The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Mountain Man and The Player Piano - Part 1

By Robert G. Back © 1985

Issue: August, 1985

For some reason, my father always had a weakness for buying things he didn't need. Take for instance the time he bought a transmission for a 1939 Ford Coupe. At that time, our only means of transportation were a shakly wagon, a skid sled, and a pair of balky mules. What's more absurd, Dad spent seventy years on planet Earth and never learned to drive an automobile.

Although Dad pulled some "doozies" in his time, it was while we were living at Jeffersonville, Kentucky that he really topped himself. On July 10, 1948, he came home from an auction sale down around Mt. Sterling and proudly announced that he'd bought a Great Dane pup and a player piano. The dog part came as no surprise, but the player piano had all of us shaking our heads. We'd never heard of a player piano!

"I made a fine deal, Georgia," Dad told Mama. "I got the piano for fifteen bucks and they threw in the pup fer a quarter."

My pudgy mother's eyes narrowed, serving notice that her displeasure was about to be verbalized. "What on earth are we gonna do with a piano? she asked, glaring at him from across the kitchen table, "Unless somebody here's been keepin' secrets, I don't know who ya figure is gonna play it."

"It don't need nobody to play it. It plays by itself," said Dad.

"Old man, ya've finally lost ya min'. Who ever heard of a piano playin by itself? Next ya're gonna tell me it makes cornbread, too," Mama said, sneering a bit.

"It's the pon my honor truth, Georgia. The auctioneer put a roll of paper in it at the sale and them keys commenced to jumpin' round all over the place. Played the prettiest music ya ever heard."

"Well, that's what we need 'round here; a piano that plays by itself and another dog," Mama snorted.

"Aw, yes, the dog," Dad said. "Jus' wait'll ya see 'im. He shorely ain't no ordinary biscuit and gravy eater, Georgia. The auctioneer said he's a fullblooded Great Dane."

"Full-blooded mutt's probably more like it."

"Shoot, Georgia, a man can always use a good dog," Dad said.

"Frank, we got six dogs now and all they do is hang 'round the back door waitin' to be fed. But I guess ya wouldn't know that wouldja? Ya don't count 'em, ya jus' keep bringin'em home with ya."

"Well never min' the dog. I'm anxious fer ya to see that piano, Georgia. It's a real humdinger," Dad chuckled.

"It can't be much or you wouldn't have bought it," Mama said, her sarcasm honed to a sharp edge.

"Ah, ya'll change ya min' atter ya hear and see that rascal play by itself," Dad assured her. "Now ya'd best clear a spot inna livin' room fer it. I'm gonna pick it up tomorra."

The next morning I helped Dad hitch the mules to the skid sled, and we headed for the auction house some five or six miles away. Once we persuaded the mules to pull together, we covered the distance in a little over two hours. Considering that we had to travel over creek beds and follow dirt roads around mountainsides, we made pretty good time.

The auction house was a dilapidated barn with heaps of old furniture and appliances scattered around it. Right smack in the middle of all that junk sat Dad's pride and joy. Towering above everything else, it looked like a giant Praying Mantis carefully selecting its' next meal.

It required the grunting, sweating efforts of Dad and three other husky men to muscle the bulky piano onto the sled. While they were loading and lashing it down with plow lines, I passed the time by playing with the big, yellow pup Dad had gotten as a premium for buying the piano.

On the way home, the sled hit a deep chuck hole in the road and the piano shifted heavily to the right. The plow lines that were tied around the back of it snapped under the tension and one corner of the piano slid completely off the sled. Before Dad could stop the mules, it wound up sitting crosswise right in the middle of the road.

"Well, ain't this a fine howdy do," Dad said, scratching his head and frowning. "Son, go over in them woods yonder and find us some small poles. We'll try to slip'em under it and roll'er back onto the sled."

I found three poles and we were struggling to slide them underneath the piano when a man dressed in a black suit and a black, flat-brimmed hat rode up behind us on horseback. He stopped his horse and dismounted.

"Looks like ye gotcha self a problem, frien'," he said, walking toward us.

"Well, sir, it'd be less of a problem if I could talk ya into helpin' me an' the boy git this thang back on the sled," Dad said.

"Fraid I can't do'er, brother. As a preacher of the Gospel, I can't be defilin' my hands by puttin'em on 'at instrument of the devil. I will give ye some good advice, though. Ye'd best shove 'at ungodly contraption over the side of the mountain there."

"No, I kno't reckon I'll do that, Reverend," Dad said, noticeably annoyed by the horse riding preacher who had nothing but advice to offer in the way of help.

"Don't say ye wudn't warned, brother. Believe ye me, nuthin' godd'll come of ye keepin' at sinful thang. Abominations in the sight of God is what they are," the preacher ranted, shaking his finger at the guilty piano.

"Ya might be right, Reverend, but I'd still like to git it home 'fore I have to start studyin' 'bout gittin' rid of it," Dad said.

"Beloved, if it was ye ox stuck in the ditch, I'd be obliged to help ye pull it out. That'd be my Christian duty. But since I'm a spreader of the Gospel, I can't dirty my hands on 'at tool of the devil."

"I reckon we can both see that this ain't no ox, Rev. So I'll bid ya a good day and git back to the business of tryin' to load my devil's play-pretty," Dad said making no effort to hide his biting sarcasm.

"Good day, brother, an' mark well what I said 'bout that sinful contrivance," the preacher said, mounting his horse. He then rode around the piano and continued on his way.

After much straining, we were able to place two poles under the piano. We then squared it up with the back of the sled and Dad wrapped the plow lines around the back of it again. He then unhitched the mules and tied the ends of the ropes to their single trees. After a half-dozen abortive attempts, the mules finally pulled the piano back onto the sled.

It was almost dark when we got home. Mama was sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch, and my two brothers and three sisters came jumping and screaming when Dad stopped the sled right in front of the porch steps. Mama kept right on rocking and acting as though we were a couple of traveling salesmen trying to peddle monkey wrenches.

"Well, Georgia, there she is. Whatta ya think of it now?" Dad asked, after stepping down from the sled.

"The same thang I thought yesterday.. that ya mind's gone dedd on ya," she answered. "Now that I've seen ya piece of junk, I'm certain of it. Look how pitted an' chipped that thang is, would ya? What'd the las' owner use it fer; slingshot practice?"

"Ah, it jus' needs a little cleanin' and polishin', that's all," Dad said.

"What it needs is a different owner," Mama countered.

After supper Dad prevailed upon a couple of our neighbors to help him lug the piano into the living room. It took a lot of huffing and puffing, but by seven o'clock it was ready to be tried out.

Continued next month.