The G-Note Road

In Paris in 1919, JAMES NORMAN HALL,who had served as a machine gunner in “Kitchener’s Moband later as a pursuit pilot, collaborated with his friend Charles Nordhoff in writing the official history of the Lafayette Escadrille. This was the beginning of a literary partnership unique in American letters, which produced during their twenty rears residence in Tahiti a number of notable narratives of the sea, including Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, Pitcairn’s Island, and The Hurricane. “The dream of the G-Note Road,”Hall wrote us, “is no fiction. It has had an extraordinary influence on my life from the days of my childhood.”

by JAMES NORMAN HALL

1

IN t he days of my childhood when internal-combustion engines were still a menace of the future and dirt roads were as common as motor highways are now, there was one road leading south out of my home town that I loved above any other. Like all Iowa roads of those days it remembered the old prairie; in early summer the fragrance of wild roses, geraniums, honeysuckle, sweet William, and other field flowers hung over it, and in autumn it was a narrow ribbon of scarlet and gold. I sometimes traveled this road with my father to the neighboring town of Prairie City, six miles distant. About halfway to Prairie City this southward-leading road was joined by one running west. Near the junction was a pond scarcely twenty yards wide that lay in a meadow enclosed by low green hills. Morning Sun Pond we called it, and whether it was there or not depended upon the amount of rainfall earlier in the year.

Ponds, to say nothing of lakes, were few indeed in my part of Iowa, and this one became a place of pure enchantment to me. It was fringed by willow and cottonwood trees whose clear reflections in the water gave me an inexpressible emotion: something between joy at what I actually saw and a kind of breathless expectation of something wonderful yet to be revealed. On the slope beyond was a red barn like many another dotting the landscape thereabout, but owing to its nearness to the pond it was bathed in a glamorous light that came from the water and spread its magic for a considerable distance around that particular spot..

How is one to make clear, in words, the kind of emotion that floods the heart of a child upon viewing some commonplace sight which his elders pass by with scarcely a glance? It cannot be done. All I can say is that the small green meadow with the pond in the center seemed, somehow, sacred, as though it had been set apart for all time from the world of everyday. And the road leading westward away from it was sacred as well. Sacred to me. I seemed to know that it would remain as it was, lonely, empty, untraveled, until the time came for me to make the westward turn by the pond and follow it toward some unknown destination in the direction of the rising sun.

At this same period of childhood my favorite rainy-day amusement was to stand at my mother’s piano and strike various notes along the keyboard with my ear pressed closely against the piano so that I could hear the sounds dying away. Each note had its own haunting quality and seemed to go in a predestined direction. At first they would follow streets, then roads, familiar to me in the vicinity of my home town, but soon they would enter undiscovered country toward the far north, the east, west, and south, stretching away across deserts, over mountains, through island-dotted seas, the landscapes on either side dimly seen through the glamorous haze of blue distance. The G-Note, just below the middle octave, followed the road to Prairie City, but not all the way there. At the crossroad this side of Morning Sun Pond it would turn west, traveling farther and farther in that direction until it became the mere ghost of sound, as though the faintest of the Horns of Elfland were summoning me from the further side of Silence.

It must have been around my tenth or eleventh year that I first dreamed of the road. My father had given me a bicycle for my birthday, and in the dream I was walking along a sandy stretch of the road, pushing my bike, in a fret of eagerness to reach the top of the hill where I would catch the first glimpse of Morning Sun Pond and the junction where I would turn west to explore the untraveled road that had been waiting for me all this time. I could both see and hear the G-Note, a shining golden thread, already turning there, then dying away far in the distance.

This dream repeated itself two or three times during my adolescent years, then it ceased to delight and tantalize me; in fact, it all but faded from memory until I was a young man attending Grinnell College, or Iowa College as it was then called. At Grinnell I was given my first taste of music in the high sense, and never, surely, could a youth from a small country town have been more ravished by such an experience. There was a School of Music connected with the college, and the head of it then was Professor George L. Pierce. His name will be revered and remembered by the students of my day as long as they have memories, for it was thanks largely to Professor Pierce that their lives were so filled with music.

