My friend Luis is a writer. He posted this writing prompt on his Facebook page and I got inspired. He said to write “What Your Hands Remember.” So I got to thinking, and realized my hands could pretty much tell my whole life story, if I let them. So I started writing it all down. We’ll see where it takes us.
This blog is way out there. It’s nothing quite like previous entries. It’s way more personal, for one thing. But I’m going to post it, anyway. This is actually Part 1. There will be another installment or two coming soon. Anyway, thanks Luis!
Squeezing Playdough® and Silly Putty®
Scientists tell us that Men come from Little Boys. And little boys live with their hands: always touching, fiddling, disassembling, breaking, building, playing in the mud. Some of my earliest memories are those kinds of tactile experiences. My hands remember. Looking back, I see they led the way at each point in life.
They remember Playdough. Squeezing it so it oozed out from between my fingers. Poking it, mashing it—feeling the cool, not-quite-wet texture. Yellow. And blue, which looked and felt so great under my fingernails. And there was red. Well, to be honest, it was more pink, but no little boy’s hands would admit that. Day after day I would form countless “worms,” rolling the dough palm-to-palm or palm-on-table, getting them thinner and thinner. All the while trying to maintain a uniform diameter so they would not look like tiny pythons which had swallowed whole pigs. Why did I do that? My hands would have known. If only I had asked them. They labored, coiling those worms into snakes and making tiny forked tongues with bits of Playdough rolled as thin as thread. Only the most special creations were allowed to harden. My hands remember the dry, crusty surface, but they always preferred Playdough when it was fresh—soft, malleable, allowing them to create, rather than merely reminisce.
And, whose hands can forget the unique pleasure, the slick, plastic-rubber feel of Silly Putty? Stretching it until it would suddenly nap with a clean break. It would change from soft to hard without warning. Magic. My hands remember pressing it against comic books and newsprint and pulling away the mirror-image imprint. Over and over.
Catching Backyard Critters
My hands remember exploring the wilds of suburbia. Our newly-cleared backyard with its pile of old lumber provided a true jungle for Tarzan’s childish hands to explore. And the memories remain of picking up fuzzy black caterpillars, catching and holding cold-blooded alligator lizards. My fingers remember the surprising sharpness of the bite when the lizard was more agile than the tarmangani hunter with toy bow and arrow slung across his skinny back. Always, catching, touching, feeling. The bumps on horny toads. Digging in the brick planters around the house full of sow bugs. Holding them in my palm and poking them, watching them roll up like a little ball, then holding still so they would unfurl their body, only to be poked and prodded back into hiding. XBox? Who needs one? Back then we knew that the world itself is both entertainment and teacher for the boy with bare hands. And my hands remember.
Our yard was also full of color. My parents’ hobby was growing roses. We had over 100 bushes and of course, a million bees. Each Saturday I helped my mom arrange flowers for church the next morning. One Easter Sunday we cut 12 dozen roses and then, looking at the yard, you couldn’t miss them; so many still remained. My hands remember the velvet caress of rose petals and the stab of the thorns, and the prickly mesh of lacey ferns, the cool crunch when cutting a gladiolus stem, the bulging nectar-filled bodies of aphids as I removed them from their under-leaf hiding places. I always liked to be the one to stick the dense clay-like “frogs” to the bottom of the vases. To this day, my hands love the feel of roses.
The Fuzzy Leopard Pattern Velvet on Mom’s Faberge Tigress Perfume
Hands remember what others may forget. Only as I let my hands lead my memory back, did I recall the fuzzy velvet tiger print on the lid of Mom’s Faberge Tigress perfume. How many times did I slip into my mom’s room and feel it? “It was black on top and striped on the sides!” my eyes want to say, but my hands reply, “Hush. This is our story, and we remember that it was delightfully fuzzy.” Comforting. Like the satin edge of a child’s blanket.
The First Touch of a Piano’s Keys at Age Six
Everyone’s life has at least one defining moment. For me, it was the instant my fingers first touched the keyboard of a piano. I was only six; two years younger than my teacher normally accepted as a beginner, but he said he never regretted it. From that moment, “piano player” is how many have known me; it’s simply who I am. My hands remember, but it’s my soul that plays the music. And my hands feel the music flowing through them just as surely as they feel the ivory. Black and white. Raised and flat. Infinite variety all within reach of my hands. Comforting. Way better than the satin edge of a child’s blanket. My hands touched the keys that day, and I was never the same.
