The Story of the Sword
John Dawson Winter
I especially want to thank Miss Suzanne O’Brien who found a sword that once belonged to my father. I’m not sure of the exact circumstances, but I understand she found it at an auction, and must have gone to some trouble and expense. It was a very thoughtful and honorable act of kindness to return it to the Winter family, where it belongs. Here is a little history on the sword, and our family, that may help you understand just how much it means to me.
As a young boy, I naturally idolized my father. He fought overseas in World War II–as a colonel in the infantry–and though I was born at the end of the war and was too young to know much about it, I do remember his attending Army Reserve meetings. I used to love to see him dressed up in his uniform with all the insignias and medals. Man, did he look cool!
The sword was presented to him at VMI (Virginia Military Institute), and I remember a picture of him wearing it at graduation. I was proud of my father’s military service. I looked up to him as a hero, and still do, to this day.
When I was little, the house had a huge old attic. It was dark and mysterious, and could only be entered through a trap door, with stairs that folded down from the ceiling. As a little kid, going up stairs that were normally never there through an almost invisible door in the ceiling was cool enough, in itself; but there were also creepy corners, and cobwebs, and rickety rafters, and an awesome attic fan (with a humongous motor and blades as big as an airplane propeller) that could shake the whole house with a wind like a hurricane. Who knew what secret treasures might be up there, just waiting to be explored and discovered!
I used to beg my parents, “PLEASE, let me go up in the attic to play.” They said it was too dirty and dangerous up there, which, of course, made me want to go even more! When I look back on it now, it reminds me of these books my mother used to read to me called The Chronicles of Narnia. These were stories written by C.S. Lewis, in which some children are playing “hide and seek” in a strange old house where one of them decides to hide in a massive old wardrobe, back behind all the clothes, and then discovers that it goes on–forever and ever–into a magic land called Narnia. Well, that’s the way I used to feel about the old attic!
So, I suppose you can all guess what I found up there–at least one thing, anyway. Of course, my father’s old VMI sword: with it’s silver blade and his name embossed in gold, rusting away … a little sad, but so beautiful. (I also found his old alto sax up there. But that was years later, and another story perhaps I’ll get around to telling, someday).
Anyway, I fell in love with that old sword! It was light and slender, being a dress sword for show and not for fighting. It had a metal scabbard that hooked to my belt, and it made a great (swoosh) sound as it was drawn from it’s sheath. It was just perfect for a little kid to wave around like Zorro, or one of the Three Musketeers, or perhaps a dashing young southern gentleman in the cavalry.
As time went on, I forgot about the sword. I guess I outgrew it, along with the simple spirit of adventure it represented when I was young. It died a quiet, unnoticed death … like so many childhood dreams.
Some years later, my parents decided to renovate the old attic, to expand the house and create a new family room. I remember pretending to have a sore throat, so I could stay home from school and watch the carpenters at work. Like Narnia, the old attic was turning into a new magic land, just as I had always hoped, only in a completely different way. The carpenters were building a stairway to a whole new world: a grown-up world I couldn’t even begin to imagine, back then. It was fascinating to watch them put in the new stairs–stairs that would always be there, from then on–so solid, so dependable, so real. Like all grown-up stuff, they would always go exactly where you expected them to. They were there, for good. But … where would they lead?
They did, in fact, lead to a kind of magic land, just as I had always dreamed, but not exactly how I had imagined. At the very top of the stairs was a door that opened into a space we called the Big Room. This soon became the center of activity in the house. The piano was moved from the old living room downstairs, up to the big room; and so began the slow decline and eventual death of the “so called” living room.
To me, this was somehow … sad. I still loved the living room, because it had so many beautiful things in it. But, it soon became populated with furniture too good to play around or sit on. It was regarded more in reverence, and reserved mainly for company and special occasions.
This feeling, however, was far overshadowed by the excitement over the new Upstairs! The big room also became the new music room. It was where my brother Johnny and I could have band practice, and make all the noise we wanted. This was the new magic and sense of freedom that would change my life forever! Johnny and I started learning how to play real music in the big room.
Of course, it’s true we had always played instruments like ukulele, piano, acoustic guitar, and marimba for years; but now, we were able to play electric guitar, electric piano, organ, and even drums. I suspect our parents built the big room in order to keep us from driving them crazy! I honestly can’t imagine how they were able to stand all the noise we used to make.
Of course, being young, I was oblivious to this at the time–but now, I can fully appreciate what this meant to our musical development. It definitely demonstrated true parental love, encouragement, and support. And I feel certain that neither Johnny or I could have been the musicians we became without this understanding and sacrifice on the part of our parents. I do remember, as the bands became bigger and louder, we eventually moved out to the garage for rehearsals, adding our names to the long list of the first garage bands in rock ‘n’ roll history.
