The band was in high spirits. It had been another fine performance—one of many given as a part of a three-day journey east to Aix-les-Bains. Sol would have enjoyed it more if the rest of the 15th Regiment had been there to hear it, but they were now many miles away, stuck in St. Nazaire, still swinging their pickaxes and pushing their wheelbarrows. No, this trip was for the band, and for the band alone.
While the regiment had been sorry to see them leave, Colonel Hayward sincerely believed the band was the key to getting the regiment out of labour and into action. All they had to do was impress the right people.
So far, they had played in railway stations and public squares for French civilians, all of whom had become contagious with joy for this strange new brand of American music called ragtime. When they'd played at the opera house in Nantes, the place was packed to bursting, and each song had barely ended before the crowd erupted in rapturous applause.
Tonight's show, however, was a much more private affair in a small chateau high in the hills. It had been organised as a last-minute surprise for General Kernan—a stern looking man with short white hair and a bushy moustache—but his austere demeanour melted away at once when the music began.
Lieutenant Europe led them through their usual set of songs, all to a great response. But once their set was over, the General was still not satiated and started making requests.
"I have never heard such wonderful music as yours!" he told them once he finally allowed them to finish. "You may not carry guns and grenades, but the instruments in your hands and what you can do with them is in my mind just as important.
"I understand you are going to Aix-les-Bains to entertain the troops on leave. This is very important work, but I am not talking about simple entertainment. The territory through which you are to pass, no American soldier has yet stepped foot. Whatever impression you leave upon the minds of the French population, so will rest the reputation of all American soldiers, and that of our great nation. Fortunately, I can think of no greater impression to leave upon them than that of your music.
"There is another truth, however, that I wish to impress upon you. I am talking about colour.
"Frankly, I do not care what colour you are. You are American men; you wear American uniforms; you are American soldiers. But it is a sad fact that not all Americans share this sentiment.
"In France, however, there is no colour line. You boys are not just representing your nation; you are representing your race. I beg you, do not give the people of this country any cause to draw a line like the one we have back home. Forge a reputation which will put an end to such a line before it can ever be imagined. The eyes of France are on you, gentlemen, and through those eyes, the rest of the world will see."
There was a brief pause before Lieutenant Europe saluted, and Sol and every other band member joined him at once. Sol thought he already understood the importance of what they were doing, but the General's words had hammered it home and hammered it deep.
He knew it was the same for every man standing with him.
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* Next chapter this weekend * Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a si...