Most of us came from small towns where our knowledge of music had been limited to school songs, church and Sunday-school hymns, and Saturdaynight band concerts. I say nothing in disparagement of such music, for I am still fond of it, but young men and women, often without realizing the fact, are ready and eager to go on from there.

At Grinnell we were privileged to do so, some as participants, some merely as auditors. My only means of participation was as a member of the men’s glee club, and if there is any experience more delightful and deeply satisfying than that of singing in chorus with other young men I would be at a loss to name it. My idea of perfect happiness would be perpelual membership in a glee club singing songs as celestial as those old songs seemed to me then. “In days of old when knights were bold . . .” “Ask if yon damask rose be sweet ... “Com-

rades, pour the wine tonight . . . “Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh . . .” “Awake! Awake, ye lords and ye ladies gay . . ,” Merely to mention the titles or fragments of first lines of some of those songs sends a shiver of delight up and down my spine, and a formidable accumulation of years topples off my shoulders as though they had never been.

Beyond the glee club heaven was that of orchestral music which I heard for the first time at Grinnell. There was a college orchestra, directed by Professor Pierce, and the string quarlet in which he played the cello; both gave concerts throughout the year, and I must by no means forget the pipe-organ music of Professors Schove and Matlack, heard daily at chapel and at the Sunday vesper service. (My debt to Professor Scheve is only a little less than that to Professor Pierce, and some day I hope to make a small payment upon it.) The vesper service was at five in the afternoon, and I doubt whether, at any college in the U.S.A., a more beautiful one could have been heard.

Then, in the spring of every year was held the May Festival when members of the Chicago or the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra visited the college for a series of concerts; and what these meant to the students of my “vintage" could not be measured in terms of words. It was at one of these concerts that I first heard Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream" music. Shortly thereafter, having reluctantly received my degree at Grinnell, I was offered employment as an agent for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in Boston.

The office and home of the Society was, and still is, on Beacon Hill, at 43 Mt. Vernon Street, and every weekday morning I would set out from there with a sheaf of blue complaint-sheets in my pocket to investigate cases of cruelty reported by the police, charitable organizations, or private individuals. This was grim work for a young man whose life up to that time had been spent in country towns of the Middle West. I knew nothing of poverty in the urban sense; I didn’t even know, except academically, that there were class distinctions in American society, but my education in Boston was rapid and convincing. Nevertheless, my job was so varied, in such close contact with human lives and problems, that I took keen interest in it. But subconsciously I must have been appalled by many of the experiences because they began to trouble my sleep. I would dream of walking up Joy Street—anything but a Joy Street in the dream knowing that when I reached 43 Mt. Vernon I would find the spindle on my desk overflowing with blue complaint-sheets reporting cases of cruelty to children, all of which would have to be investigated before nightfall. Concern as to what I would find usually worried me awake at the beginning of the dream.

2

IN the Boston of that era — the drab and hopeless purlieus of the Boston I knew best —there were many rag-and-bottle collectors, bag-coal pedlers and the like, and at all hours of the day, summer and winter, one would hear their calls: “ Regs-ahre-e-egs, bottles,” “Co-o-oal! Co-o-oal,” “So-o-oap gre-e-ase!” as they drove slowly through the tenement districts of Boston, the North End, South and East Boston, Charlestown and Roxbury. Strangely enough, some of these calls, despite their import, were beautiful to hear. I remember one lhat would make the slums of Boston vanish for me; I could imagine that I was high up in the lonely mountains of a lonely land, listening to the song of some shepherd giving perfect expression to the peace and beauty of a windless, cloudless midsummer day.

Nothing gave voice so effectively to the bitterness of existence for the poor as the cry of the bag-coal pedlers on a midwinter morning. It was one of these who carried me beyond the “complaintsheet” phase of the dream mentioned above, back to the G-Note Road of boyhood. I was tramping through dirty snow along a seemingly endless street lined with bleak rows of tenements, searching for a house I didn’t want to find; then of a sudden it was midsummer, and I was riding in the back of the coal pedler’s wagon. He was calling, not “Co-o-oal!” but “ Go-o-old! Go-o-old!" and a cloud of golden dust traveled slowly with us up the hill that would give the view, from its summit, of Morning Sun Pond. I was conscious of I he old sense of breathless expectation, and heard the G-Note dying away in the distance, far to the west.

