“Caught in the Act,” Friend, June 2007, 20–22
William’s heart beat a little faster. He knew it was wrong to tease the old blind shoemaker, but at the same time, it was exciting being out after dark with his friends. Even the fear of getting caught was not enough to make him turn back. William watched as the kerosene lamps were turned low inside the houses that lined the main street of their small town. The lights flickered and went out, but in one house a lamp continued to burn.
Wilhelm Dithmer sat on his front porch playing his clarinet.
William reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of pebbles. His bare feet padded quietly through the dirt along the side of the road, and he and his friends approached the house that was Wilhelm Dithmer’s home and shoe shop.
William let his small stones fly and watched as the man jumped at the sound of the rocks raining above his head onto the tin roof.
“Stop! Come back!” Wilhelm stood and waved his fist into the air.
The boys laughed and darted away. “See you tomorrow,” William called to his friends as he headed for home.
In the light of early morning, William lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. The thrill seeking of the night before was haunting in daylight. What was it his father had said about the shoemaker—something about him going blind because he had the measles when he was a boy? And had he really been an orphan in Denmark?
The day seemed longer to William than usual. What was this uncomfortable feeling? Still, after school he agreed to meet with his friends again that night.
As he crept up the street watching for the lights to dim, William heard the sounds of Wilhelm’s clarinet. The melody was high and mournful. William stopped a moment to listen. Every night, Wilhelm closed up the shoe shop and then sat on his porch to play his music. It had become almost a ritual, but tonight the notes ended abruptly. William listened, but the only noise was the croaking of the bullfrogs.
William drew back his arm to throw the stones in his hand, but suddenly someone grabbed his arm.
“Help!” William cried, but the other boys ran away. “Let me go!” William struggled to loose himself from Wilhelm’s grasp.
“I only want to show you something,” Wilhelm said.
William stopped squirming, curious why the man did not scold him or call out for the authorities. “What?” William asked.
“I want to play a song for you on my clarinet,” Wilhelm said. “But first, promise me that you will not run away.”
William didn’t know what to say. “I guess,” he said at last.
“No,” Wilhelm said. “Promise.”
“All right,” William said. “I promise.”
Wilhelm relaxed his hold. He led William to his front porch and sat down in his chair. William watched as Wilhelm took a deep breath and began to play his clarinet. The melody lifted soft and sweet into the night air.
William sat still and listened. What must it have been like to grow up alone in Copenhagen? How hard would it be to lose both a father and a mother? He couldn’t imagine leaving his home and traveling across the ocean by himself to a strange land where no one understood the language he spoke. All the heartache of Wilhelm’s life seemed to be played out in the notes that came from the clarinet.
Wilhelm finished. He placed the clarinet across his knees and waited for William to respond, but the boy was silent.
“What is your name?” Wilhelm asked.
William hesitated. He wanted to reach out and touch the clarinet, but if he told the man his name, he would surely get into trouble. Still, there were not many musical instruments in the town.
“My name is William,” he said. “Almost like yours.”
“Well then, William,” Wilhelm said with his strong Danish accent. “Would you like me to teach you how to play my clarinet?”
“You would teach me how to play?” William asked.
“I will teach you to play my clarinet. If you practice very hard and learn to play well, I may even help you buy one of these for yourself. Maybe we could start a band.”
“A real band?” William asked. “Like the ones that play at dances?” This wasn’t at all what he had expected.
Wilhelm nodded. “But you must stop raining pebbles on my roof. And you must come every day after school to practice.”
William did learn to play, and so did his friends. They played for high school dances. They played when the town put on their Christmas plays. They played in the outdoor pavilion on warm summer nights. Long after their school days ended, the band stayed together.
For years, Wilhelm gave free music lessons in the evening after working all day in his shop. When Wilhelm died, many of his students played music at his funeral. William, now a grown man, was one of them.
When Wilhelm Michael Dithmer was a boy, a serious case of the measles left him blind. Soon after that he was orphaned. The only thing he owned was his father’s clarinet. He sat on street corners in Copenhagen, Denmark, and played the clarinet, hoping to stay alive from the money that people would give him. One generous person decided to send Wilhelm to school, and after that, Wilhelm converted to the gospel and immigrated to America. He settled in Utah and gave free music lessons to generations of boys. Wilhelm died in 1916, and at his funeral it was said of him, “There was neither father, mother, sister, brother, wife, nor child to mourn Wilhelm’s passing. However, no man ever had more friends.”