Skinning Across Asphalt, Falling in 2nd Grade
Some memories are painful, and they also stay with you for life like a scar that won’t heal. I was in second grade; six years old, and running in from recess. Some kid in front of me was running oddly, with his feet kicking out to the sides. So I tripped over his foot and fell headlong onto the asphalt. My chin took most of the impact, splitting open and requiring 12 stitches. But my hands remember that day, too, skidding across the gravelly asphalt, adding insult to injury. Adding injury to injury, in fact. Stinging. Throbbing. While my chin was gushing blood, my hands were bleeding, too, from a million little wounds, each with an embedded grain of sand. 48 years ago. My hands still remember. Each grain of sand.
The Crunchy Feel of a Fresh “Taper” in the Back after a Haircut
My dad was retired Navy by the time I was born. So not only could we shop on-base at the Exchange and the Commissary, but I also had the questionable privilege of getting really cheap haircuts on base. Wow. A Navy haircut without having to enlist. We went to the barber shop at Balboa Naval Hospital, where I had been born. My regular barber was named Tatu. Well, I’m not sure how to spell it, but that’s how it sounded. As a kid, I never stopped to think what kind of name that was. And of course, in the early and mid-1960s, short hair was still the norm. The Beatle’s “long” hair was still scandalous, even in California. I wouldn’t be allowed to grow my hair long until years later, when my dad realized that it annoyed his mother-in-law. So a proper haircut in my childhood was short. Very short and “tapered” in the back, and slathered with Brilliantine, which my hands are still trying to forget. My hands remember being trapped under the barber’s cape. They hated that. But once they were free, they enjoyed the crispy-crunchy sharp feel of the short hairs at the nape of my neck. Shampooing that night and all the next day, I’d run my fingers up my neck, going against the grain, feeling the delicious roughness of the bristly short hairs.
Pocket Knife Wound Outside a Piano Lesson
Pain and piano, together in my mind. My hands didn’t want me to tell this story. They remember, but it was their fault. Actually, they claim my foolish boy’s mind was to blame; my hands say that they were only doing my bidding. I’ll let you decide who’s at fault, but either way, my hands certainly do remember. My mom drove me to my weekly piano lesson. We were early and she went on in to sit in the parents’ waiting area and read the magazines. To this day, I’m not sure why I stayed in the car. Not even my hands remember that, but here’s what happened. Little boys do foolish things. For example, I had taped my left index finger up with first aid tape. (“Hush!” my hands are already saying, trying to stop my narrative to shift the blame. “See? It was his fault…”) Anyway, there was no wound, just a bandage, for some inexplicable little boy’s reason, covering my entire finger. So I had to remove this bandage before going in to my lesson so I could bend my finger and play scales. To do this, I had my pocket knife, whetted to razor sharpness by my dad. (Shh, you guys! No, it’s not my dad’s fault, either!) I was even doing it right, if there is such a thing as correctly cutting an unneeded bandage off a finger at a piano lesson. I was cutting away from myself. In my head, I could hear my dad’s voice repeating that mantra: “Cut away from yourself.” He had taught me about knives before giving one to me, one that he had sharpened himself. But it still happened, as my hands remember so well. Even while cutting away from myself, when the knife suddenly cut through the tape, somehow it suddenly embedded itself to the hilt in my left palm, right at the base of my thumb. My hands remember the pain and the spurting blood, and the loud grown-up voices when I stepped into my teacher’s front door to yell at my mom, telling her what I’d done. My hands remember. And they can never forget, since half of the pad of my left thumb is numb to this day. So. Whose fault do you think it was?
