Reunion strikes sweet note

Discovery: An accordion teacher and his long-lost favorite student meet again after 55 years, thanks to a classified ad.

July 01, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

What do you say after 55 years? Hi? What's up? Did you bring your accordion?

"What I did was give him a big hug, and I said, `Thank God!' " says Larry Micucci.

"I didn't remember him, I'm sorry to say. But it's coming back to me," says Joe Szymanski.

Micucci and Szymanski, together again, teacher and student, lunching on the rainbow trout under the eaves of art at Haussner's Restaurant. It's all coming back to them now -- their story. And their story is about $2 accordion lessons in Fells Point 55 years ago and a $15 classified ad in The Sun this June.

"Joe, you tell it. You're a better storyteller," Micucci says at Haussner's on Tuesday. Micucci, 78, is nearly too excited to talk anyway. ("I've been looking for this young fellow for years!"). Go ahead, Joe, tell the story.

"I was raised three blocks from here, the 200 block of Elwood Avenue," says 65-year-old Szymanski, who now lives in Pasadena, Calif. His mom, he says, used to give him a quarter to buy a pie at Haussner's.

Enticed by a door-to-door salesman in 1944, his mom also went for an offer of free accordion lessons at Joe Lopez's music shop at Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Mrs. Szymanski signed up her 10-year-old son, Joe, who dreamed of playing that cool trumpet.

What kid wants to lug around a 15-pound bellowing box only to play "Lady of Spain"? Too bad, son -- you're taking accordion lessons. Even if the 5-foot-2 mom had to cart that thing to Joe Lopez's every week -- which Mrs. Szymanski did.

"Oh, I remember," says Micucci, who taught the accordion at Lopez's. And he remembers the young, then blond-headed Szymanski. "He was a terrific student. He paid attention, and he practiced!"

He taught Joe the old standbys, "Lady of Spain," "Maria Marie," and, of course, "Tico, Tico" -- the equivalent of a garage band learning "Louie Louie." Micucci, who drove 65 miles to be here from his home near York, remembers it very clearly. Teachers do remember their favorite students.

At this point, Micucci is carrying the story for them both.

"Now, I remember something," Szymanski says, "I remember your forehead was moist. Maybe it was the Baltimore humidity or my playing." Laughs all around the table. "I do remember you taught patience. And if you made a mistake, you weren't scolded."

But after two years, the blond-headed boy quit his lessons. They interfered with baseball at Patterson Park.

The connection between student and teacher was lost. They didn't keep in touch.

They would forget each other's last names. And Micucci would come to believe that his favorite student had passed away. Other accordion players had told him so.

"I better not ask anymore," he thought to himself. Too sad to think about it. "I had looked for him for so long. "

Szymanski simply grew up and out of Baltimore. He did keep playing the accordion -- he just had a feel for it -- and recalls college days at UCLA, where, "If I got down or depressed about studies, I'd play my accordion."

Want to see a former teacher beam? Look at Larry Micucci sitting on Joe's left side at Haussner's.

"That instrument," Micucci says, "is the instrument of good health!"

Enter Andy Musser, a long-time pal of Joe's and, sports fans, play-by-play announcer for baseball's Philadelphia Phillies. Here, in person at Haussner's, Musser tosses in his own Joe Story.

"We were in Korea together," Musser says, "and went out one night to a nightclub to see a show and have a few beers." Well, Joe gets up to use the bathroom. He's gone for a very long time. Musser orders another beer. Where is that guy?

"Then the curtain rises, and he's in the show playing the accordion."

Across the table, Micucci looks like he just won the Powerball lottery. "He had more nerve than I did," the teacher says of his student.

So, here we are, 1999. Szymanski, a fine art appraiser and owner of nine accordions, comes to Baltimore this month to visit his mother and 93-year-old father. This past Sunday afternoon, Joe flips through a copy of The Sun from the previous Sunday. He was going to turn on the tube but instead picks through the classified section.

Look at this: Accordion for Sale. Szymanski, who never stopped playing and loving the accordion, is always in the market for another one.

At 4 p.m., Szymanski calls the listed number and leaves a message. At 8 p.m., an older man's voice calls him back. The strangers get talking about accordions and living in Baltimore and how Joe took lessons at Joe Lopez's a half-century ago.

Gong.

"Are you Joe Szymanski?" Yes. "I taught you the accordion," Micucci tells him on the phone. We must get together. How about Haussner's at 12: 30 Tuesday? Perfect. Back to the old neighborhood. Then Joe had a thought: Why not bring my accordion and surprise my old teacher with a song at Haussner's? Too perfect.

But Szymanski got cold feet -- we're not in Korea anymore. So, he just waited in the lobby at Haussner's, waiting on a teacher he wouldn't recognize until the rainbow trout would arrive at their table. Until Musser would tell his Korea story. Until Micucci's wife, Rose, would tell a story about her sister having a crush on Joe. It seems that Joe also took lessons at Micucci's home. Larry and Rose were courting at the time. But that's another story.

"I'm going to tell everybody at this table," Micucci says, "this is God's way of showing you don't give up."

Micucci never got around to talking about selling his accordion. All through lunch, he would reach for Szymanski's arm to hold and touch, as if to make sure he's real after all these years of wondering what happened to his favorite student. The connection had been so thin for so long. But not anymore. The teacher could feel his student here once again.

Larry, it really is Joe.

Pub Date: 7/01/99

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