The Young Man and the Pipes – Jerry Roback Feels the Music in Vietnam

The Young Man and the Pipes – Jerry Roback Feels the Music in Vietnam
By Jerry Roback


Jerry Roback served in Vietnam in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War. Jerry has a huge heart and many stories from his time there. He continues to travel back to Vietnam to help the local people whom he fell in love with so many years ago. Brave and playful, Jerry is an inspiration to me – and one heck of a kazoo player to boot. Here’s a musical encounter he had with a boy who plays the khaen, an instrument in the harmonica family.

I don’t know where this kid came from. One minute there were a hundred kids jumping around me celebrating the hair on my arms and the look on my face, the next instant there he was, big as life standing right next to me playing his pipes. He must have been about 14 or 15 years old.  I realized that I had seen him before, hovering around the edge of the kids’ tribe watching me.  He didn’t have his pipes then. Back then, most of the adults were about 10 feet further back watching, friendly, but keeping their distance and he, like most teenagers, was in between. I couldn’t tell what he thought of anything or anybody. I just knew he was really interested in me.

It was my first day in an Ethnic Minority, Mountain People village in 41 years and yet I was quickly feeling like I was coming home. There is a straightforward quality to these people, not much subterfuge. They’re right there staring at your bald spot or your camera or watching when you slip in the mud crossing the river and laughing and pointing at you.

Laughter is both a great equalizer and a great re-assurer. I remembered this truth quickly because it has always been the experience that I have used to encourage myself to stay a little bit longer and go a little bit deeper into the strange new worlds I like dropping into from time to time. A little laughter goes a long way in those situations.

I know that if my paranoia kicks in, I’m in trouble. I won’t have the slightest idea what is going on.  I’ll think that the people are hostile or arrogant or out to get me or something like that, but with these people since I’ve been there before with them, I was giving myself more of a chance to clear my fear barrier.

Don’t get me wrong. I always try to look like I’m doing fine but the truth is that I’m not. I’m just hanging in there. The most credit that I can give myself is that I’ve learned to try to keep a part of myself out there looking for a good sign or a friendly wind to ride my way out of the scary place. This time the wind was going to be this boy. It’s just that I didn’t know it yet.

Most times it’s like that with us people. If we give each other half a chance somebody is going to help us, give us a wind to ride our way right out of whatever it is we are afraid of. If you don’t believe me or if you don’t play your part in this beautiful dance of reassurance much anymore, you need to get out into the world where the nice and friendly people live and let them remind you of how to do it and how to be it before it’s too late for all of us.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist but let’s face facts – these are times when the most courageous, valuable folks around are those with a smile on their faces and a twinkle in their eyes. The people causing all of the problems are the ones of us who don’t believe in the wind or carry the twinkle in our eyes anymore. And, believe me, I’m talking to myself on this one!

On this day, it was just about when I was beginning to wonder if I ever was going to catch a wind or even if such a wind existed when I felt this hard nudge in my side and heard this sweet sound coming into my ears. I looked down and there he was playing those beautiful pipes. I knew right away that I was going to find the wind that I was looking for.  In fact, I already knew that it had found me. I could feel it in my bones. The peace and the love of life, and the reassurance I was looking for was blowing right out of this young man’s mouth and right up into my ears through those sweet sounding pipes.  All I had to do was listen.

I was just starting to wonder where he was going to put the cigarette he was holding so that he didn’t burn himself when I noticed myself leaning in closer to him so that I could hear the music better.  I knew he wasn’t going to burn me or himself with the cigarette because it was already a part of his hand, 14 years old and it was just a part of his hand. About then I realized that the story on me was that I was simply trying to find one more thing to worry about to keep from letting go. Thank god I got over that!

By now we were really leaning into each other like two lost brothers coming home. You know how music can get you like that. Everyone around us was listening. I realized that this boy was an honored musician in the village. How young he was didn’t matter. He had earned his spot by playing the hell out of those pipes. I was moving to the music. We were leaning into one another, shoulder to shoulder. I noticed he was looking at me, looking deep into my eyes while he played. I stayed right with him, leaning in, looking deep into his eyes right back. This went on for quite a while and then he looked a question into my eyes. I believe that he answered his own question then because he looked inward, gave himself a little nod, stopped playing and walked away. I never saw him again.

I felt the music dancing around inside of me and immediately began spreading my own magic.  It was easy. I was infected. I was saved and cured all in one, and all I wanted to do was pass it around and so I did.

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