Then the bag-coal pedler vanished with his horse and wagon and I found myself at Morning Sun Pond, transferred into a glorious lake in the midst of a forest whose magnificent trees were like those in pictures I had seen of the giant redwoods of California. Shafts of misty sunlight slanted down through their branches and lay in shining pools on the forest floor. The red barn, too, had been transformed. It was now a pavilion, a place for concerts, yet it had a Hose resemblance to the Grinned College chapel. There was a stained-glass window high in the back wall representing the figure of Christ, and beneath was the inscription: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock,”the sunlight streaming through it in shafts of green and gold, blue and crimson. In the body of the pvilion were rows of turnup seals like those of the chapel, and on one side of the orchestra platform was a grand piano, with a pipe organ set into the opposite wall.

Mrs. Chapin who had been my landlady at Grinnell-for in those days there were no dormitories; the students roomed and boarded in private houses — Was coming slowly down the center aisle, sweeping a heap of dust before her. A little girl of seven or eight whose name was Jenny stood near me, her hands clasped behind her back, looking at me with an air of earnest appeal, as much as to say: “Don’t, you see who else is here?” Then, in the dim light I observed Professor Pierce sitting in one of the aisle seats, holding his director’s baton lightly in one hand. Although the bag-coal pedler had vanished, I could still faintly hear him calling “Go-o-old!” as he traveled farther along the westward stretch of the Road. Professor Pierce smiled and nodded, indicating the dust heap that Mrs. Chapin was pushing along the aisle, as though he would say: “That’s right; it is golden, as you can see for yourself.”

Mrs. Chapin came on, sweeping slowly, not appearing to know that we were there. I knelt down to examine the dust more closely, taking it up in my cupped hands and letting it trickle through my fingers. Of a sudden I recognized it for what it was: the dust of music, of all the beautiful music that had been played or sung there in the past. I could see the tiny notes, some held together in measures and fragments of measures, some detached, gleaming with all the colors of the spectrum, as beautiful as the organisms found in a drop of pond water when examined through a microscope by lamplight, with the light reflected from the small mirror beneath.

The joy at discovering the true nature of the dust was of the purest kind, experienced only in dreams when one is living tunelessly in the stream of Time. Presently, glancing up, I saw that Professor Pierce had left the pavilion and was standing outside in the forest, beckoning with his baton. Jenny and I understood at once what he wanted. Each of us took up a double handful of dust and ran out to him. Then, at a nod from him, we threw the dust high in air. It floated up in a golden cloud, and as it passed through the shafts of sunlight we could see the notes like tiny soap bubbles with sticks to them, some separate, some in lacy festoons, forming ever changing patterns like ribbons of smoke rising in still air. His head uplifted, Professor Pierce watched them rise. He knew what symphonies, concertos, trios, quartets each fragment belonged to, and as they scraped lightly through the branches far overhead he beat time with his baton and the music came faintly down as though from heaven itself. I heard fragments of old glee club songs, but all were mere fragments stirring within me gusts of feeling that died away before I could fully recognize and enjoy them.

Professor Pierce stooped to whisper something to Jenny. She returned to the pavilion, and a moment later came running out, one arm upraised, holding between thumb and forefinger the end of a long series of measures joined together, floating out behind her and gleaming in the sunlight like a cobweb streamer. She hung it carefully over Professor Pierce’s baton outstretched to receive it. He examined it carefully, and glanced at me as though he would say: “Norman, this is especially for you”; then he wafted it gently into the air. I can still see those gossamer-like, note-bestarred threads of music floating slantwise up, and Professor Pierce, his baton poised and ready as he waited for them to strike the branches high above us. The music I then heard was that soaring passage, about two thirds of the way through the Scherzo of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” carried aloft to

. . . the starry threshold of Jove’s court
. . . where those immortal shapes
Of bright aerial spirits live ensphered
In regions mild of calm and serene air.

Never, either before or since, have I wakened from so happy a dream.

3

I WILL not venture to say hoxv many times the GNote Road has threaded its way through, or partly through, the dreams of adult years, but this has happened often enough, at widely separated intervals, to convince me of the deepness of the impression that south-and-westward-leading road and Morning Sun Pond made upon me in the far-off days of childhood. Sometimes they have appeared together, sometimes separately, and I have glimpsed one or the other in dreams that were confused and meaningless.

