The New Guys always jumped when they heard that Howitzer go off for the first time. From the echoes that bounced off the surrounding hills, one might think that the thing had fired an actual shell, perhaps impacting one of the houses down on Faculty Road, or taking out the Alumni Gymnasium, pool and all. Everyone knew it was a blank, though, fired at Retreat to signal the lowering of the flag at Third Mess formation, every evening in the warm months of fall and spring. It was one of those long-standing yet dubious traditions carried on by the Corps of Cadets at New York Military Academy.
Cadet Captain C.J. Briggs heard it, but neither he nor anyone under his command in “A” Company jumped. In fact, he wasn’t even at his post on the quadrangle; he and the other members of the Academy Band and Chorus had been excused from formation to prepare for tonight’s Spring Concert. Only the bugler whose notes pierced the dwindling sunlight as the flag came down was absent as Briggs sat uneasily on the steps of Davis Chapel inside the old Academic Building. The band members milled about inside the chapel, most of them up on stage rigging their instruments and stands, with the chorus sitting quietly in the wooden pews up front, leaving the senior cadet captain alone on the carpeted landing.
It felt like a long
wait, listening to the notes of To The Colors and the shouted commands of the
cadet officers as they marched their units into the mess hall. He read through
the program again, seeing his own name on the left, and the words,
“Ludwig van Beethoven – Für Elise” directly opposite. This was not what he had wanted, but there it was. The only way MAJ Furgini would agree to let him play, and interrupt his own carefully prepared program, was to agree to perform this banal and clichéd bit of classical fluff. Every eight-year-old kid, he thought, plays this piece at his first recital, and now, for my last concert, I’ve got to sit there and play it for the whole Corps.
She arrived just as he was about to toss the program off the balcony. Even the ill-fitting and formal classroom uniform could not diminish her beauty in his eyes; seeing her walk delicately up the steps and turn toward him, her honey-colored hair tied neatly behind her head, her deep brown eyes gazing up at him longingly, gave him a sensation brighter and more colorful than the narrow sunbeams shining through the chapel’s stained-glass windows.
He stood to greet her at the top step, ushering her to the center of the landing where they sat together on a bench beneath an imposing iron chandelier. He took her by the hand and kissed her lightly; she smiled and brushed her other hand above his ear. “Are you going to do it?” she asked.
He looked deep into her eyes and replied, “I don’t think so.”
Lowering her gaze for a moment, she nodded her head and said, “I understand.”
“It’s not fair, Laura,” he said. “This is my last concert, and yours too. But Furgini wants the whole thing to be cheerful and happy. He says it’s his concert, and my song is too sad and depressing and he won’t let me play it.”
“So you’re going to sit there and insult yourself and play ‘Für Elise’ instead.”
“What else can I do?” he implored, not really expecting an answer. “I want to play, after all; I’ve never played for the whole Corps before.”
“But you don’t want to play that,” she said. “Why don’t you just play what you want? The hell with Furgini.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’ll play it for you after the concert, I promise. Colonel Gallo lent me his key, so we can get back into the chapel if they lock it up.”
“Well,” she began, “I guess it’ll be allright.”
“Sure. I wrote it for you; at least you’ll get to hear it. And at least we’ll be alone…” She laughed and he joined in, just as they both heard heavy, rapid footsteps approaching up the steps.
“Mister Cadet Liberace!” the diminutive, gray-haired figure called out, causing the two young cadets to immediately snap to attention. “Miss Taylor,” he muttered, dismissing her presence like that of a lowly stranger, then turning back to Briggs. “Your personal activities can wait until later, cadet,” he said, “would you be good enough to get inside and warm up the chorus?”
“Major Furgini,” he said, as respectfully as he could though his disgust at the man’s presence was hard to hide, “the concert isn’t until nineteen-thirty hours. I thought we were going to warm up at nineteen-hundred.”
Furgini took on an exasperated look, turned away for a moment and sighed loudly. “Cadet, I am tired of arguing with you. If you wish to be excluded from the concert, you may consider yourself dismissed. I want the chorus warmed up now, to practice the Cole Porter number. Now are you still the OIC of the chorus?”
Briggs felt his heart sink. He was tired of arguing with the pushy, small-minded old bandmaster as well, but as much as he disliked the man, as much distaste as he had for the music Furgini had chosen for the concert, and as much disappointment he felt at not being allowed to play the song he’d written for Laura, the first song he’d ever written, the song he wanted to share with the whole world, he could still not bring himself to perform his first act of defiance against authority in nearly four years as a cadet at NYMA. He swallowed hard and said, “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” said the major, walking away briskly. “And while you’re at it, Liberace, why don’t you practice ‘Für Elise’ a few times; I didn’t want any piano solo in my program in the first place.”
