Thursday, June 7, 2018

Over the Fields under Bile Karpaty, John Derhak

This is a story of unexpected encounters, with a little jazz, one hot potato, a dash of stealth, and a promise kept.



Damn Kozak! Let it be said how we met: spring, 1988, that’s when—but how? At a jazz symposium in Mikulov, a picturesque town in the Pálava Hills of Moravia, in Czech wine country. Mikulov sits atop a hill that offers a nice view of the countryside and distant White Carpathian Mountains. The town, I was told, is known for three things: its castle; Rabbi Loew, the man who people say created of the golem of Prague; and lastly, jazz legend Karel Krautgartner. With regard to the latter, the symposium was for him and his legacy, and my college jazz band was there to perform his music. Our band director, Bud Howard, had finagled a spot on the first day program through a State Department grant.
The concerts were held in a grand hall within the castle. After our performance—we played three Krautgartner numbers from his old days at the Hotel Passage in Brno—I was approached by an unassuming, small-framed, dark-haired fellow in a baggy navy blue suit carrying a shoebox under his arm. He appeared from stage left as we all packed our gear and congratulated me on my solo during one of the songs. He acted like we were acquainted and casually handed me the shoebox, and said, “This you must take for me.” His English was sharp and so was he. The scent of stale tobacco, sweat, and pilsner wafted about him.
Confused and unsure what to make of it, I replied, “A gift?”
He lifted the lid of the box to reveal a short stack of sheet music. He smiled then, showing teeth stained the color of dandelions. “You are the nephew of a man named Porter Gibson?”
“How did you …?”
“Good. It means yes,” he nodded. “We are friends—he knew my grandmother. In fact, they were very dear friends in the war years. Please give him the music. Its original scores and charts used by Krautgartner. The annotations are in his hand. Your uncle will understand. He has an ear for such things.”
“I don’t understand?” I said, even more confused now. “Uncle Porter is a very old man.”
“And a very wise one,” he added, “Helped our cause.”
I looked down at the stack of music. “Who shall I say it is from?”
“This one,” he picked up the top piece of sheet music, folded it neatly into the shelf of my saxophone case and closed the lid. “This one I wrote for him. A very special work of art you must give him personally—promise! Tell him it’s written for Viola.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the crowded hall and tensed up. “I must go now.”
“Who are you, again?”
“I am Kozak,” he whispered.
“I promise,” I said, but he had disappeared stage right amongst a crowd of horn players. Curious, I lifted the stack out of the box. The top sheet was a Krautgartner standard, “Out of a Blue Sky.” I thumbed through a few more sheets and came upon, “31 Degrees Above Zero.”
“Where did you get that?” I looked up. A balding man with a roundish face and sagging jowls stood before me. Actually, his head was shaped more like a warped onion. He had crazy, beady eyes on me and the music. “May I,” he said. He didn’t ask. He just reached for it.
In those days, much like these days, I didn’t like strange people prying into my business nor pawing at me and my crap—even if said crap had only been mine for sixty seconds or so. I moved quickly enough, dropped the stack of papers to my side, just as he swiped at them. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“I’ll take that,” a voice behind me said. 
I turned right into him, his chest that is, me and the sheet music. He was taller than Onion Head—by half a foot—and even uglier—in a sloping forehead-flat-nosed gorilla kind of way. He was also shaped like one—wide, thick, bulging shoulders with arms hanging to his knees—hands ready to squeeze my neck like a banana. “Take what?” I asked innocently.
“This,” the gorilla said. Lucky for my neck, he placed his hand on my left shoulder, felt for a spot before it came to rest. My good fortune, again, as I am right handed. I heard him grunt, which partially muted my shoulder when he popped it—out and then back in—place. The pain down my arm was instantaneous and excruciating, and I spontaneously released the music into the ape’s free hand. 
“Interpol,” Onion Head said. I turned back. My eyes watered. A badge, blurred and unfocused, was inches from my nose. “We are your friends, young man.”
“You don’t seem that friendly,” I gasped in pain.
“Egon,” he addressed the gorilla. “Return the music to this misguided youth.”
