One lunchtime in the fall before my sixth birthday, Dad came home and presented me with a beautiful, shiny-new harmonica. The wooden part was painted a bright red. A gleaming, nickel-plated metal guard on both sides protected the delicate reeds. The harmonica came in a small cardboard box lined with dark red velvet. It was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen!
I knew nothing about playing the harmonica, so I just blew and drew air through it as I had seen other people do. Somehow, I expected it to make music. I tried again and again, but nary a tune came out. “It doesn’t work,” I told my dad.
“Oh yes it does,” he responded. “Here. Let me have it a minute.” He tapped it in the palm of his hand a couple of times to release the moisture, then played an old Danish dance. It sounded smooth and happy.
“Can you play ‘Yankee Doodle’?” I begged.
He immediately switched tunes, and “Yankee Doodle” came out sharp and crisp.
I tried again, but all I got was that same monotonous, discordant sound.
“When I get home tonight,” Dad said, “I’ll teach you how to play some tunes. In the meantime, keep trying to play it. You may learn something by yourself.”
Dad wanted me to eventually learn to play a more difficult instrument. He reasoned that if I learned to play the harmonica well, it might be easier for me to learn a more complicated instrument.
When my friend Arthur Schultz came over later, I showed him the harmonica, and we decided to show it to some of our other friends. Hans Larsen was the first one we met. He was about a year younger than me, and we played together often.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s a brand new harmonica that my dad gave me,” I answered. “Isn’t it a beauty?”
Hans looked skeptical. “Can you play it?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Play ‘Yankee Doodle.’”
I began to play. It was that same monotonous sound.
“I bet I can play it better than that,” he bragged. “Here—let me try it.”
I gave him the harmonica. His “tune” sounded exactly like mine.
“This harmonica’s no good,” he said, and he threw it as hard as he could. I let out a yelp when I saw that it had landed in an irrigation ditch. We’d had a big rainstorm the day before, and the water in the ditch was so muddy that the harmonica instantly sank out of sight.
I ran to the water, got down on my hands and knees, and began probing around. I thought that I knew exactly where the harmonica had landed, but it wasn’t there. I searched for ten minutes before I finally located it. When I waded out of the ditch, my pants were wet from my thighs down. My shirt was wet up to my elbows, and the harmonica was all covered with mud and dirty brown water.
After Hans had thrown my harmonica into the irrigation ditch, he had run away as fast as he could. I was really angry. In fact, I was furious! I couldn’t believe that Hans would do such a terrible thing. Hans deserves some awful punishment, I decided. Looking at that mud-streaked harmonica only increased my anger. I had to figure out a punishment equal to his terrible crime.
Arthur walked with me over to Hans’s house. I imagined that he was hiding somewhere inside. “Hans,” I yelled, standing on his front porch, “you’re going to get it! I’m going downtown and tell the city marshall on you. He’ll come and arrest you and take you to jail. He’ll put you in a cell all by yourself. At night it will be dark and cold. No one will talk to you, you’ll have to eat miserable jail food, and everybody will hate you. I won’t come to see you. They’ll make you do all kinds of hard work!” The list became longer and longer.
Then Arthur and I started downtown. I didn’t exactly know where the city marshall might be, but surely I would find him there. As we walked along talking, my voice became louder and louder. Pretty soon I was shouting about what was going to happen to Hans Larsen.
“What’s going on, boys?” a man sitting on his front porch asked. He was wearing a business suit, with his coat and vest unbuttoned. I explained to him about Hans’s terrible deed and told him that I was on my way to tell the city marshall to arrest him.
“Why don’t you come up on the porch so that we can talk about it some more,” the man suggested.
We climbed the man’s steps.
“My name is Brother Allred,” the man said. “What’s yours?”
I told him that my name was Christian Jensen and that my friend was Arthur Schultz. I showed him the muddy harmonica, and he agreed that it looked pretty shabby.
“His dad paid fifteen cents for it at the Co-op,” Arthur explained.
“It looks like a very fine instrument,” Brother Allred remarked. “Let me have it for a minute, and I’ll see if I can clean it up a bit.” He took the harmonica and went into the house. In a few minutes he returned. The harmonica looked brand-new. “It’s all cleaned up now,” he said, “inside and out. By evening the reeds will be dry enough that you can play it again.” Then he asked, “Can you play it yet?”
“I can play it, but I can’t play any tunes on it yet,” I answered.
“Do you know where you live from here?”
I pointed in a south-easterly direction.
“Don’t you think that your folks might be wondering where you are and that they might be worrying about you because you’ve been away so long?”
In all my excitement I hadn’t given a thought to my folks. “I guess that you’re right, but I still have to go downtown and tell the city marshall about Hans.”
“I can take care of that for you,” he answered.
“Do you know the city marshall?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” he replied. “You might say so. Now listen, I’ll walk with you boys up to the corner, and then I think that you’d better get home as fast as you can.” Pointing to me, he added, “You’re going to need to get into some dry clothes.”
The three of us walked to the corner, and Brother Allred said, “Well, boys, it was good to visit with you, but now I must get to work.”
As he was talking, he began buttoning up his vest. Under his left armpit was a holster with a revolver in it! On his buttoned vest was a star!
Then it dawned on me. “You’re the—” I couldn’t bring out the words.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m the city marshall. I’ll leave you boys now. I have to do my job.”
Does he mean that he’s going over to Hans Larsen’s house to arrest him right now? I agonized as Arthur and I headed for home. Suddenly I panicked. I had told the city marshall about Hans, and now he’d arrest Hans and put him in jail! Deep down in my heart I didn’t want Hans arrested, even though I had made those threats against him. I must stop the city marshall right now, I decided.
When we caught up with the marshall, I said, “Marshall Allred, about Hans—”
The marshall put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me from saying anything more. “I understand,” he said. “You were angry because he threw your brand-new harmonica into the dirty water, and you had a right to be angry. I’m sure that Hans is sorry for what he did. He’s probably worrying now about what he can do to make things right with you so that you can be friends again. I want you to go straight home and get on some dry clothes. Things will work out.”
I said good-bye to him, and Arthur and I hurried home. While I was getting on some dry clothing, I told my mother about the entire incident.
As Marshall Allred had predicted, after supper the harmonica was dry enough for my dad to begin teaching me how to play it.
The marshall was right about Hans, too—in a little over a week, Hans and I were playing together again.