Pimpernel's Writings

Uncle Larry and the Chinese Piano

Uncle Larry was not my uncle, nor was his Christian name Larry.  He was, in fact, my mother's second cousin, but twenty years her senior.  His given name was Whitfield, but an elder cousin had the same name, so the family simply called him Larry, to avoid confusion.  Perhaps this confused Larry most of all. 

Uncle Larry lived in St.  John, New Brunswick in Canada, where he was a school principal.  A bachelor, he would spend his summer vacation visiting various relatives for a fortnight each.  Because we always had a spare bedroom and my mother was a widow, Uncle Larry made it a point never to pass us by when making his annual circuit.  He felt it incumbent upon him to set my mother's house in order, mending and repairing and doing what he called "a man's work". 

Uncle Larry was my mother's cross to bear.  Despite his good intentions and big heart, he was no born handyman.  What he mended broke, what he painted blistered and flaked, what he touched was never the same thereafter.  Even my grandfather, the kindest of men, was only too glad to see Uncle Larry safely lodged with my mother......  after Larry managed to pull the chimney off the top of his house. 

So each year Mother would receive a 3-cent postal card announcing Uncle Larry's imminent arrival and steel herself for what was to come.  The record of Uncle Larry's accomplishments was impressive.  Over the years, Uncle Larry had managed to destroy numerous clocks, small household appliances and a number of larger and costlier items.  He shorted out the pump to the well, pruned the Concord grape vines so they never more produced fruit, adjusted the fountain in the garden pool so it sprayed horizontally instead of vertically, rendered the gasoline lawn mower helpless, and wallpapered the dining room just crooked enough to irritate the eye of the beholder. 

The steeple clock on the mantle survived the loss of four extra parts with only a slight error in the half-hour Westminster chime; he re-hung the second pair of garage doors so they only opened inwards; the front door no longer locked; putting up the storm-windows was an adventure since Uncle Larry removed the numbered metal tacks that identified where each went.  The list went on, in much the same way. 

But my mother was just as devoted to the concept of familial duty as Uncle Larry.  She felt it was her duty to let him do his duty, and suffered his efforts in silence.  But when his annual postal card would arrive from Canada, she would prowl the house for days, looking for likely targets and concealing them.  One year she missed the worn rubber gasket on the pressure-cooker, which Uncle Larry replaced with such expertise that the next time she used it, the gasket failed under maximum pressure, sending a fountain of beef stew through a half-inch hole to festoon the ceiling.  The overall effects was to give the kitchen a cave-like look ?  stalactites of beefy goop drizzled downwards to dry there. 

On the occasion of which I write, she discovered to her horror that there were just too many potential disasters waiting to happen.  Still unwilling to put Uncle Larry in his rightful place, she was for some days in a most depressed condition.  Had she been a drinker I would have feared for her body and soul. 

It was Aunt Bertha who came to the rescue.  Larry had been banned by Aunt Bertha since he shaved the dog to make it cooler and washed her oriental rugs with hot water till the colors bled.  Aunt Bertha was a large and powerful woman and Uncle Larry was terrified of her. 

"Why don't you find something totally useless for him to work on?" She advised Mother. 

"Something huge that will keep him out of trouble for two weeks."

Aunt Bertha suddenly grabbed Mother by the arm.  "Come on, I know the perfect thing!"

She dragged Mother to the little cottage out by the apple orchard.  Flinging the door wide, Aunt Bertha pointed dramatically at the dilapidated player piano which had come with the house. 

"Just the thing for Larry!" Aunt Bertha said, "It ought to last him his whole two weeks". 

For the first time in years, Mother went about her routines unconcerned about Uncle Larry's arrival. 

When at last he arrived he was met with a surprising "Larry, I'm so glad you're here.  I need your help" from Mother, who lost no time in taking Uncle Larry down to the cottage where his project squatted helplessly. 

Now a piano has eighty-eight keys, which in turn have eighty-eight subordinate moving parts.  A player piano has a number of additional components; the ultimate number of removable parts and pieces being about two thousand, not counting the strings. 

Never before had Uncle Larry confronted such a project.  Never before had he been entrusted with such a grave responsibility; in fact, never before had anyone taken him to something with an appeal for assistance. 

He gazed at Mother adoringly as he said, "I shall repair and refurbish this instrument until it plays like new."

Bright and early the next morning Uncle Larry set to work.  The truth be told, the man was a genius at taking things apart.  If Ford had had disassembly plants, Uncle Larry could have been a supervisor there.  It was the putting-together where his genius failed him.  There were always extra parts, no matter how few parts there were to begin with, and these always turned out to be strategic components, which drastically altered the operation of the item itself.  Rumor had it that the wheels on Uncle Larry's automobile were attached by only two nuts each instead of the recommended and necessary five. 

