When I was little (say, six years old) my mom decided that I should learn "proper" dance. First she tried me in a ballet class, but the classical ballet positions hurt my ankles (warning of things to come) and I didn't like them. So then she enrolled me in a Modern Dance class taught at the local Y. The lady who ran the class was named Marjorie Mazia, and I heard the name mentioned so often around the Y that I remembered it.

Sometimes Ms. Mazia would have a musician come in to play for the class. He didn't play piano, as I'd expected, but 6-string guitar. He also didn't play Classical music but folk-tunes, lively little kids' songs that little kids couldn't resist dancing to. He was short and skinny, had bushy black hair and peculiar eyes; in shadow they seemed indeterminate dark, but in the light they were distinctly silver. I'd never seen silver eyes before, so I remembered them.

I was the smallest kid in the dance class, so of course I got picked on. Ms. Mazia didn't notice a lot of the bullying, but the little silver-eyed man with the guitar always did. When the other kids started picking on me, he'd play a lively tune and the other kids would leave off bullying me to go and dance instead. I was exceedingly grateful to that little silver-eyed man and his songs.

Eventually Mom decided that I'd learned enough Modern Dance to be fashionable, so she took me out of the dance class and sent me off to the Brownies instead. After that it was piano lessons (which I was never good at; the keyboard just wasn't my instrument), and then ballroom dancing, and fashion school, and so on.

Unfortunately for Mom's plans to make me a Proper Lady, I fell in love with folkmusic. After years of trying to make me give up "that awful cowboy music", Mom eventually relented and bought me a guitar -- which I took to like a duck to water. I also began studying folkmusic seriously, working my way through the local library and music stores, and learning to play and sing the songs I discovered.

Inevitably, studying American folkmusic, I came across the name of Woody Guthrie. I read his biography ("Bound For Glory" -- definitely an American classic), I heard Folkways recordings of his singing, and collected books of his songs. Eventually I came across a collection of his children's songs, and that's when the revelation began. I *recognized* those songs; I'd heard them ten years before, if only I could remember where. Then I came to the last page in the book, which mentioned that for recording permissions for the songs one should write to... Marjorie Mazia, address following.

So that's who the little silver-eyed man had been.

Well, after all he'd done for me when I was an undersized picked-on kid -- never mind his contribution to American folkmusic -- I thought I should go and thank him.

It took me a lot of searching to discover just where Woody Guthrie was: in Kings County Hospital, New York City -- dying of Huntington's Chorea. I researched the hospital -- typical New York county hospital for the indigent -- and the disease -- hereditary, progressive, and incurable -- then took my guitar and a satchel-full of songs and hopped on the bus to New York City.

Since I lived in a town right next door to Newark, New Jersey, at the time, it took about an hour to ride into NYC and then another hour on the subway to reach Kings County Hospital, and then another half-hour searching and asking the nurses before I found the ward that Mr. Guthrie lived on. There I went, sobered by the sights of the typical New York county hospital for the indigent and realizing that it could have been a helluva lot worse, until I reached the right ward. There an attendant replied to my question: "Oh yes, everybody knows Woody. He had another guest with a guitar in here just last month. He's out on the sun-porch, that way." **Just last month?* I wondered, as I made my way toward the sun-porch. **Nobody more often than once a month?*

Out on the sun-porch were some steel-and-plastic lounge-chairs, and on one of them lay an emaciated man with gray -- bushy -- hair, apparently asleep. The hair was right, save for the color, but I couldn't recognize anything else, not even from his photographs. I stepped up and asked politely: "Woody Guthrie?" The emaciated man twitched, sat up, and opened his eyes.

His eyes were silver. That's when I recognized him.

So I sat down on a facing chair and told him who I was, where I'd first met him, why I had reason to be grateful to him, and about how I'd come to be a folksinger. He listened, watching keenly. I could see the clear intelligence in his eyes -- and I could also see how badly the disease had ravaged him. He twitched constantly. He had to pin his right hand under his thigh to keep it from twitching up and hitting himself in the face. He couldn't speak, except to nod roughly for "yes", grunt for "no", and point roughly -- with his left hand -- for whatever he wanted. I struggled to pick up hints, guess, try to understand. He'd point, and I'd ask: "What do you want? Is it this?" And he'd either grunt "no" or nod "yes". We managed to communicate that way. I sang the minor-key version of his "Pastures of Plenty" and asked him if he liked it, and he nodded "yes" and managed a twitchy smile. I sang half a dozen of his songs, then switched to songs of my own, and he liked those too. I stayed until closing time, when the orderly came and told me that I had to leave. Woody managed to lever himself to his feet, took my hand and led me down to the door -- staggering, obviously struggling to keep upright. At the door he managed to control his right hand long enough to clasp my hand in both of his, then stepped away and waved goodbye. I waved back, and the door closed between us. I took a step toward the stairs, and then heard the thump as his muscle-control gave way and he fell against the other side of the door, and I realized what that brief walk and handshake had cost him.

I went home, thought for a long while, and determined to go back again -- which I did, every weekend that I could get away to New York -- up until the time I left for college. I did what I could for him; got him a toy typewriter that could be operated with one hand, but he couldn't even use that. I wrote a letter to SING OUT!, asking folkies to come visit Woody and let him know what his music meant to them, but Ms. Mazia wrote another letter saying not to visit -- primarily because she didn't want contemporary folkies to see how badly ravaged he was. No matter what, I visited whenever I could: told him news of the folkmusic scene, sang his songs and my songs, and struggled to communicate with him.

And a weird thing happened; striving to understand him, to reach the still-keen mind under the disease, I sharpened my psychic talent. I got to where he could point in a general direction and I'd get him whatever it was he wanted, without having to wait for the "yes/no" signal. It went beyond that; he could make a vague motion with his workable hand, and I understood which song he wanted or which piece of news, and I'd give it to him. And yes, he understood what was happening; once he pointed to his forehead, then to mine, and grinned -- and I told him everything I knew about psychic phenomena, and he smiled again. He knew.

Nonetheless, he got steadily weaker. When I went away to college and could only come see him during vacations, I could see the disease progressing. He lost the ability to stand, then to sit up, then he lost control of his left arm too. He was dying, and we both knew it. At the end, he could communicate only by rolling his eyes -- and by psychic means.

Finally, at the beginning of my second year in college, I saw a newspaper headline announcing that Woody Guthrie, famous American folksinger, had died two days previously. There was a memorial service planned, but there was no way I could get to it. So I held my own private service; I turned off the lights, lit a candle, and played all of his songs that I knew -- one after the other. It was dawn when I finished.

I was just putting down my guitar when my cat wandered into the room, looked up at me and gave a plaintive "Meow?" -- and I knew what the cat meant. That's when I knew that Woody's other gift was still with me.

This is why I claim that I was initiated into the Bardic Order, American branch, by Woody Guthrie.

--Leslie <;)))><