I wish that I had kept a record of the dreams, but unforgettable fragments remain. Once the Pond appeared in a landscape of ideal beauty. The willow and cottonwood trees had become tree ferns and banana plants. To me, there is nothing in nature more beautiful than banana leaves rocking and swaying on their long stems, whether seen in sunlight or moonlight. In this dream I saw them under the midday sun, like flames of white fire lighting up the Pond and the green glades around it. Brownskinned island children were bathing there, and I heard the voices of an unseen choir— undoubtedly, the Vesper Choir of Grinnell days — singing: —

By cool Siloam’s shady rill
How sweet the lily grows!
How sweet the breath, upon the hill,
Of Sharon’s dewy rose.

This is one of the hymns I particularly loved, at college. It belongs in a class apart with such hymns as “Oh, Master, let me walk with Thee,” “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” and “Oh, love that wilt not let me go,” never to be forgotten by those who sung them, or heard them sung, in youth.

At another time when I had been reading Thoreau’s Journals for days together, looking up all the references to be found there to the “telegraph harp” that so delighted him, the experience seems to have been filed away to be made use of years later in a dream in which I was again on the G-Note Road in wintertime, half running, half walking as I hauled my sled toward the wished-for summit. This time the sound of the G-Note was not dying away in the distance. I heard it more and more clearly and then caught up with it, imprisoned in a telegraph pole, humming, through the frozen air in the dusk of early evening, an obligato to the beautiful words of a childhood song, “Good-bye to Summer,” which have in them the very “feel” of a winter night:—

The fireside for the cricket,
The wheat-stack for the mouse,
When trembling night-winds whistle
And moan all round the house.
The frosty ways like iron
The branches plumed with snow, —
Alas! in Winter dead and dark,
Where can poor Robin go?'

One rainy autumn evening, I passed through Grinnell under circumstances that limited my stay to scarcely an hour, I stood in the darkness outside Professor Pierce’s house, my face wet with rain that might well have been tears at thought of a meeting that would have to be so woefully brief. I rang the bell and Mrs. Pierce came to the door. She was as happy to see me, I believe, as I was to see her, but there was time only for a few inadequate words of greeting. “George,” she told me, was at the chapel attending a concert of chamber music.

“Why,” I thought, as I hurried on to the campus, “have I been so foolish as to stop at Grinnell with less than an hour to spend?” Among the faculty and townspeople there remained a few old friends who had been there in my student days, and a full week of evenings would not have sufficed for the pleasure of seeing them once more. I passed the library where the lighted windows beckoned as temptingly as they had years ago. There would be no familiar faces in the reading room, but many a familiar back would I have found in the stack room. I longed for broad margins of leisure for searching them out once more. I wanted to take down, handle and thumb through the identical volumes I had read there, with such deep pleasure, in the old days.

Going on to the chapel I mounted the steps, tiptoed across the vestibule, and looked in. The audience was small; not half the seats were occupied. I soon discovered Professor Pierce; he was sitting in his well-remembered listening, enjoying attitude, one arm resting lightly along the back of a vacant chair. The quartet was in the midst of a number and I could all but see the golden dust of music drifting down from the vaulted roof, powdering his head and shoulders and those of the other listeners. My heart ached with the longing to steal quietly in and take the empty seat beside him. If I lost this chance, who could say when another would come? But . . . could I disturb him at such a moment, knowing that I had time for no more than a few words of greeting and farewell? Better no meeting at all than one so poignantly brief.

As I stood there, half listening, half dreaming, I heard the G-Note as though coming from an infinite distance. Professor Pierce heard it, too; it must have been so, for when I reached Morning Sun Pond I found him awaiting me a little way within the border of the forest. We were out of the world of change and decay. The pavilion, the great trees that sheltered it, the shining lake — everything was just as it had been and would always be. I heard the soaring passage from the Scherzo of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and glancing toward the pavilion, I saw Jenny running toward us through shafts of misty sunlight, holding aloft another gossamer-like, note-bestarred streamer from Mrs. Chapin’s dust pile.