Dragons and Violins is the story of George Edgar, born in Persia at a time of terrible violence against Assyrian Christians. His family escaped to Russia, then Constantinople, and finally to the United States on July 4th, 1921. In World War II, he helped build assault bridges from Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, his life unfolding against the backdrop of monumental events. But despite all obstacles, nothing deterred him from his one true dream - to become a violinist.
The author of the book is David A. Armstrong, George’s grandson. Like Not Even My Name by Thea Halo and The Crimson Field by Rosie Malek-Yonan, Dragons and Violins also covers the tragic events of the genocide of 1914.
In the introduction of the book, David writes:
"Chicago, 1956 - I HAVE ONLY one photograph of the occasion, yet the image shows me many things. With it and the imagination my grandfather nurtured in me, I can relive as if I were there the important evening in the sweltering summer of 1956 when he performed a violin solo at Orchestra Hall with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the conservatory’s summer season opening concert. His performance of Mozart’s “Concerto in A Major for Violin and Orchestra” was the culmination of an intense, region-wide competition, one for which he had practiced ceaselessly for months, the kind of accomplishment he had set his heart on for four decades at least-since the time when he had been a small boy in Persia, the son of a skilled Assyrian craftsman who made tars, the long-necked Persian lutes whose sound bowls are covered with lambskin.
My grandfather was born a musician and throughout a life of huge challenge and high adventure-one in which he repeatedly struggled to survive-it was the violin and the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn that fascinated him, moved him, and to which he brought his colossal persistence and dedication. Born near the salt-encrusted shore of Lake Urmia in far northwestern Persia-a place that today is part of Iran-my grandfather traveled with his family on foot and by train to Russia to escape the slaughter of Assyrian, Armenian and Pontic Greek Christians by marauding Kurds and Turks, endured the famine that presaged the Russian revolution, saved his mother from rape at the hands of a tsarist soldier, then, miraculously, escaped with her to teeming Constantinople, now Istanbul, where they awaited visas that eventually would allow them to sail to the United States.
Born Sargis Georges Yadgar, my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island on July 4th, 1921, and he long since had become a citizen with the Americanized name of George Edgar—as well as an aspiring Olympic gymnast and aeronautical engineer—when he and his fellow combat engineers came ashore at Normandy’s Utah Beach four days after D-Day, then fought all the way to the outskirts of Berlin. He had become a captain and been awarded a Bronze Star for bravery by the time he returned home to Chicago where his wife Ann and a daughter he had yet to meet—my mother—eagerly awaited him. He would live seven decades longer, immensely productive years during which he would father a son, help design and develop the microwave oven, infrared scopes for the military, as well as a host of other technological advances, co-establish the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra and play in its violin section for thirty years—and became the person in all the world to whom I foremost turned for friendship, adventure, solace, support, and, most importantly, love.
Yet it was his treasure trove of stories from the first extraordinary decades of his life to which I clung. The stories from those years were the tales I longed to hear again and again as a boy, tales into which I could escape from my own troubled childhood.
After everything he survived, it was far from Poppy’s most violent account, nor was it his most heroic, but the story of the evening when he performed a violin solo with members of the Chicago Symphony was his favorite tale. He had set out to prove to himself and to others that he was a musician of the very first rank, and had practiced far into every night in order to be ready for the competition he ultimately won. Even decades later, I would be soothed into sleep by the sounds of my grandfather practicing his violin until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, the pleasure he took from the music and the striving for perfection distracting him from bed.
In the photograph I keep on my desk at home, my grandfather is dressed in black tuxedo trousers, a white dinner jacket, and a black bow tie. His dark hair is cropped short on the sides, and his 1950s-era glasses frame his expressive eyes. I wasn’t with him that evening, of course, and my twelve-year-old mother and my grandmother were seated high in the mezzanine, each of them nervously waiting for the concert to begin. But it’s Dragons & Violins certain that Poppy wasn’t anxious as he waited offstage. Somehow, in the difficult and adventurous life that led up to that moment, he had learned how to vanquish fear and replace it with steady-handed resolve and the strictest sort of discipline.
I can see in my mind’s eye the steely focus his face must have conveyed when the orchestra’s conductor brought him on stage, and I can watch him walk into the spotlights of the great concert hall with the same athletic stride he still exhibited as his years waned half a lifetime later in California. He had survived extraordinary trials in nearly a dozen countries in reaching that Chicago stage. This impoverished and largely abandoned son of an Assyrian lute maker had proven himself a remarkable man along the way and was about to prove to himself in the moments to come that he was indeed a violinist.
With my grandfather’s support and guidance, I grew up to be a successful director and cinematographer working in Hollywood while he remained in nearby Santa Barbara. I was wise enough over the years to bring a camera along on many of my regular visits, and, over time, I amassed dozens of hours of videotape of him describing his life and adventures, something he did with the clarity of memory and precision of expression that he brought to every other endeavor.
What follows on these pages is the story of my grandfather’s early life, as he told it—and in his voice. Although he is gone now, I’m renewed each time I hear him describe his first decades, years in which he was intimately linked to some of the twentieth century’s most monumental events, a life that began quite precariously inside a barn, his mother and a cow in a nearby stall both laboring and giving birth at precisely the same moment, while gunfire flashed all around them in a harsh land torn apart by war."
You may read the first chapter of the book or for more information visit www.dragonsandviolins.com.
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