'Guess who's coming to Wiesbaden? Jose Iturbi!'' My sergeant and some of our platoon were talking as I walked into my barracks near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1955. The famed pianist, conductor, and recording celebrity would be arriving to play at a nearby military hospital the next day. ''They say he pays all the expenses.... He's playing for free, and just for the military. I wish I could be there,'' someone said. I listened silently, sitting on my bunk.
I remembered meeting Iturbi as a California teenager. His sister, Amparo Iturbi, taught piano to a few gifted students. One was my friend Marco, who took me to meet her one day. While we visited, Jose arrived - charming, smiling - but under his sister's careful eye.
''He is my inspiration,'' Amparo said to me when she saw my face ignite with excitement. A year later, I heard him say, ''She is my inspiration,'' motioning to Amparo as they sat down to play a duet on her two beautiful pianos.
On New Year's Eve, they invited me to a party they gave at her home. I sat quietly in a corner as glorious music poured out all night long. Singers sang, and pianists and a violinist played. All of them were world-famous artists, doing what they loved: performing for each other.
''Thank you'' seemed so inadequate a comment to the brother and sister as they stood at the door until I drove away.
I glanced at the calendar on the barracks wall. I had 24 hours to do something. I pushed hard to get a pass and took the train to Wiesbaden the next day. I left a message at the hotel Iturbi was staying at. Would he remember me? When I called back, I was whisked up to his suite where he embraced me as an old friend. ''He hardly knows me,'' I thought, ''and look how nice he is to me.'' He wanted me to stay with him until the concert. We talked a while. Then he said, ''It is time for my nap, but you must stay. Only a few minutes. Read something, perhaps?''
He took a towel from the bathroom of his huge suite, laid it carefully on a high-backed chair, and rested his head on it. He looked up at me, embarrassed and shy for a moment. I remembered a story I had heard about him and his sister, two children climbing up out of poverty through scholarships to study piano in Paris, always together. ''I don't want to stain the chair,'' he murmured as he fell asleep. Here he was, in his own suite, with the world at his feet, still remembering not to harm someone else's property. I was filled with a sense of the power of true modesty.
A phone rang. The car was here. The limo was packed with the famous and important.
''I'll meet you there,'' I suggested.
''No, we will make room,'' Iturbi said, and a lieutenant colonel was helped out to make room for this freshly minted corporal in civilian dress. The car raced to the hospital auditorium. Iturbi took my hand and led me through a waiting crowd to the stage door.
Backstage was filled with ''stars,'' generals, celebrities, VIPs. And me. To my embarrassment, someone introduced me as Jose Iturbi's personal assistant.
''Quick!'' someone said. ''Maestro Iturbi wants to see you.''
I ran over to him. He was shaking, sweat pouring down his face. ''Please, can you move the piano for me? It's in the wrong position.'' He explained where he wanted the huge concert grand. I stepped out on stage to scattered applause, followed by the crowd's groans of disappointment. It wasn't Iturbi.
I pushed and shoved. But the piano wouldn't budge. The audience roared with laughter. Finally, a mighty push and the piano shot across the stage floor and raced into the curtains on the other side. More laughter and applause. I saw Iturbi frowning. He motioned me to his side.
''Wrong. It's all wrong.'' He was very unhappy, but not about the piano. It was because the first 10 rows were filled with military officers and their wives. Wheelchair cases were far in the back. ''I didn't come to play for them,'' he said pointing at the colonels and generals and city officials taking up the best seats.
I spoke to an official-looking man who went out and told the VIPs to give up their seats to the patients because, ''Mr. Iturbi's personal manager has said he will not allow Mr. Iturbi to play if you all don't move.'' They did get up and move, and grateful military patients took those seats. We all found out where these displaced, illustrious ones had gone when I was asked to pull a curtain open and grabbed the wrong cord. The backdrop curtain lifted to reveal them all hiding behind it. The audience roared again.
Iturbi was now ready to go on. Wiping his head with a towel, still shaking in fear, he said, ''I'm always this way before I go on,'' and smiled, as if to apologize. I thought of him doing a charity event for military patients in a little auditorium in the middle of nowhere, yet shaking like a leaf.
''It doesn't matter,'' Iturbi said, looking out at the packed house. ''It's always the same.''
My eyes filled with tears. ''Please don't be afraid,'' I blurted out. ''You are loved. You don't have to fear.''
He looked at me for a beat or two, handed me his towel as applause rose for his walk-on. ''Please, will you stand here?'' he asked. ''I want to see you while I play.'' For the next two hours I never moved.
Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, and more marched before me as Iturbi's hands flew across the keyboard. Afterward, a horde gathered to get his autograph. Every request was met. There was no star treatment here, just humility and kindness.
''Come upstairs now,'' he said as the car reached his hotel. ''We have to write a card to Amparo together.'' Then he walked me to the elevator and stood there until the doors closed on us. He was waving goodbye, with a huge smile and sad eyes.
How strange, I thought, as the elevator descended. I hardly know him. Immediately the thought came: That's the way I want to be. Someday, I'm going to learn to be kind to everyone. Kind to strangers and loved ones, both.