, and as I was walking down the hallway toward the living room I heard the sounds of live music. Reaching that room I saw Dan's parents. His mother, Frances, was playing the guitar. His dad, Leonard, was playing the fiddle. That's when I realized that there is fiddle playing, and then there is fiddle playing. Different dimensions, different “animals,” different approaches, venturing way outside the box. The different kind of venture you have to take on if you want to accomplish your goal.

Leonard Smith (1911-2000) lost his left arm in a hunting accident, an unintentional shot gun blast did the evil deed. I never asked him about the incident when I was sixteen, and first got to know him. I never asked him if he played fiddle before the accident, but probability is high that he did. I just sat there in his living room and watched him play the fiddle with one arm.

He held the bottom of the fiddle bow firmly between his legs, allowing the bow to rise vertically to touch the strings of the fiddle. The fiddle was held with his right hand, the right side of his jaw secured to the fiddle's chin rest, as he moved the fiddle in a downward and upward motion, fingering the notes with the fingers of that same right hand, allowing the notes of an old time fiddle tune to be released from their prison of wood and wire.

The fiddle bow did not move. The fiddle did, up and down, again and again, until the tune reached a successful conclusion. This is not supposed to happen. A fiddler moves his/her bow and doesn't move the fiddle. That's the way it is. But not necessarily. I had encountered a fiddle and bow contradiction.

Looking back on this incident, fifty years later, I have to admit that the witnessing of this event didn't have much of an impact on me at the time. After all, this was the time when Elvis was preparing to become, “The King,” and was starting to control the musical airwaves, with occasional appearances on television. My baptism into the bluegrass waters had not yet occurred, so I just took my first “lesson” with Leonard in stride (much like the whiskers that were sprouting on my chin).

Leonard grew up in Lead Hill, Arkansas, but a job brought him to Southern California for awhile, where his family and mine became friends. California could not hold him for long, and he, his wife, and son soon went back to the Ozarks, near Springfield, Missouri. It took three years for me to connect again with the Smith family.

While I was attending an institution of higher learning in Springfield in 1962, the opportunity presented itself to visit the Smith family in their Ozark home, miles away from the city, way out in the woods. Woods that were punctuated by streams where water moccasins (snakes) called home. The Smith family looked about the same as they did when I last saw them, and they still played music. Leonard showed me some wood that he used for making fiddles, wood that had a previous life as part of a well aged barn. Spending three days there gave me a lesson in contrast to city life, stepping onto a different path, the likes of which a big city will never know. Then I went back to the city.

Thirty years went by, and Leonard and his family receded way back in my mind. Then I was reading a Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and there he was. An article with pictures, showing Leonard with his many ribbons and awards he had won over the years. I still had a phone number for the Smith family, tried it, and reached Dan, Leonard's son. “Mom passed away, but dad is still around, and still fiddling,” Dan told me. After a thirty minute conversation Dan and I agreed to keep in touch. We never did. The last time I tried his phone number it was out of service. The INTERNET proved futile in my attempt to reconnect. That was the last of that. Or was it?

Recently I went to You Tube and discovered Leonard and his wife, Frances, playing the fiddle and guitar for an appreciative audience. For some primitive, primal, non-rational part of our brain, seeing IS believing. Now when I occasionally think of the Smith family, years gone by, and what can never be again in real life, I go to You Tube and enter, “Leonard Smith, one armed fiddler.” There he is, and I am transported back to Leonard's living room where I first encountered his fiddle playing. Sometimes you can go back in time.

Posted:  9/10/2011

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