Franz Schubert: (The Witch King)

So for today’s piece, I have chosen a little piece by Schubert, which I know you have heard. It’s been used in so many films and cartoons that the second you hear it, you will recognize it. It is called, “The Witch King”, and starts out with a driving rhythm of ominous and dark sounding sounding chords. In the bass line, a short, deep and portentuous melody gives the piece a wonderful sense of foreboding. This piece is the perfect accompaniment for a film where some chase takes place on a moor in the driving rain. Or, in my case, when some stupid adolescent drives his car into a tree.

When I was 16, I got my driver’s license. That marked the beginning of my independence from my parents. My mother had a black 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, that she let me use in the evening and on the weekends, and I have always enjoyed getting in a car and just driving to see where the road takes me. Perhaps that is the great metaphor of my life. The journey seems more important than the actual arrival at some distant goal. You find so many interesting things along the way. If you’re a closet Buddhist, being in a car is the perfect analogy for living in the here and now. It is an opportunity to be mindful and present in the moment.

When I was in Indiana last week, I took a drive past the former house of my best friend from high school, Gary Endicott. He lived in a small house on the edge of a pretty heft chunk of farm land that had belonged to his grandfather. The house sat a about a half mile in from the Mishawaka hills. These rose up at the south end of town quite abruptly and from then on the geography was flat farmland all the way down to about Kokomo.

I used to go to Gary’s often to either study with him on week nights or to pick him up on weekends for our drinking binges. The way to his house was a familiar one for me as Gary lived not far from my maternal grandmother and my Uncle Walt who took care of her. I would have to drive over the St. Joseph River, through the town center of Mishawaka, which had been a quaint little manufacturing town in the early part of the century, and then up Main Street to the south side of town, through Belgian town. There I would turn right on Dragoon Trail and soon take a road that forked off to the left up into the hills. Where the two roads diverged, my successful first cousin John Pairitz lived at the top of the hill in a wonderful modern house he had designed. The road took a grand, sweeping curve up to the left and where it leveled off, there stood Gary’s house. Across the street was a ramshackle barn that housed a small saw mill which still served the farmers who lived in the area.

One day, perhaps while riding with Gary, I found there was another route up to his house. Instead of turning on to Dragoon, if I drove about a quarter of a mile and then turned right, another winding road snaked up the hill past wonderfully upscale houses that lie tucked away in the hardwood forest that covered the hill. This road came emerged from the trees and then went by a few more posh houses before coming out a few yards South of Gary’s. During my senior year in high school, I used to take this road more often because a girl whom I had a crush on, Harriet Schroeder, lived on it.

I also liked this road because it was fun to drive. The winding curves presented a challenge and made me feel a bit like a race car driver in my little four speed bug. And that almost led to my undoing.

One rainy summer weekend evening, my friend Paul Mankowski called me up to go out drinking. He had a friend named Dave Baker whose parents had a big, hulking Chevrolet station wagon. “Road Party!” Paul said and I was in. We loved to get a case of beer, climb into a big boat of a car, and then drive around in the countryside until about two in the morning. (Sometimes we didn’t always drink. I remember once going out to the country to watch a meteor shower and another time lying on the roof of my Volkswagen watching the aurora borealis, one year when it came so far south you could see it in Northern Indiana.)

On the night in question, we picked up Endicott. Time has made me forget what we did that night, but I distinctly remember dropping Gary off at his house. When we started off toward home, I told them we should take the alternate route. “It has a great hill!” “Yeah,” said Paul, who knew the road as well. Unfortunately Dave didn’t. At the top of the hill, we yelled “Gun it,” and Dave took off. At the first curve, Dave lost control on the wet road and the car went sailing into the wood and hit a tree head on. I was sitting in the back seat and was hurtled forward, hit the seat with my left hip and flew over and landed in Paul’s lap. The pain at first was sharp and blinding. We all checked each other. Dave’s head had hit the windshield and he had a gash in his forehead and his nose was swollen. Paul had managed to block his impact somehow and was unscathed. He left us and ran back to the Endicott’s to get help.

An ambulance soon arrived and packed Dave and me off to the hospital. My parents met us there and were greatly relieved when the X-rays showed no broken bones. When quizzed about how it happened, we only told them that Dave didn’t know the road and had lost control on the wet pavement. We omitted the fact that we had told Dave to gun the car and had done it for the thrill of it.

Did I learn my lesson? No. After my aches and pains went away by the middle of the next week, I was back in my Volkswagen, driving like a mad man. One night, I went to Dave’s house to see the car, which Paul told me had been towed back to his parents’ house. I hopped in my car and drove so fast I almost lost control driving around a familiar curve in the road not far from my house. When I got to Dave’s I was amazed to see the car. The front of the car was in the shape of a huge “Vee” where the tree had pushed the bumper almost up to the windshield. The engine had traveled downward and bent the frame, which now almost touched the ground under the driver’s seat. Inside the back of the driver’s seat, which was one continuous piece, was bent forward into a vee shape from the impact of my body hitting it.

What amazes me now is my attitude toward the whole episode. I thought it was “cool.” I drew no lesson from it. It did not scare me. In fact, I was glad it had happened: it gave me wonderful bragging rights at school. I regaled many a captive audience at school with my account of it. And What’s more it gave me an injury, that I could make the most of. I though it would be cool to have a bad back for the rest of my life, which I could tell people came from an accident in my youth.

Cars and youth. When my daughters neared their teens years later, I started to cringe. What would happen if they turned out as wild as I was! In the prosperous Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC where I lived, alcohol was the drug of choice among high school students–it was available, and most kid thought “my parents do it too, so who are they to say?”

I’m happy to say, my daughters are 27and 25now and made it through those years quite well. Maybe because they turned out not to be big classical music fans.

Schubert Bio

Download MP3 of “Erlkönig” (The Erl-King)

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Franz Schubert: (The Witch King)

  1. kvennarad says:

    Appreciated the story.

    I have to say I prefer ‘Erlkönig’ as a Kammerstück, as in the linked video, because I love the bare bones of the piano part. Actually, the linked recording does not have the balance between piano and voice right, in my opinion.


  2. XperDunn says:

    I love this stuff. “Hall of the Mountain King”, “Night on Bare Mountain”,Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in g minor”, 1812 Overture, Katchaturian’s “Sabre Dance”–in the ages before electrical amps and steel strings, many composers shot for the moon, excitement-wise–and the thrill of these pieces is undeniable….

    Liked by 1 person

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