I was in no particular hurry to make the three and a half hour drive to Nevada County. It was a beautiful June Saturday morning, the second Saturday of the month, the day each year I head for nine days of bluegrass heaven, for me probably the best single day of the year.
No, it wasn’t rushing to leave on my vacation that caused me to leave my fiddle on the roof of the F-150’s cab and drive off, it was desynchronization. You know, each morning you fill the kettle with water, put it on the stove and turn the burner on. But then one morning you fill the kettle, put it on the stove and the dog barks asking to go outside so you accommodate him, go back and finish the job by getting out the coffee brewer, filling it with five tablespoons of coffee and then going to check your email while the water boils. But of course it doesn’t because you didn’t turn the burner on. So, it was one of those deals. One little step out of sequence in the ritual of packing for Grass Valley, not to mention my world, was turned upside down.
I’d driven through Sacramento and was half way to Roseville before stopping for an egg, cheese, and sausage McMuffin and large half-caf latte, my usual treat when heading off to multi-day bluegrass events. The week leading up to the festival I’d put some time into learning the words to an old Bob Paisley song and on the way out to the truck I figured I’d grab the sheet of lyrics stowed in my fiddle case and test my memory on the last leg of the journey. I went around to the passenger side, unlocked the door and dug around under a pile of quilts and pillows and gym bags for the fiddle case. I couldn’t feel it under all that stuff so I began removing the items one by one to get to the fiddle but found only a couple of gum wrappers and a receipt from Orchard Supply Hardware when I got down to the floorboard.
Must have stowed it in the trailer, I thought, so more searching in there. Still no fiddle. Stupid me, I must have thrown it in the truck bed along with the camp equipment. God, I left it out there for anybody just to walk off with while I ate my McMuffin. What a dummy I can be, I thought, sometimes I do the most idiotic, careless….and then, with ten thousand volts of electricity suddenly coursing through my body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, it hit me. Shook me till I was trembling. I’d put the fiddle on the roof of the cab and driven away from Whiskey Creek with it sitting there. I turned and dashed back to the cab, desperate to keep searching, to do something, anything, but then stopped in my tracks. Who was I kidding? I hadn’t remembered before but I did now; I put the fiddle in its hard case on the roof of the cab while I loaded a pile of gear into the passenger side… and I DID NOT take it from the roof. And now the fiddle was gone.
The first thing Lynn said when she answered the phone was “What’s wrong?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to call my wife while driving on a long trip, but somehow, without meuttering a word, somehow she knew. I choked out an explanation of what had happened. “Are you okay?” she asked me. And then I began to cry, standing right there in the McDonald’s parking lot, my body shook and I sobbed.
Normally it was me who took charge in an emergency, but not this time. Lynn told me there was no point in my turning around. She would re-trace my route along Jamestown road, leading away from Whiskey Creek. She would find the fiddle and bring it with her when she joined me on Thursday. In the meantime I had my back up violin, which I always brought along when I’d be gone for extended periods. She’d find my fiddle; it had to be somewhere along side of the road and she would find it. “Keep going,” she said, “you’re almost there. I’ll find it.”
An hour and a few minutes later I pulled into the main gate of the campground. Even though it was only a little after noon on Saturday, five full days before the start of the festival, the place already appeared half full. So many years before, over thirty-five, I’d driven through Gate 6 with my heart pounding with excitement, but not this time. I felt only a deep and empty sadness, and the kind of exhaustion you feel after catharsis. I could still feel the dried tears on my face.
I drove straight to my campsite, the one I’d been camping at for literally decades, without stopping to say hello to anyone. I just wanted to set up camp, to keep busy, clear my mind and wait for my phone to ring. It did before I’d even leveled the trailer.
“No” was all Lynn said. Neither of us spoke and there was a long, long silence. Finally…
“After we talk, I called Sean and he came over to help me search. We got on opposite sides of Jamestown road and walked all the way into town. We walked slow…really, really slowly and we looked and looked and looked, over two miles. Nothing, Rick. Hello?”
“I’m here,” I said.
“So, we have a plan. I’ve printed up thirty posters with big lettering and a picture of a violin and Sean and I are going to go back out and hang them all along Jamestown road, and then all over town. Grocery stores, the post office, all over. Somebody picked it up when it fell off the truck, Rick, that has to be what happened. We’ll get it back.”
“No”, I said, “I don’t think so. It’s gone. I’ll never see that fiddle again.
