Why I Play Piano with Nine-and-a-Half Fingers
© 2009 by Daniel Carter. All rights reserved. Copying or reproducing any portion of this article without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.
I'm the oldest in the family. I'm followed by a younger brother, Tim. Tim has a wicked sense of humor. Truly wicked. He's shrewd and intimidating when he wants to be. However, joining the ranks of 50 year olds has made him soft. I've noticed he's become more...uh...well, understanding and insightful. It kind of sucks sometimes, when I'm expecting this ruthless tone of voice and Draino-Drain-Cleaner-reply.
Growing up, Tim HATED (did I capitalize that whole word? Oh yeah, I did.) HATED listening to me play the piano. "Couldn't we hear you play scales just one more time, purdy puhleeze?"
Finally, in an attempt to prove to him that we actually did have something in common, I banged on his bedroom door when we were teens and asked, "So, you like stuff like the Rolling Stones and Beatles, right?"
He kept looking down in his book as if I didn't exist and said, "I hate music. Stop bugging me."
When we were in college, Tim suddenly announced early in the week that he was driving six hours home to see mom and dad.
"How come, what's wrong?" I asked with concern.
"I'm going to soak 'em for everything I can get out of 'em. I'm tired of living like a rodent." he said matter-of-factly.
One summer after we were both married with kids he took the fam on vacation. Everything went very, very badly. He fell and broke ribs, and someone else got pneumonia. The rest of that Tragedy List gets long. Later, they moved to a crummy little shack while they built a house in a new location. There were lots of stories about that whole year. It was also the year Prince Charles and Princess Diana split, and Windsor Castle burned. In his family Christmas letter that year he noted all these things and simply said, "All in all, we had a better year than the Queen."
But I digress.
We lived near the town of Caldwell, Idaho. Life was simple. I was raised on Caruso and country western. We played Dad's old 78 rpm records and got a healthy dose of classics and all kinds of music. Not to mention we played Rock 'n Roll on the radio when Dad wasn't around.
My Family about 1959
It's 1960 as this tale unfolds. Tim says it was exactly 391 days after the historic Bay of Pigs, according to his interest and penchant for history details. (I think that is as frightening as it is awesome.) I was going to be five years old. Tim was just turning four. Mom and dad went into business with my Grandparents owning and operating Carter Meat Packing Company, a butcher shop. Dad had a great motto: "We skin beef, not customers." We lived about five miles out of town on Highway 30 on the way to Greenleaf Village. We're talking sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and farmland. Actually quite beautiful. Very hard working people.
On this particular day, Mom was at the meat grinder, grinding up fat which would then be rendered down to lard. Tim and I were "helping" that day. (I promise it's not a gross story, so keep reading.)
Each time Mom turned off the grinder, I would stick my right index finger in the front plate where the ground up fat came out, and clean each hole. Tim followed his older brother's example. That is, until Mom caught on and exclaimed "Oh! don't do that! You'll get your fingers cut off!!" Which, interpreted in my wee brain was "Allrightee then! The challenge is to not let her actually see what I'm doing."
Picture of Instrument of Dismemberment
Mom was extremely careful. Each time she turned off the grinder, she would make sure we were away, clear and safe before she turned it back on. Except this one time. She flipped the switch without checking this ONE time, and I'll be darned if I didn't have the strangest feeling come over me. I looked at Tim, he looked at me, and we looked down, and dang-howdy it was just as mom said. I couldn't even fathom how it could've happened.
Now, my grandparents had gone up the road about a mile or so to make lunch while we continued to work, then we would take our shift. Dad heard us and he came out where we were, grabbed our fingers, as mom got these blazing white linen towels we used for everything. Dad tied off our fingers with string and Mom tried to put those clean towels over our fingers.
Not on my finger. No siree. Not that clean towel. I wasn't going to get that thing dirty the weeniest little bit. But I lost, despite my howling and waving the remainder of my appendage around in circles.
So then dad phones up the road in a hurry to my Grandparents and says, "You better get here quick. The boys just cut their fingers off." Interpreted by my grandparents as "the boys cut all five of their fingers off."
So in three minutes, in they rush, Grandma in tears of relief that we weren't just pointing a stubby arm at her, me thinking it was truly as bad as I thought it was. Poor me. I was truly a victim. Even Tim glared at me and blamed me.
Someone tried to call an ambulance. The ambulances were all busy. However, I'm pretty sure the truth is there was just one ambulance and they were out to lunch. I think that's what "busy" meant around noon in 1960. So Dad and Grandpa argued about who would drive the wounded to the hospital. Grandpa lost. So we piled in his Singer (it was a brand of car) with mom, and howled all the way, five long miles to the Hospital.
Dad in front of Grandpa's Singer Gazelle
All the noise we made coming in was a terrible disruption to that little hospital in Caldwell. We clamored in the main doors with looks of dismay everywhere, and suddenly our family doctor appeared and asked with quite some concern, "Oh dear! What happened?"
To which Mom, grief-stricken, blurted out through her sobs, "I cut the boys' fingers off!!" (Admission to such guilt would be handled slightly differently these days, I'm sure. Therefore, another reminder that not everything is as it may appear.)
