Originally published in the 9/1/17 print edition of Yellowstone County News.
Some 30 years later, I had an older gentleman passing by the Yellowstone County News’ booth at the MontanaFair when he was looking at the TV screen with a business card on it that had the name of Jonathan McNiven on it.
He stopped dead in his tracks and then said to me, “Jonathan McNiven? Are you Jonathan McNiven?”
I quickly responded with my hand outstretched as to shake his, “Well, it depends,” jokingly I said with a smile.
He said, while he shook my hand, “I taught you how to play the harmonica a long time ago when you were a little boy at the Billings Night Rodeo when you were about 8-9 years old at the Ramada Inn off Mullowney Lane.”
I immediately said, “Dick Hatfield?” with a question in my voice. He said, “Yes, I am Dick Hatfield.”
I burst out loud with excitement and said, “Wow, you also gave me the harmonica and told me to go play.” I continued telling him, “You taught me the scale and the song ‘Oh Susanna,” which he acknowledged and confirmed. (It was all when I helped my dad at a young age with the wagon rides.)
I asked, “Do you know how many times I’ve played the harmonica since then and what I’ve learned over the years?”
He responded, “No, how many?”
I continued to tell him that since he gave me the harmonica and showed me the basics, I’ve learned the harmonica well enough to play many songs and teach others as well. His kind gesture about 30 years ago helped me have a sense of accomplishment and worth as I used that harmonica to soothe my own soul and entertain others.
I sincerely thanked him for taking the time to show me the basics on the harmonica and then giving me an instrument of my own to start with.
Since then, I’ve learned to play the harmonica on my own and sometimes, I took my older brother’s harmonica to play and learn. I ended up getting a bigger harmonica when I was in Arizona before my mission, and I took that harmonica on my LDS mission to Panama, where I shared my talent with countless people. I carried it everywhere I went on my mission.
When I came back from my LDS mission in 2001, I continued to play the harmonica when occasions presented themselves.
When I got married and eventually moved back to Montana to help my parents with their western adventure company called Western Romance Company, I would teach about 7-10 people each cowboy cookout the same song and scale that Dick Hatfield taught me when I was young.
After the cowboy cookout segment, then I would say, “Now go play” and give them the harmonicas.
I’ve probably given out 350 harmonicas since then while also teaching others to play. I’ve gone to church girls’ camps, other community events, and just recently in July, took my Scout Troop 319 to K-M Scout Camp and taught the scouts all how to play the harmonica. I gave all the scouts a harmonica as well and we played a song for our skit at the end of scout camp.
I’ve had some kids and adults come back and show me that they’ve taken to learning more of the harmonica and now can play the instrument even better.
That conversation I had with Dick Hatfield at the 2017 MontanaFair was one of my most memorable experiences where I was able to finally thank the person who took the time to teach me some 30 years ago and helped me initiate my talents. As he was in his 80s, I did not think I’d ever have the opportunity to thank Dick Hatfield from Laurel, Montana for what he had done for me. I even pulled out my harmonica at the fair and started playing it for him.
And to that point, don’t forget to thank those who help you along the way as it takes a lot of time, patience, dedication and sometimes money to teach and educate.
Until then, see you in the paper.
Jonathan writes a bi-weekly column in the Yellowstone County News called “McNiven’s Meanderings” as well as leads the production, operations and sales aspects of Yellowstone County News busienss.