My Own Piano Man

By Kenneth E. Strong, Jr.

The dog woke me in the usual way by blowing air in my face followed by two heavy front paws draped over my side. There was no way he was going to let me sleep for just five more minutes. This morning he was unusually early, around 5:30 a.m. I stumbled down the stairs, rubbing my eyes in a determined effort to focus my vision to avoid falling over the dog or down the stairs.

On my way through the kitchen I stopped at the kitchen sink, ran cold water and splashed my face to clear my thoughts. I looked across the sink out the double pane window, into the garden below where the sun’s rays were shining through the trees above like fingers flooding the ground with a warm glow. The top of the blooming dogwood caught my eye; there was just one flower as bright as could be against the others in pre-dawn shadows. Seeing the single white blossom in the sun reminded me of a man I haven’t thought of in thirty-two years.

Henry and I first met on a hot summer day. Henry was sitting in a lawn chair on the front patio of our family nursing home looking at the traffic on Main Street. In one hand he held a small radio up against his ear and the other hand was tapping very methodically on the arm rest of the chair. I stopped the lawn mower and asked him if he thought he was playing a piano and he said,” Yeah.” I responded, “Good for you,” and continued to mow the lawn.

A week or so went by and I happened to be walking by the activities room and sure enough there was Henry with his transistor radio beside him playing the piano. I couldn’t believe it. He could hear a song on the radio and then play it on the piano. Henry had never had one single piano lesson in his life. I was fascinated. Henry Diamond was a Native American from Martha’s Vineyard with jet black curly hair, eyes black as coal and hands the size of a first baseman’s mitt. He stood about six foot five inches tall and was solidly built. To me he looked like a skyscraper.

I was told that Henry was a loner, mentally retarded, withdrawn and very shy. For a while we didn’t talk very much but I noticed that if Henry had difficulty hearing the radio he would become agitated and uncooperative with staff. So I bought him a new transistor radio with an ear plug. I put the plug in his ear, turned on the radio and watched his eyes light up. He was like a kid in a candy store. Immediately I became Henry’s new best friend. And then the fun started. In school I found myself constantly talking about Henry’s uncanny ability to play any song he heard on the piano. I suppose my friends got sick and tired of me raving about Henry.

Finally someone said, “I’ll bet you ten dollars he can’t.” That’s all I needed to hear. That Saturday Henry and I rolled the piano out of the activities room, down the hall into the elevator and out into the back parking lot of the nursing home. We set both radios to the same station. I put in the ear plug and Henry began to play. Henry and I split the money and returned the piano. That first concert began a summer of Saturday afternoon entertainment in the parking lot. On a few occasions we had as many as twenty students listening in awe to Henry play. You should have seen the look on Henry’s face as they cheered and applauded his performance. I made more money that summer at Henry’s concerts that I did working at the nursing home. Henry was happy because he had more money that he thought possible. In those days patient needs monthly payment was just under twenty dollars. Life was good until my father arrived in the back parking lot during one of Henry’s concerts. You should know that my father was the owner and administrator of the nursing home.

Needless to say my career as a concert promoter came to an abrupt halt. After my father expressed his disappointment and how it was wrong to take advantage of a patient I had to put the money I’d won from the bets in the collection plate on Sunday. Henry got to keep his share which I was happy about because it helped him buy more things he wanted and needed. Somehow seeing Henry’s face light up and the kids paying attention to him, showing him their pleasure, admiration and awe didn’t seem like taking advantage of him in any way. Every Saturday afternoon Henry was a star. When he played he was giving me a gift, the only gift he had. When I look at my music CD collection today and see that the vast majority of it is piano related, I think of Henry. To me he was as unique as the solitary white dogwood blossom, one of a kind.

That summer with Henry taught me two things. First, Henry taught me to look beyond what I think I see. The phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” comes to mind. Each person we encounter has a musical score in them that can make all the difference in your life if you look diligently for it, beyond their physical appearance, ethnic background, education, religion, where they live, or the color of their skin. The music is there and worth discovering. You may find you’ve got a hit song on your hands. The second thing I learned was to block off the back parking lot. I’ll bet Henry could have paid for a private room if I had blocked that driveway.

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