Fantasia for the Left HandPrint
By William Zinsser
October 8, 2010
Corporal Richard Mohr came into my life in the fall of 1945. World War II was long over, but we were still stuck in the Army, waiting at a camp near Naples for a promised troopship to come one day and finally bring us all home. Time passed slowly. But Dick Mohr had many time-passing talents. One was Ping-Pong. He had been a teenage Ping-Pong hustler, and that sport killed many hours in the servicemen’s club. I couldn’t believe how many of my unreturnable shots got returned.
He was also a bibliophile. Sometimes we would hitch a ride into Naples and he would go book hunting. His collector’s nose led down narrow Neapolitan streets to antiquarian bookstores that had somehow survived in the bombed and broken city. Poking among long-forgotten volumes on long-unvisited shelves, he would find one or two books that had rarity or scholarly importance, which he would buy and send home to his parents in Indianapolis.
He was also a demon typist. One day he extracted from the base commander a two-day pass—for himself and for me–in exchange for typing a tortuous military document with superhuman speed and accuracy. Dick also insisted on the loan of a jeep, and he whisked us off to Sorrento, the town longingly invoked in the song heard in every Italian restaurant. I never forgot that my miniholiday overlooking the Bay of Naples was bought by my friend’s typewriter.
After the war, married and settled in Los Angeles, Dick and his wife, Martha, founded and operated from their basement a business called International Bookfinders. Those years were a golden age of library building in America. Big state universities, especially the University of Texas, tired of not being Harvard or Yale, spent lavish sums to acquire valuable collections of books and manuscripts, and Dick knew how to gratify their dreams. He would systematically buy books that he could later form into collections around a particular author or theme. Lubricating his success were the descriptive catalogues that he wrote and typed. He was a man totally happy in his work.
In his early sixties Dick had a cerebral episode that impaired the use of his left hand. Afterward his wife gave me a list of the letters on the left-hand side of the typewriter. She asked me if I could arrange them into words that Dick might use as a recovery exercise. They were an unpromising lot, missing three of the five vowels–i, o, and u–and including q, x, and z.
I managed to quarry almost 250 words out of Martha’s list, and I sent them to Dick. But they were dismal words—no fun for a man who had been nourished by the felicities of language. Therapy could only work, I felt, if it contained an element of enjoyment.
I remembered that Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand at the request of the concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War I as a soldier in the Austrian army. A brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul used Ravel’s concerto, which is still in the classical repertory, to rebuild his smashed career. Later he also commissioned pieces for the left hand by Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss.
Inspired by that sinister body of work, I wrote my own left-hand opus–rehabilitation poetry–for my own wounded friend:
Fantasia for the Left Hand
crazed zebras craved egress
at a garage
scared bats vacated
a wet sweater starts a stagger
devastates a swagger
degraded a revered settee
a reefer dazed a referee
dabbed at a cravat
treed a deaf cat
a fezzed Arab
razzed a verger
retarded gaffer basted a stag
braggart ate a garbage bag
aged drag star
segregated a sextet
Dick Mohr never fully recovered. But my verses helped to keep us connected and amused a little longer.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.
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