As was always the case, a half dozen people stopped to say hello during the hour it took me to get my camp organized. I wasn’t unfriendly, I was just quiet. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, and in a couple of minutes each visitor just sort of ambled away… none of the usual chatting and catching up.
The last thing I did was pull my back-up fiddle out of the closet in the trailer, bring it out into the sun light and open the tattered old cloth-covered case. It smelled musty and the A string had begun to unravel near the bridge. And there was no bow with the fiddle. Closing up and latching the case, I jumped in my truck and headed into town, but first I went to find my friend, Tim Edes. As chief electrician for the Fathers Day Festival, Tim always arrived a day before me and I knew right where I’d find him.
“Well, she’s right, you know,” my friend assured me after I’d told him the whole unhappy tale, “somebody found it along side of the road and they’ll return it.”
“Why would they do that,” I asked, “why would anyone just hand over a six thousand dollar violin?”
“For three reasons. First, they don’t know it’s worth that much. Two, you told me Lynn’s offering a reward. And three, people are basically honest.”
“Bull crap.” “You’ll see.”
A little later the woman at the Foggy Mountain Music Store in town became almost motherly by the time I’d finished my story. She put her arm around my shoulder and she patted gently.
“It sounds to me like your wife is doing all the right things,” Mary said, continuing to pat reassuringly. “You have to have faith.”
I didn’t and felt like telling the woman so, but what good would that do? Here she was, comforting a complete stranger, reaching out, and all I wanted to do was to tell her how shitty I felt. You’re an idiot, I said to myself, an idiot on so many different levels.
Mary, who was herself a violinist, helped me pick out what I needed to get my back-up fiddle playable. A new set of strings, a new bridge, an inexpensive bow, an Intellitouch tuner, a spray bottle of a cleanser-polisher she used and recommended.
“This is a lovely instrument,” said the Foggy Mountain woman as she carefully held my fiddle, “you say it’s a twin of the one you lost?”
“Pretty much an identical twin,” I answered, forcing myself to keep up my end of the small talk, “looks-wise, but it’s not nearly as sweet sounding. It’s louder, harsher and not nearly as easy to play.”
“That’s just because you’re used to playing the other,” Mary said.
“I suppose you’re right. I’ll get used to it, but it will never sound like its sister.” “Sister,” Mary smiled, “they’re sister violins? Why not brothers?”
“It was a woman who had the matching violins made, so I’ve always thought of them as, you know, feminine. She was the leader of an all woman traveling band back in the mid- west during the twenties and thirties and forties. She was the leader, the booking agent, the bus driver, house mother, the featured vocalist and the violinist, and she had the pair made in 1926 by a maker in St. Louis. And he made a double case to hold them. Do you know why?” I asked.
“Why she had two fiddles made? Two instead of one? And a double case?” “No,” Mary said, “I guess I don’t.”
“It’s sort of a riddle. The answer to the question is in the violin you’re holding. Can you see it? Do you notice anything different about it, different from other violins? Different from those,” I said, pointing at half a dozen fiddles hanging in the shop window.
“Oh,” she exclaimed suddenly, “oh, I see now. Yours is strung upside down… backwards.”
“It’s strung left-handed, because it’s a left-handed fiddle, made left-handed like its mate. And that’s the answer to the riddle. The bandleader was left-handed therefore needed to travel with two violins…hence the double case. If something happened to one on the road, she would have the second to play. You wouldn’t find too many left-handed violins in Duluth or Des Moines, especially in a pinch.”
“Nor in Grass Valley,” Mary added. “And that’s why you brought this second instrument with you to the bluegrass festival. To have in a pinch.”
“Yup,” I said, “but I never thought I’d have to use it. And certainly not because I was stupid enough to lose my fiddle along the damned road.”
That night I hit the sack early. I had what I needed to get the violin working, and there were certainly some decent jams going on, even though it was only Saturday night, days before the festival proper would begin. But I just didn’t have the heart. It truly was as though I’d lost a friend or a loved one, a companion with whom I’d spent every day for
the past twenty-five years. I lay in the old Argosy trailer, the thump-thump-thumping of a stand-up base off in the distance, the mournful whine of a fiddle coming from the opposite direction, and I thought about the long, twisting journey I’d traveled with that old and lovely music maker, from beginner to…well, certainly better than a beginner. As I drifted off to sleep I slowly and methodically scanned, first one side and then the other side, of the old windy two-lane road in my mind’s eye. It had to be there. Where else could it be?