Seeing as I was suddenly mono-plegic and felt nothing but a thousand scalding needles piercing the length of my arm, I couldn’t have gripped my dick to shake the piss out of it let alone hold that music. I shook my head, and good old Egon agreed to hold on to it for me.
“Wise choice,” Onion Head said. “How do you know the man? Why give you this music?”
I almost replied, “Which man?” until Egon began to raise his klobasa-sized fingers toward my right shoulder. Instead, I shook my head slowly and said, “I don’t know him, never saw him before.” Still, Egon’s hand came to rest on my right shoulder. “He said it was a gift, the music.”
“A gift! Ha! The music is stolen property.”
“What!”
 “We could take you in as an accomplice, you know.”
“I swear I never laid eyes on the man before, let alone the music.” I could have blathered on about the sheet of music in my sax case, too, but remembered how Kozak mentioned Uncle Porter, and my stupid promise. “You gotta believe me,” I pleaded. “I’m just here for music, beer, and castles.”
“Mr. Bagwell?” It was Bud Howard. “Excuse me gentlemen,” he said to Onion Head and Egon, “but we need to finish up here.”
“Interpol,” Onion Head said, “Inspector Blázen,” and held up his badge long enough for Professor Howard not to read a word. “This young man came into possession of stolen property, quite innocently I might add.”
“Dear God, Bagwell!” he exclaimed. “What have you gotten us into?”
“But professor … I didn’t … did nothing …,” I stammered.
“He is correct, Professor,” he said. Egon held up the sheet music for Professor Howard. “It’s a small archive of original Krautgartner music. Book and manuscript thieves—likely gypsies. We followed a suspect here, saw him approach this young man minutes after your performance. Our first thoughts were Mr. Bagwell was his associate or buyer, but we see now that he was a tool, a distraction to escape and a sure way to smuggle the archive out of the Czech.”
“What do you mean by that, Inspector?” asked Professor Howard.
“For our thief, this gypsy, would surely come calling for his property once this boy had transported it safely out of the country. It would not have ended like a fairy tale, I assure you.”
Professor Howard sighed deeply. “Then it’s fortunate you arrived when you did.”
“Yes, most fortunate.”
“We are good to go, Inspector?” he asked. Onion Head nodded. “And nothing will be filed that may reflect unfavorably on him or our group?” Onion Head nodded again. “That’s a relief.”
Professor Howard looked at me. Either he was oblivious or content with the narrative as presented. Later, I would find out how wrong I was, but then he simply said, “Excellent,” much relieved. “Pack her up, Mr. Bagwell,” he added, and pat my back.
“Yes sir,” I winced.
“What’s wrong?” he asked me.
My eyes caught Egon’s. A grimace spread across his face—or maybe a smile—I couldn’t tell the difference. He flexed his fingers for show and raised a brow. There was no reason to convince me. “I jammed my shoulder coming out of the toilet,” I lied. “It popped.”
“Hmm,” Professor Howard said. “We’ll have a look at that tomorrow in Prague. Now, pack your sax with your good arm. We must get off the stage. Gentlemen,” he nodded and walked away.
“Yes, we all must go,” Onion Head said. “Come Egon.”
“What about my arm?” I whispered in agony.
“Do not trouble yourself. Egon is an expert. You’ll regain the use of your arm.” He cracked a grin slowly. “They always do.”
I did. About a week later. Admittedly, Bud Howard was as perplexed as most were about how I managed to dislocate my shoulder in a castle shitter. But I felt fortunate to get out of there and away from Onion Head and Egon. As fortunate as I felt that I wiped with my right hand. They were not Interpol, I reckoned. Truth be told, I had no idea what they were. My only hope was I’d never see them again. I could not help wonder why Professor Howard would tell those two where we were going, either. We had performed in Prague two days earlier. Our next stop was Vienna. After that show, my saxophone was stolen, which only added to my misery. We filed a report with the police, who offered mild hope of ever seeing the thing again, and blamed gypsies. The following morning we boarded a plane to return to the US of A and I kissed my sax goodbye.
A day after we returned to campus Professor Howard called me to his office. “We need to talk,” he said. I figured that was going to be that with my collegiate music “career.” I had always enjoyed playing the instrument, but was moving on that June. The truth was, I knew my limitations as a musician. In fact, I had wondered why I had even soloed in Mikulov. I was happy to have my chance, but I had never soloed before.
