Short Stories

Harmonica visitors submit fiction or non-fiction short stories based on experiences that involve the harmonica or harmonica playing. If you would like to have a short story included in our collection, please note the procedures for submission in the bullet points on the Short Stories main page.

"Ice Breaker: A harmonica story"

Adapted from an incident described in the book, No Greater Glory, by Dan Kurzman (Random House, 2004).

Many years ago, I played my harmonica at the wedding reception of a dear friend, surprising both bride and groom and sharing a little of what I'd learned from Dave in second floor classrooms on Pico Boulevard while digesting chili dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel. I'd been practicing hand effects. My solo, though heartfelt and well received, did not advance the cause of world peace. But as Gerhard Burke and his audience found out, some solos do.

George Fox, Alex Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington were American military chaplains and friends who died together on a troop transport that sank off the coast of Greenland in 1943. In a time when people of different faiths seldom even talked to each other, this priest, rabbi, and pair of ministers from rival Protestant denominations (Dutch Reformed and Methodist) set a heroic counter-example by going to each other's religious services and, when their ship was torpedoed, giving their own life jackets to terrified shipmates. They four men were last seen praying together with interlocked arms as their ship sank.

In 2000, the foundation established in memory of these chaplains hosted a visit to the United States by the former captain and first officer of the U-boat that had sunk their troop ship, the converted passenger liner, Dorchester.

Other people wanted a show of brotherhood and were ready to let bygones be bygones, but the rabbi's widow wasn't happy about welcoming members of the submarine crew who had been responsible for her husband's death.

Author Dan Kurzman picks up the story: Despite her torment, Theresa shook the Germans' hands and silently accepted their expressions of respect for her husband and of sorrow for her suffering. [First Officer Gerhard] Buske helped ease the tension by removing a harmonica from his pocket and playing a slow, moving version of Amazing Grace. Everyone applauded, then sank into a silence electric with mixed emotions.

Three years later, Buske took out his harp again and played John Newton's famous hymn at the foundation's sixtieth-anniversary remembrance ceremony.

Honor? Or Hohner? The obvious answer is both, actually.

Patrick O'Hannigan

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