The next day, Sunday, activity shifted into high gear around the campground as we all leaned into the pre-festival jobs we had. There was no escaping interaction with people, and the more I gave into it the less morose I felt. Several times during the day though, just as I would begin to pull out of my funk, the iPhone would ring, my heart would race with anticipation, and Lynn would begin each time with, “No”. She’d hung up posters here, been to a pawn shop there, stopped by the newspaper to see about buying a classified ad but found it closed, driven the two and a half miles down Jamestown Road to town once more, and then a second time…but, no. Still no fiddle.
That afternoon I set up my second violin, which, along with its sister, had crisscrossed the flat lands of Kansas and Missouri and Oklahoma and Iowa for three decades, using the stuff that Foggy Mountain Mary sold me. One droned pull across the D and A strings and I felt nauseated so I packed up old number two in its case. But later that night, after the Music Camp students were finished with the evening’s organized activity and scattered across the campgrounds in a dozen or so noisy, jamming little knots, I grabbed the violin that smelled of years old dust, the runner up fiddle, my new on the rebound love interest that, even with brand new strings sounded to me like crap, and went out in search of a jam where I might saw my blues away. And it didn’t take long to find one. And then another and another and another. A little after two a.m. I wandered back to my camp under a moonless sky, stowed #2 in its case and went to bed barely thinking of the enormous loss that had consumed me for the past day and a half.
The next morning when I awoke it took a full minute and a half before IT came washing over my brain. Ninety seconds of lazily surveying another lovely day in my favorite place on earth, sleepily turning over in my mind my breakfast options, before, WHOOSH, reality washed over me like a bucket of ice-cold water. And of course the first call of the day from Lynn a few hours later, which began with the now familiar “no, not yet”, only served to bring the bucket of water closer to freezing. I’d lost, thrown away, discarded through sheer, careless idiocy the single most important physical possession of my life, and there was just no getting around it.
But there was, as there always is, a way to get through the agony of monumental loss, and that’s to keep moving. I stayed busy all day doing errands for the festival and assistant festival directors, using my truck to move equipment around for the Music Camp manager, fetching Subway sandwiches for the stage set-up crew, and again that night I
fiddled and sang into the wee hours. Number Two was beginning to feel not quite as foreign and sound not quite as awful. On Tuesday Lynn called three times to tell me what wasn’t working in the search and rescue operation. At first I found it a little odd that my wife would call multiple times each day to essentially report no news, but eventually it dawned on me that what she was really doing was checking in to see how I was holding up. No one in the world knew better than Lynn what that fiddle meant to me.
I’m not sure exactly when it was but at some point during those first few days at the festival I’d begun to formulate a plan for dealing with the loss of my old and dear friend. Each year the festival vendors arrive at the Nevada County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, usually in the morning, and spend the day setting up for the launch of the event the next morning at ten o’clock sharp. I knew Frank Daniels, a world-class maker from Meridian, Idaho, would pull in some time before noon. His business, Frank’s Fiddles, was an institution in the world of bluegrass and old-time music, and there were many, many times I’d been tempted to buy one of his creations, only to be dissuaded by the inner, adult voice that reminded me I needed another fiddle like I needed another set of adenoids. And besides, as good as Frank’s axes were, none could compare to mine. But all that was changed now.
I waited until late Wednesday afternoon before driving my golf cart over to the Luthiers’ Pavilion, and sure enough there was Frank, set up for business in the same spot he took each year. I didn’t have much hope that Frank would have a left-hander with him…I’d have to order one and then wait, who knew how long, until he could build and ship it west to me.
“Well, my friend, you are in luck. Do you remember I told you year before last that I’d done a commission job for Molly Kate, the Cherryholmes girl? A lefty like you. Well, her pop sprang for a new one, quite a bit fancier and with a fifth string, this past winter and I just received her trade-in from UPS last week. Wanna see her?”
Twenty minutes later I was on the phone to Lynn.
“Any news? Any developments?” I asked already knowing what the answer would be. “No, sorry. Nothing.”
“Well, dear, I do have some news…good news. Remember Frank the fiddle maker? You know, Frank’s Fiddles. Well, he showed up this morning and I’ve already cut a deal for a left-handed axe. It’s absolutely beautiful…Frank made it for the young Cherryholmes girl, you know, the left-hander in the Cherryholmes Family Band. And what a deal, only thirty-three hundred bucks.”
“WHAT,” my wife exclaimed, “you bought a three thousand dollar violin?”