As I lumbered across campus I thought of Kozak and the sheet music he had tucked in my case. After we reached Vienna I had placed it in my luggage and forgot about it. It was a nonsensical piece entitled, “Over the Fields Under Bílé Karpaty.” An atonal mishmash of notes only a family of swine herders could dance to. I should have tossed for all the trouble, but I made a promise to give it to Uncle Porter. Maybe it would mean something more to him? A reference to Kozak’s grandmother? Who the hell knew? At that moment I was standing before Professor Howard’s door and knocked.
“Come in,” he shouted through the door. I entered and was greeted by Professor Howard. Two men in dark grey suits were in the office sitting opposite his desk in hardback chairs. They had matching red polyester power ties, pulled tightly into Windsor knots that seemed to make their heads swell. Each stood to greet me. “This is Mr. Hertz and Mr. Smith,” he said. “Gentlemen, meet my sax man—Porter Gibson Bagwell—Gibson for short.” Their hands were soft and fleshy and reminded me of yanking a cow’s udder as I shook them. “Grab a chair, Gibson, have a seat.”
I obeyed and sat in front of Professor Howard’s desk. The suits sat on my left and right—studied me in silence like a toad under a glass. Moments passed. Finally, Professor Howard spoke. “These men are from the State Department, Gibson. The Department, you recall, sponsored our recent trip.”
Each man nodded as though they had personally financed it. Then, more silence, before Mr. Smith spoke. “Professor Howard informs us there was an incident with Interpol in Mikulov—with an Inspector Blázen and another man.”
“Yes,” I replied, “but there was no incident, Mr. Smith. They confronted me about some sheet music that had just been handed to me by a complete stranger. Stolen they said, from somewhere. I knew nothing about it.”
“Why you?” Mr. Hertz asked, like he was cross-examining me. He wore squared black-rimmed glasses that sat high on the bridge of his nose. I mention that because, though he sat next to me, it gave the effect of him looking down on me when he spoke. “Can you explain that at least?”
“Actually, I can’t,” I said defensively.
“You can’t or you won’t?” he replied.
“What do you mean by that?” I said.
“What he means,” Mr. Smith said gently, “is that you were in great danger. Interpol does not operate in Czechoslovakia and ‘Blázen’ is a Czech word for fool, which it appears you were very much playing the part of.”
I thought of Onion Head’s beady eyes. Even more, in my mind’s eye I saw Egon’s klobasa-sized fingers around my throat, and shuddered.
“The truth is that man was looking for you,” said Mr. Smith, “to give you information to give to us via Professor Howard. That’s why you soloed, for him to recognize you.”
“Look kid,” said Hertz in a more conciliatory tone, “what that man had was important to us—very important—and now they have it.”
“Wait—you guys actually collect Krautgartner original manuscripts?” I asked.
All three men burst out laughing.
“You could say that the message was in his music,” laughed Mr. Smith.
I didn’t get the joke, but I figured they knew more than what they were willing to say, but then again, so did I.
As I left the office, I had no idea what Mr. Smith meant by ‘the message was in his music.’ I came to realize that weekend he was referring to “Over the Fields Under Bílé Karpaty.” That’s what Uncle Porter explained to me, after I gave him the music from Kozak. “It’s all code, nephew,” he said. “Proof of a botched air raid and air battle over the White Carpathians during the war—suppressed for 44 years—an entire squadron wiped out, 540 civilians killed. The people who wanted this­—Blázen, Hertz, Smith—want it for one reason—to spin the history. Control the past then you control the future, my boy—and profit on it today. In the trade they call it perception management. I’ll make sure this tune gets played.”
I mentioned the name Viola then, as Kozak had said. Uncle Porter quieted suddenly—whispered her name. His eyes watered and he dabbed them with his big hands. I got a big bear hug from him, and he said he needed to think. That was my cue to take a hike. In time, I’d come to know more about the woman named Viola, how much a part of his story she was, but, like everything else about my namesake, that was another chapter from another story. This one’s about how I met Kozak, dammit—and what he’d let out of the box that day when he handed me the music.

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