When I was about 6 years old, I started taking piano lessons. It was tough: My hands were too small, my feet couldn’t reach the pedals, and I was only being taught finger exercises and scales. One day, in the midst of my dramatic frustration, my dad told me not to worry; he would teach me a real song. As a little girl, you always think your dad can do anything and everything, but even then, I remember thinking he was joking, but it was worth a shot. I scooted over for him. As he sat next to me on the bench, with his bad knee extended and huge hands on the keys, he looked at me and told me he would teach me the most important song in the whole world, the only song I’d ever need to know — and, of course, it was his favorite.
I watched as he poked at the keys, one finger at a time, jumping from key to key, hitting wrong notes in between and trying to match the notes to the words he was singing. When he was done, he told me I didn’t need big hands or the pedals, just one finger and the sound of the song. If I could remember the words, I would always be able to figure it out. And I did. I didn’t memorize the keys, or where his hands went. I just memorized him. The words he sang, the motions, his face, his happiness.
And it was then that I learned my first song on the piano.
The “Marines’ Hymn.” With just one finger. Singing words I couldn’t pronounce or understand. But nonetheless, a song. A song that he was proud to teach. And a song even a child felt proud to play.
As I got older, I taught myself how to actually play the song with more than just one finger. It was the only song I ever learned without sheet music. And it’s the only song, at the end of the day, that somehow sounds better with just one finger and a few off-keys.
Maybe that’s just because of my memories of him, or that I realized that whether you’re playing a song perfectly or a few notes wrong, it is still the same song when you listen with your heart.
As a 6-year-old, so much was over my head at the time, of course I liked the song because he did, and he looked funny poking at the keys. But as I remember sitting next to him, in my long unkempt braids, I can actually hear and feel it. He was the song. A wounded gunshot leg that couldn’t bend underneath the piano, a broken heart from losing his fellow soldiers, callused and swollen hands too big for a single piano key, deep scars decorating his body, and yet he still dedicated every ounce of himself to fight for the right and freedom. To help others. In every aspect of life. Even if that meant simply teaching his 6-year-old daughter the hymn of a soldier, the value to pursue. A song she might never comprehend.
Everything he did, big or small, no matter being off-key, he found as an opportunity to prevail, to enlighten, to give and to always do better. He believed in fighting, serving and giving for the love of his country. For the love of God.
And a hymn like that is indeed the most important song in the whole world.
After many years of piano lessons and different teachers, I believe my dad was the only one who truly taught me how to play. He taught me, even if you can’t reach the notes, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be played.
His favorite and last verse of the hymn, he said I would one day understand and smile: “… If the Army and Navy ever look on heaven’s scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by the United States Marines.”
I know he enjoyed the good-willed humor behind that line, but now it’s actually a bit fitting. I imagine my dad playing the piano with one finger, doing what he loves, protecting the gates of heaven and serving his community … forever and always. For once a Marine, always a Marine. They say a Marine never dies but is only promoted. And in that case, I think that he got one hell of a promotion.
If you knew my father, you would know that Veterans Day was one of his favorites. You would also know he is probably heartbroken to not be hosting a party this year. These parties were a part of who he was and who he continues to be: a proud United States Marine. He loved serving the community. He loved meeting new people. But above all, he loved God and his country. And hosting these celebrations gave him the opportunity to share that love.
So on behalf of my father, Sgt. Kevin P. Kennedy, USMC 1964-1969, I would like to wish the Marine Corps a very happy birthday. And to all of our service men and women, with us and before us, a very happy and blessed Veterans Day.
“Land of the free, because of the brave.”
Mary-Ellen Kennedy of Lincoln grew up in North Platte. She is an investigative photographer in the Omaha area.