“Well, no, not yet. But I’m on my way back up to the luthiers’ pavilion right now with a check for the guy. Believe me, three grand is a bargain. Frank’s fiddles are…”
“But you haven’t bought it yet, is that what you said?” “Right, that’s what I said. But I’m about to.”
“No, don’t do it. Don’t buy the fiddle today. Wait till I get there tomorrow. Please. Do you promise?”
“No,” I said, with just a hint of attitude in my voice, “I do not promise. You know I appreciate so much everything you’ve done the past few days trying to get her back. But let’s face it, I’m never going to see that fiddle again, and I’ve got to move on. And I’m not going to wait…someone else could buy it in the meantime. Left-handed violins don’t grow on trees, you know.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. I was a little surprised at Lynn’s reaction. She knew what a blow losing my violin had been, knew the agony of the past four days. And it wasn’t like we couldn’t afford the thirty-three hundred. And, hell, I hadn’t bought an instrument in more than twenty-five years. Then finally…
“Okay,” my wife began in a slow, measured voice, “so, well, this was going to be a surprise. You will see your fiddle again. You’ll see it tomorrow morning, before noon” Her words caused a shock wave to shoot up my spine and pulse in the base of my skull.
“What? WHAT? WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?” I was breathless.
“What I’m saying is that tomorrow morning when I pull into camp I will have with me your violin. It will be in a pretty banged up case, but it won’t have a scratch on it.”
“But, but…how? When? Tell me what happened.”
And so she did. First thing Monday morning Lynn had called the Union Democrat, an every-other-day newspaper serving Sonora and Tuolumne County, to place an ad. She was promised it would run the next morning, but when she drove to town early on Tuesday and bought a paper, she found the missing fiddle ad hadn’t been printed. My wife, a New York City native with an almost genetic pre-disposition for confronting problems with the immediacy and directness of a one-ton wrecking ball, drove straight to the Union Democrat on Main Street. When she arrived, Lynn was taken down stairs to the Classified Section desk and introduced to Judy Phelps, the woman who’d taken the order over the phone the day before.
“Oh, Mrs. Cornish, I’m so glad you came in. I just tried to call you. You’re here about the lost violin ad, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I certainly am”, Lynn said. “Well, we didn’t run it.”
“I KNOW you didn’t run it. That’s why I’m here. I want to know WHY you didn’t run it.”
“Well,” the woman began, “we were so lucky, you and I. Your lost ad and a found ad, both describing the same violin and case, almost with the exact same words, came across my desk within minutes of one another late last afternoon. Your husband’s instrument was found and the man who found it also called in an ad. I wasn’t able to stop the ad of the man who found the violin, but naturally I took the initiative of putting a hold on yours. We just love it when that happens down here. You know, finding a lost and a found that match up.”
Judy Phelps of the Union Democrat’s Classified section let Lynn use her phone to call the man with my fiddle, he gave her directions to his home and just minutes later my wife was in his living room clutching my lovely violin. Lynn said the man and his wife and four young children lived in a tiny single-wide at a trailer park just outside of Jamestown. It was obvious, she said, that the family was struggling.
“So, like, dig it, I’m sitting at the stop sign on Jamestown Road,” the stranger explained, “waiting to pull out onto 108, when this truck and camp trailer I’m behind jumps on the gas and a red instrument case comes flying at my windshield. Smack, it hit hard, bounced off without breaking the glass and landed right in the middle of the other lane. I really didn’t even see where it came from. It was like it dropped out of the sky.”
“But I don’t get it,” I said when my wife reached this part of the story, “you’re telling me this man was obviously hurting financially, had a house full of kids and yet he was buying a classified ad for thirty bucks? Why?”
“Well, I asked him that and here’s what he said. The man told me he wasn’t a musician but that he loved acoustic music and when he could afford it he went to the Strawberry Festival. Of all the instruments, he loved the fiddle best. And he said he had musician friends and he knew how much their instruments meant to them. He said he knew that losing an instrument that you played all the time, especially if you played “sweet” music with it, would be like losing your best friend, or even your kid maybe. He said he just had to try to find the owner.”
“And he did.”
“Yes, he did.” Lynn told me that she’d given the man thirty dollars to cover the cost of the classified he taken out and another two hundred dollars to thank him. “A happy ending all around,” my darling girl said.
“Well, almost but not quite,” I said, “I need to go find Frank and tell him he needs to find another left-handed buyer.”