I received several letters this week addressed to my harmonica. It seems the recent account of our adventures together (“Travels with Harmonica”) had the unintended effect of thrusting him from my pocket out into the limelight.
An unusually shy and private instrument, he nonetheless authorized me to tell the story of our meeting and how we learned to trust each other. It is a partnership that has stood the test of time, so in spite of our mistakes and ourselves, there are probably a few lessons to be shared. At the very least we were able to build a lasting relationship between two beings with very different backgrounds, he being made of wood, brass and tinplate and me of flesh and blood. But it worked and it continues to work.
The story of when we first met – by which I mean became aware of each others existence – is banal and ordinary. But for those of you who are sticklers for details, it happened at a music store on University Avenue in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s. It was an inauspicious meeting tainted by mutual distrust and it foretold nothing of what was to come.
But if you ask me when we really met, when we saw each others souls stripped of pretense and disguise, it was several weeks later in the desert on a cold night pricked by fear.
I was hitchhiking south down Interstate 395 in Eastern California. It is forgotten part of the state, more Nevada than California and totally unwelcoming to agriculture or habitation. It is a place where the government builds shocking weapons and then tests them and no one even notices.
Occasionally a vehicle would swoop down that road, its occupants enveloped in the soft glow of the dashboard lights. Under a grey sky, they passed me like illuminated tchotchkes in a display case. Most of them studiously avoided looking at me standing there with my backpack by the side of the road. Waiting in the dust.
While waiting, I played around on my harmonica. I started to pick out the phrases of my first tune. When the Saints Go Marching In. I had plenty of time on my hands.
Finally, I got picked up by a rancher who was returning from a hunting expedition. We traveled for several hours, hardly talking. We stopped and he bought me dinner then we hit the road again. An hour later he announced that he was turning off the main road (for what it was) to go his ranch. I looked out the window but there was nothing to be seen; the land just extended outward empty and unpeopled.
I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to stay in the cab of his pick-up with the radio playing softly and surrounded by the civilized solace of vinyl and gauges. Desperate, I suggested that I might travel to his ranch with him and hitchhike out of there in the morning, but he scoffed at that. “No cars come down that road; you have to get out here.” Our paths uncrossed right there at the crossroads.
I waited for an hour, but only one car passed and its passengers did not even look at me as I implored them for a ride. Soon the sun set behind the clouds eliminating any chance that someone would stop – if they could even see me in their headlights. I prepared to spend the night.
I gathered brittle desert bushes to make a fire. Once it was lit, I began to feel better. This was not so bad. I could not see beyond the small circle of flame light, but within it I created my small refuge to wait for the morning.
Until they arrived. First it was a distant howl, then it was the snap of a twig in the dark. Then came the growls and yelps. I could hear them but aside from the occasional glint of the flame in their eyes, I could not see them. I was surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. I could feel them in the dark, eying me, evaluating me, calculating the odds. The night stretched out ahead like something insurmountable. If I slept, I would die.
Two things kept me alive that night: fire and music. It may have been the fire I stoked and the flaming branches I thrust at the more audacious of the dogs when they dared to probe my sacred circle that kept them back; but it was the sound of the harmonica that kept me from going crazy and surrendering to their hungry eyes – until the morning light dispersed them so completely that I did not know if they had ever even existed.
I was exhausted but too wired to sleep. I just wanted to get away. Soon a trucker picked me up and I told him of the night I’d just survived. He shook his head when I finished and said, “You probably want to get some sleep then.” I curled up against the door and pulled my jacket close around me. I fell asleep to the memory of a lone harmonica keeping the wild things at bay.