In any event, within two days what had once been a player piano was now an assortment of component parts.  Keys, both black and white, stood in a corner like sheaves of wheat.  Hinges, screws, fasteners of all types filled mayonnaise jars and coffee cans.  Rubber air hoses, hammers, springs, straps, lifters, dampers, pedals and frame parts were all neatly assigned their space. 

Uncle Larry took his meals in the cottage, coming to the house only for the bathroom, various tools and supplies and to sleep.  By the end of the first week everything had been cleaned and inspected to Uncle Larry's satisfaction: wood glowed, brass shone and chrome glittered.  The principal defects, as he called them, had all been repaired. 

A player piano operates on a simple principle.  Air is forced through a big brass harmonica-like case with eighty-eight holes - one for each key on the piano.  When a paper roll is passed over this device, air escapes through holes of varying lengths, allowing the mechanical parts to strike the key for the appropriate length of time: the longer the hole, the longer the piano holds the note.  A complex of gears, bellows, rubber tubes, and levers all come into play, but those are the basics of the instrument's operation. 

With a week remaining to reassemble the whole, Uncle Larry went off in his presumably death-defying car to procure leather to make the bellows air-tight and for replacements for the worn out rubber tubes.  He returned with naugahyde, a man-made leather substitute and a huge coil of clear plastic tubing from which he intended to fabricate new hoses. 

For once in his life, as we knew it to be, Uncle Larry seemed to be succeeding.  Slowly but surely the player piano acquired pieces and parts, until it had regained both structural integrity and proper alignment.  And, most marvelous of all, there seemed to be no extraneous, unnecessary parts. 

Aunt Bertha came on the twelfth day and marched herself right down to the cottage for a first-hand look at this miracle.  Brushing Uncle Larry aside like so much chaff, she sat down on the adjustable stool and struck a chord. 

Music was never so heavenly as that which flowed from under Aunt Bertha's sturdy fingers as she test-piloted the keyboard.  All eighty-eight keys worked, and while the piano badly wanted tuning, there were no complaints which could be sustained either against craftsman or instrument. 

Then her glance happened upon the coil of tubing and the naugahyde.  Her eyes narrowed as Uncle Larry explained that he had wanted to be sure everything was behaving normally before removing the hammers in order to replace the tubes and bellows.  But he still had two days of grace remaining and she went away, suspicious but beginning to believe in miracles. 

True to his word, Uncle Larry completed his labors on schedule.  He had been up most of the night completing his duties and was anxious to continue his visitation circuit. 

My mother had been going to get some piano rolls from the attic, but fearful that Uncle Larry might find another project to keep him underfoot, she settled for making him a picnic lunch to take on his journey. 

This time, her thanks and praise were genuine.  Uncle Larry had found an old piano roll inside the piano case and reported that while he didn't much care for Chinese music, it had worked perfectly.  Uncle Larry had a well-known difficulty in carrying a tune so his remark occasioned no surprise. 

After seeing Uncle Larry off with his sandwiches, coffee thermos and hazardous wheels, Mother went up to the attic and returned with a large basket of piano rolls, each in its cardboard box.  We made our way to the cottage to find it neatly swept, glass cleaned, and there against the far wall it stood! 

Gleaming with polish, what had been a frowzy embarrassment was now a thing of beauty, with a huge red ribbon, bow and tag on it. 

"To Janet from Larry, with all my love" it read. 

Brushing away a tear, mother removed the ribbon and sat down to play.  Marvel of marvels, her fingers found no fault as Chopin poured from the former hulk.  At last she arose and selected a roll bearing the inscription "Stars and Stripes Forever - March".  She inserted the roll and turned on the motor-switch.  The roll began to move. 

We stood, mouths agape, transfixed by what we heard.  Uncle Larry had been correct - this was no Sousa march but rather an oriental melody more at home in a Chinese funeral than in our little cottage. 

Roll after roll played the same.  If you had a good ear and knew the melody, you could just barely recognize what played by the rhythm and breaks, but as this strange symphony cascaded over mother, she burst out laughing and had to sit down. 

Pitching a no-hitter up to the ninth inning, Uncle Larry had lost the game yet again by connecting the new tubing willy-nilly between keys, so that the wrong notes but in the right order were delivered up at full volume.  We spent an hour enjoying ourselves ?  I especially liked the Chinese piano's rendition of the "Beer Barrel Polka". 

Uncle Larry passed away unexpectedly that September.  Mother attended his funeral and had the player piano moved to the main house.  She never would have the tubing reconnected rightly, nor would she play the rolls for Aunt Bertha.  Sometimes as I grew older, she would play one on our "Chinese" piano, talk about Uncle Larry, and her eyes would fill. 

Uncle Larry had shone for just a moment like a shooting star, and my mother was not one to point out that shooting stars shoot down, not up.