There was also another area opposite and behind the stairs called the Back Room. Up ’til that time, Johnny and I had slept in the same room together, as far back as I can remember. We were closer than anyone could possibly imagine. It was almost as though we were two different people, but living the one same life. We did everything together. But now, suddenly we had more space, and I was starting to develop different interests. So, I started to take over the back room. It was where I kept all my toys: the model airplanes I built and flew with my father, erector sets, science and chemistry stuff, hi-fi, radio, electronics, and a small part of the family’s gun collection.
Eventually, my mother’s father, Edgar Holland, who’s name I bear, decided to build a cabinet to hold most of the guns, and the collection increased dramatically. Also, in the cabinet, was a space for two swords; my father’s VMI, and a much older, heavier looking cavalry sword, who’s story I never learned.
So, my old friend “the sword” was back! I hadn’t seen it for years. It must have lain in some dark corner, forgotten and neglected all that time. I had moved on to other toys. I had my father’s Colt 45 army automatic, and a German Luger from the war. And now, I had the old sword back, too! I took it out and tried to clean it up, but the silver had rusted entirely away in places, and I knew it would never be the same. I felt guilty for not having taken better care of it. But, at least, now, I had it back–and it was in a safe place where I would never lose it again, I thought. But, of course, time marches on. I grew up and moved away. My father died in 2001, and my mother finally decided to sell the old house. And that could have been
– THE END –
But Wait! Fate had another surprise in store. My band and I were playing B.B. Kings in New York City, and we had all been invited by Hiram Bullock and Will Lee to catch their late set at a club called “Chicago Blues”. I was staying over to rehearse with Hiram’s band for a Japanese tour we were doing together. We were all excited to hear their band, which was incredible! There had been a rumour going around that I might be sitting in, so I thought it would be fun to show up and play.
We all met during their break, just before the final set, and someone mentioned that there was a lady who had been looking for me all night. Thinking it was just another fan who wanted to meet me, I showed no interest, until they said she had a sword. And then, I remembered. There had been something on the web site about someone finding a sword that apparently belonged to my father.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I met Miss Suzanne O’Brien, and she handed me “The Sword”. It seemed so strange and incongruous, almost surreal to see it in such surroundings. She said, “Look, it even has your father’s name right on the blade!” For all she knew, I was not familiar with it, or wouldn’t remember it, or had never even seen it before. I didn’t know what to say.
So, at a loss for words, I just nodded and said, “Yeap, that’s the sword, alright.” She urged me to accept it as a gift, and take it then and there. But, I was going to Japan, and my wife, Monique, was flying out to join me, there. So, I asked if Suzanne could make arrangements to get it to us on our return.
We have all heard it said that, God moves in mysterious ways. And it is strange how fate works, sometimes. Monique and I thought long and hard over the final disposition of the sword, and finally came to a decision. After my father died, and my mother finally decided to sell the old house, she donated much of what she would no longer need or use to charity, and made arrangements with various museums for other possessions and family heirlooms. This is indicative of her character, being at the same time noble, generous, sensible, intelligent, and appropriate, as well. After much consideration about the eventual fate of the sword, Monique and I realized … perhaps there is a great lesson to be learned from my mother.
So, in honor of her example, the sword now resides at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. It has found its final resting place, at last. Now, it is home. And just in case you think I might have forgotten the sword again over the years, I’d like you to hear a song I wrote for my father some time ago, while he was still very much alive and well.
I was touring with Leon Russell at the time, and we got to talking about our early years. I was reflecting on my childhood–back to the time when, as a young boy, I so idealized my father as a soldier and a hero.
When I think of him this way, I still visualize him as he was in that VMI graduation picture: a young cadet in full dress uniform, with the sword. It was so much more colorful, and less warlike than army khaki. And so, it was that image that inspired me to write this song. Monique always loved it, and gave me the idea of putting it on the internet, both in honor of my father, and to express our deep appreciation to Suzanne for her memorable gift. Monique wanted to share this with you all, so here it is.
Peace Is Marching On
There was a war my daddy fought
A soldier in the infantry
And way back then when I was young I thought
That’s just what I would like to be
Oh, that big parade, and all that gold braid
It was really quite a show
I was old enough to remember then
But still too young to know
He said, boy, don’t get the wrong idea
‘Bout a soldier or a gun
Though many battles we have fought
The war is not yet won
Now, as banners fly, over towers high
We defend the peace below
I was old enough to understand
But still too young to know
He said, son, as you grow older
Many lessons you will learn
To make this world a better place
When it finally comes your turn
Now, with the missles aimed
And all the targets named
And nowhere else to go
I hope you’re old enough to understand
And wise enough to know
We all want peace and freedom
So together we can grow
There’s just one world for all of us
By now, I hope we know
I believe we know
If we can love instead of hate
You know it’s not too late
If we can trust instead of fear
You know the time is here
I believe we know
For those who took a stand
For the freedom of the land
(Peace is marching on)
Every nation great and small
I want’a say it to you all
(Peace is marching on)
To the heros brave and true
I dedicate this song to you
(Peace is marching on)
To the soldiers brave and strong
Can you help us sing this song
(Peace is marching on)
I believe for everyone
That the time for peace has come
Oh-oh, yes it has