Picking Up a Hot Elbow for the Plumber
My hands remember the sudden searing pain of a serious burn. I was watching the plumber install a new water heater in the area we called the “service porch.” Billy, the precocious, friendly little guy asking a million questions. The plumber, whether friendly or just patient (I don’t know), answering each inquiry as he used his little gas torch to braze pipe fittings together. Plink! One small brass elbow fell to the linoleum floor. In slo-mo, I enthusiastically bent over to pick it up and help my new friend even as he stared wide-eyed the word “DON’T!!” forming on his lips. I heard his warning at the same instant in which my fingers screamed back at my brain, “It’s HOT! Drop it!!” I dropped it immediately. Or rather, I tried to drop it, shaking my hand frantically as the metal stuck to the melted flesh of my fingertips. Pain, surprise, panic, and embarrassment short-circuiting my brain. Yes, I was embarrassed, feeling silly for making such a mistake. I was trying to help! Now I was just a dumb kid. Funny, my hands remember the pain. But I don’t remember what the adults said or did. I don’t even remember when my mom learned of my injury. I know for sure she didn’t bandage it right away. She never had the chance. Billy, the embarrassed, injured little dog ran outside into the front yard and crawled under the bushes to hide. In the planter with the sow bugs, but I wasn’t there to play this time. I think I stayed there a couple hours, but I don’t remember. My hands don’t remember either. They just remember the pain.
Pulling the Antenna Up and Down On My First AM/FM Radio
Some memories are more mundane, but my hands don’t care. They remember just the same. One of the first significant things I bought was an am/fm transistor radio. I saved my allowance and purchased this marvel of technology with my own money. It was black plastic, about 4 by 5 inches and about an inch and a half thick. So small! So portable! You could take it anywhere to listen to Ron Ugly Thompson play the hits on KCBQ. And it had this cool leather holster which snapped on, with holes to allow access to the controls, a window so you could see the dial, and tiny holes punched over the speaker to let the sound out. It even had an earphone! My hands remember pulling the antenna out and pushing it in. Over and over. Feeling the metal-on-metal scraping inside as each section slipped along inside the next larger one.
Playing Piano at Trinity Baptist Church
Piano again. As I said, this quickly became my identity. Who I was, what people knew me for, how I thought of myself. By the time I was ten years old, I’d been playing for four years. My hands remember practicing an hour or more a day. I was pretty good. Classical and sacred music and a few standards. And at the age of ten, I was the church pianist for Trinity Baptist Church, the humble little congregation my family attended three or more times a week. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening, I played the hymns for congregational singing. I played the offertory in each service. My hands remember playing the arpeggios to embellish the songs and make them sound fancy. Black keys, white keys, smooth to the touch, moving with a little resistance as my fingers pressed down on them. I also accompanied the soloists who wanted to sing what we called a “special number.” I could sight read, so the singer would walk into church after I was already sitting at the piano, put the music in front of me and expect me to play it. And play it I did. Years later, a missionary in the Philippines was telling a story of when, as a seminary student, he filled the pulpit at a little church in San Diego during summer break. I smiled as he got to the part where he said, “It was the craziest church. They had this little kid playing the piano…” My hands remembered and they felt proud.
My First Guitar
I was still ten years old, when I made another purchase. For $50 I bought my first guitar from Sears. My hands remember the pain of pressing on the steel strings, twisting the tuning pegs. holding the pick, struggling to master this new way to express music. Fumbling to form the chords. Piano had become so easy; this was hard. And on a piano, if you pressed the right key, the sound was right. The piano produced the tone. But on a guitar, if you didn’t press hard enough, the sound was muffled or buzzy. My hands remember practicing over the years, imitating chords and licks that others used. Forty-four years later, I play guitar pretty good and now I’m trying to learn to play lead. It’s my soul that plays piano, using my hands to do its unconscious bidding. But so far at least, it’s my brain that plays guitar. Either way, my hands love it, and they are ready.
The Feel of a Trumpet
That same year, while beginning to teach myself guitar, I also started trumpet lessons. My piano teacher was actually more of a cornet player than a pianist, so he taught me trumpet, as well. And I started taking band that year in 7th grade. I was only ten years old when I started junior high, and I’d never touched a trumpet until that first band class. My lips want to talk about the trumpet, but they have to wait their turn. My hands remember the coolness of the beautiful silver trumpet my parents bought me. The feel of the mother of pearl on the keys. The Tijuana Brass was all the rage in those days and I worked to play their songs. Looking back, I realize I had this huge man-crush on Herb Albert. My hands remember trying to hold the trumpet the way he did, as my body swayed in my room playing along with his records. My hands remember the day we had a math teacher come in as a substitute and we all played different instruments. I played drums that day, and really enjoyed holding the sticks. Oh, and my hands asked me not to forget to say that by the end of 7th grade, I made first chair in the trumpet section. I beat out Bernard Brafman, who had already been playing a year or more before I started. He was really angry. My hands remember enjoying that.
Stay tuned for the next installment of What My Hands Remember…