Laura stepped close to Briggs as Furgini passed through the heavy doors and began shouting instructions to his band. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “He’s such a bastard,” she said quietly, hoping he couldn’t hear her at such a distance.
“I hate how he keeps saying that,” Briggs muttered angrily.
“Why do you let him call you ‘Liberace?’”
“He’s got a stupid nickname like that for everybody. He calls Coach McMillen ‘the Ayatollah’ because I went to baseball practice instead of chorus.” Briggs took hold of her hand once again and lowered his voice. “I’m sorry.”
She kissed him tenderly and whispered, “I’ll see you after the concert,” then turned and hurried down the steps. Rather than watch her exit the building, Briggs adjusted his gray service jacket and burgundy sash as he walked confidently into the chapel, ignoring Furgini’s derisive words and taking his place in front of the chorus. Just a few more hours, he thought, that’s all. Just a little while longer.
The applause by now was tepid as the Corps of Cadets, faculty, staff, parents and guests had listened to the band and chorus for nearly two hours. Even the performers themselves were tired, and there were four selections to go. Briggs thought for a moment that Furgini might forego his piano solo and proceed to Irving Berlin, and that was fine with him. From his position in front of the chorus on the right of the stage, he could see the wearied faces of his fellow cadets who clearly were not enjoying the show as much as Furgini appeared to be. Many of the little “G” Company boys in the front rows had already fallen asleep.
The bandmaster strutted center-stage and took an exaggerated bow as Briggs waited for him to make eye contact and signal his intention to skip the piano solo, but it never came. “And now,” Furgini announced to the crowd, “we will have a special appearance by the great Liberace,” turning toward Briggs who glared back coolly at the major’s brazen public use of the despised nickname. He turned and walked around the huge black concert grand, sitting before the keyboard and waiting for Furgini to finish his announcement, but apparently that was all he had to say; the crowd fell silent and Furgini made an exaggerated motion toward Briggs, prodding the young captain to begin.
The silence seemed deafening. He reached for the keys and placed his right foot near the damper pedal, his leg bobbing up and down uncontrollably in nervous apprehension. He took a deep breath as he stared down at the keyboard, then gazed out into the audience. He could feel the crowd’s impatience growing with each passing moment; the tall stained-glass windows on the walls, the thick wooden beams traversing the stuccoed ceiling, the heat and glare of the spotlight, and of Furgini himself, all bore down on him with an intensity greater than any fastball he had faced in a game.
Then he saw her, for a split second, out of the corner of his eye. She was standing alongside one of the pews, near the back of the chapel. The bright lights trained on him had concealed all but her silhouette, but somehow he could still see her face. Everyone else disappeared. His apprehension faded away. Adjusting his hands above the ivories, he began to play.
The notes rose from the body of the great instrument and flowed over the crowd, but they were not the notes of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Furgini did a double-take and glared down at Briggs, wide-eyed, from the stage. Would he say something? Would he stop the concert? No one knew. No one cared. The cadets in Furgini’s band watched and smiled as if to say, Way to go, C.J.
Briggs closed his eyes and let his fingers find the music. The introduction passed and he began to sing. Even without a microphone, his voice filled the vast space inside the room. He sang the words he had written for her, of how much she had meant to him, of how much he would miss her after their impending graduation. He sang from the depths of his heart and his soul, as his music soared into the rafters and spilled out into the halls and onto the campus.
Up on stage, the clearly annoyed Furgini turned away from Briggs, trying to keep his anger in check and fix his eyes on anything but the defiant chorus leader. As the song ended, the crowd’s applause filled Briggs’ ears and the band gave him a standing ovation, but only one response mattered to him. He looked to the rear of the chapel and tried to find her again, but apparently she’d sat down and was now lost in the crowd. Without waving or smiling to the audience, he closed the lid on the old concert grand and stood up, austerely taking his place once again in front of the chorus.
Furgini, his voice reaching its accustomed heights of smugness and self-importance, quickly drew attention back to himself and his band, without even glancing in Briggs’ direction. “The members of the band and I have worked especially hard on this next selection…” The audience once again seemed indifferent, checking their watches as they ticked past 2130 hours.
Briggs felt only a tinge of regret as the concert continued. He knew he’d hear it from Furgini sooner or later; either that or he’d never speak to him again. Some of his friends would probably give him a hard time about his heretofore unknown and unseen musical talent. Either way, it didn’t matter. Only one thing did, and she was sitting somewhere in the crowd. Somehow he knew she had the same thoughts on her mind as he did. Somehow he knew that after the last note had been played, and those iron chandeliers had gone out, she would be waiting for him.
* * *