The Sounds and the Music

On Monday my mother walked more than two miles to work. On Tuesday it rained, so Miss Virginia, my mother’s employer, gave my mother a ride home. When the car stopped at our door I rushed to greet both ladies; to welcome my mother, and to answer Miss Virginia’s questions. Her interest was not pretense. Both she and her husband always asked the same questions and then carefully listened to my answers. “How are you James Edward, and what have you been doing?” My response was tentative: “Miss Virginia, I heard some very pretty music on the radio on Sunday.” It was 1946; I was 12 years old, and our house was now wired for electricity. Our new entertainment included the radio programs Lum and Abner, The Great Gildersleeve, Burns & Allen, The Lone Ranger, Fibber McGee & Molly, and The Romance of Helen Trent. After church services on Sunday, the offerings included The Shadow, Nick Carter, Master Detective, The FBI in Peace and War, Mr. District Attorney, and another program where I heard beautiful music. Miss Virginia continued her inquiry: “What was the name of the program and what did the music sound like James Edward?” “I don’t know the name of the program, all I remember is that it was something about a watch, over, and tan.” We waved goodbye.

Friday afternoon was sunny. When my teacher rang the hand-held bell to signal the end of the school-week, I routinely rushed to the path which guided me home. But on this Friday Miss Virginia’s car blocked my route. She was smiling, and she even opened the front door of her car and offered me a ride to her home. When we arrived she told me to get a package from the rear seat. Both my mother and I wondered about Miss Virginia’s purpose. She sensed our confusion and promptly asked me to repeat my description of the program where I heard the beautiful music on Sunday. My mental notes were the same: “Something about a watch, over, and tan.” 

Miss Virginia was a white school teacher, with access to the library and other places for research. Her instincts led her to the local radio station, where she examined the program log for Sunday. She then made some guesses. The only program on which a watch was repeatedly mentioned was The Wittnauer-Longines Symphonette, and on the previous Sunday, the only selection which sounded like over and tan was Richard Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser. She then asked me to open the package, which contained a stack of carefully wrapped heavy records. Miss Virginia then said, “Now James Edward, I hope I did this right, because your face showed such delight as you mentioned the music.” My friend positioned me to crank the Victrola record player. As my small arm rotated, the turntable revolved at 78 revolutions per minute (78 rpm’s). Then she gently lifted the metal arm which held a needle the size of a small nail. When she lowered the needle into the wide grooves the sound of The Pilgrims Chorus vibrated from the speaker and touched me as deeply as her loving gesture. She held my hand, and we both cried.

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