Wheeled into separate operating rooms, we were given an ether mask to put us out. The nurse said to me, "What's your favorite animal? Do you like kitty cats?"
"NO!" I shouted into the mask fogging it up.
Despite her nice questions, I was very uncooperative.
"Can you count backwards?" she asked.
I drew a blank. "Backwards???" I thought.
She started the count down, and then I don't remember anything.
So the technical details were these: our right index fingers were cut off. Same hand, same finger, same time. But there is a twisted "tradition" emerging here. Both Grandpa and Dad had missing fingers, too. Different kinds of accidents.
Mine was gone at the first knuckle. They removed a bit more, pulled up the skin and stitched it closed. Simple and honestly, pretty.
Tim lost his at the base of the fingernail. The doctor decided he wouldn't grow another fingernail, so they left it, and took a skin graft off the inside of his leg and patched the end and called it good.
We woke up in a dark hospital room. Tim woke up first. We were in cribs with metal bars for the sides. We had these humongous finger guards on our fingers. I woke up to the sound of a rapid "rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat". It was Tim sliding his finger guard across the bars of the side of the crib.
"Timmy!! Please don't do that! You'll make it start bleeding!" begged mom.
We managed to get home. No long hospital stay. Just a day trip to the Finger Repair Spa.
Presents started pouring in from family. New coloring books and crayons. Finger guards are not condusive to such children's activities. Off came the finger guards.
There was more red in the picture than I put on it.
And so it went. And has never stopped.
For many, many years, there was a jingle in the US about the Yellow Pages. The trademark was two fingers of a hand walking across the Yellow Pages of a phone book. I'll bet many can still sing the tune to "Let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages."
We did our version. We always looked up the word "handicap" and walked across that page. You get the picture. Short leg, long leg. It always induces mindless, uncontrollable laughter. And then there were the childish pranks like sticking our fingers up our noses. That was too easy. Whole fingers would disappear. Same with sticking them in our ears. Yeah, you've got the idea. Rather neanderthal, really, but nonetheless, lots of silly fun.
Sadly the doctor was mistaken about Tim's fingernail. Shortly after the accident, he started growing one. It was gross. Terribly thick, flat, and just plain ugly with a capital "U".
Tim and I learned a few karate moves from an employee at the packing plant. When Tim would try to stiffen his fingers and go for my gut, I finally had the good sense to step aside and he rammed his index finger into a stone wall. Apparently this action produced a hair-line fracture that, over time, resulted in calcium deposits, which widened the end of his finger. But believe me, it gets even better.
In the early 70's everyone made the peace sign with two fingers. (Remember?) I got in trouble for that one in class more than once. The missing portion of my finger apparently looked too suspect and too easily mistaken for something else less "peaceful."
And during this time, our voices changed, deepened, and we grew hair in new places. Tim grew leg hair on the end of his right index finger. It was curly. Combined with the fingernail and widened end, he became particularly proud of it. He has always been eager to "point" things out. One time, a friend warned him to never point that ugly finger at him again. Well of course he did right away. The friend grabbed him by his finger, yanked, and apparently broke it. It was never splinted, and so it became a little crooked. At least that's the story he tells. (I told you it got better.)
I became a pianist/composer. I learned how to conduct music. In a conducting class in college once, I was taking my turn conducting a piece without baton. After a couple of minutes I noticed most of the class waving their hands near their laps (so as not to be seen, supposedly) with right index fingers bent. I think this must have been due to the fact that I was always quite happy to cue, point, and otherwise evoke any kind of laughter with my foreshortened finger that I could. How dare they not be serious when I was dependent on a good grade.
The few piano teachers I had were usually puzzled about "fingering." Still, I managed.
Early in our marriage, my wife at the time, announced to Tim we were coming to visit.
"Oh, that's great, we'll look forward to it!" said Tim.
But she followed with, "But, Tim, I want all those pubic hairs on your finger gone by the time I get there."
Tim, indignant, replied, "Pubic hairs!! I'll have you know that skin graft didn't come from my scrotum!"
When my children were small, they finally realized something wasn't quite right with my right hand.
"What happened here?" they asked.
"Oh, when you turn five in this family we get a butcher knife that Grandpa has and whack the end off. It's family initiation."
"Uh, uh!!" they insisted, nodding their heads widely 'no'.
"Yeah, it's true! Uncle Tim, Grandpa and Great Grandpa all have missing fingers, too!" I said.
They feigned fear. I think they inherited Uncle Tim's indomitable attitude.
"No, really, Dad, what happened?"
There is even a story about the old piano I played growing up. It was the first piano I experimented and learned how to play with my missing digit. It's amazing how we can adapt, overcome and learn.
Well, anyhoo... that's why I play piano with nine-and-a-half fingers—which leads me to the moral of this story: take my advice and listen to your mother. Don't make her take the rap for your bad behavior.
Other Music Stories and Articles
Other related articles about music and music publishing include: "Learn to Read Music in Ten Minutes," here, "DIY: Publish Your Own Sheet Music," here, "Do I Have Perfecct (Absolute) or Relative Pitch?", here, "How to Find a Sheet Music Publisher," here, "How to Write Parts for a Transposing Instrument," here, and "A Piano Parable for Christmas," here.
Here is complete list of articles and topics by Daniel Carter.