The odds WERE formidable.
A US Air Corps fighter pilot who found himself in a German prisoner of war camp after his plane was shot down. He survived that disaster but wasn’t too sure about his current ‘home’. Despite this, he refused to let the probabilities stop him from making the best he could of every moment he would have.
Boredom threatened his sanity until a light bulb moment illuminated a memory of a gift of an old ‘fiddle’, with the words, “It’s yours, Red. Maybe you can make music with it.” And thanks to that other life and long-lost place, he’d become a musician… a violinist with an intimate knowledge of violins and their magical workings. Getting one now was an impossibility but he had been carving many small things, so…?
His first move was a common tactic in these harsh conditions – barter, swap, or trade. For tobacco rations, some sympathetic guards desperate for AmerikanischeZigaretten, traded a pen-knife. From his upbringing on a farm during the Great Depression, and his resourceful father he got determination, remembering, “You can make something out of nothing, Son. All you’ve got to do is find a way… and there always is one.”
When other POWs learned of his quest to carve a violin, they began slipping odd bed slats from their already barely underpinned and supported bunks. And he began whittling and carving. Some parts required a sharp piece of broken glass, others an old kitchen knife, ground on a rock to form into a chisel. All took time… a great deal of time. And patience. And stealth.
Glue presented another problem until he solved that one too, with others pitching in to help scrape old dried carpenters’ glue residue from a few chairs in their wretched barracks. Ground and heated and mixed with water, it worked. Soaking of other thinnest of timber pieces in water heated on their communal wood-stove enabled intricate manipulation and bending of the pieces.
It took three months to make the body, but time was one thing the prisoners had aplenty. Eternally grateful he chose not to be a smoker, care-packages provided him and several other non-smoking prisoners with many cigarettes to barter – for pumice for sanding and paraffin oil to bring out the golden glow of the beech wood, the now unrecognisable bunk slats. A sympathetic guard found him catgut for the strings and a real violin bow was like a gift from the Gods.
All was done… but would it play? To his joy, the pilot and his violin produced the pure poignant sounds of that wonderful instrument, as though this one had volumes to say. Although he was banished to the latrine for his earliest practices, he soon regained his old skills. And caused singing and dancing and some relief for aching hearts and bodies.
One Christmas Eve, the pilot played Silent Night, and voices were heard from other barracks, singing that beloved old carol in different languages. Amongst them, German was heard… from the guards. So many of them were ordinary family men far from their homes and their loved ones, too. Somewhere in the shadows, it was said, an elderly guard [maybe the donor of the bow?] stood and sang quietly. And cried softly.
Among the countless tributes, a particularly precious one was 50 years after WWII, when the pilot donated his violin to a special museum aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid, honouring the men and their memorabilia. At the opening, the concertmaster of the NY Philharmonic orchestra played this precious instrument and commented it was ‘an amazing achievement’ with a ‘quite wonderful sound’, when he had actually expected ‘a jalopy of a violin’.
Not really. More like a gift from God was the thought the pilot had at that precious moment, later shared with his family.
Winning ‘against the odds’ does not always bear the shape we imagined, not always the wish we made. Bizarre how often the worst imaginable outcomes of illness and loss reveal unimagined ‘silver linings’, so often ending in unexpected strength and empathy, and a new or renewed determination to help and support others.