WORTHINGTON — Who says an old dog can't learn new tricks?
Not John Dammer, who, at 94, continues to learn new musical instruments.
Dammer first began cultivating his skills as a teenager, playing the mouth organ as he grew up on a farm south of Rushmore.
While working in 240 acres of fields tilling corn, soybeans, oats and flax, Dammer spoke both English and Low German, a German dialect spoken mainly in Northern Germany and the Netherlands.
"We could understand Low German just as good as English," Dammer recalled.
Both his music and his linguistic skills followed Dammer into World War II as he was drafted in 1944 and sent to the German front line.
Dammer was wed to his wife just two days before his departure.
Given the choice of military jobs, Dammer went with truck driving.
"I thought that was the safest, but it wasn't," he said.
As he learned, driving truck was one of the most dangerous roles in the infantry. Because trucks carried such valuables as gasoline, ammunition and prisoners, Nazi troops targeted trucks in grenade strikes.
Throughout his Army service, Dammer's musical talent became a way to relax and unwind.
During training, one of his fellow infantrymen had a family accordion that no one in the family knew how to play.
"So I says, 'You want to sell it?'" Dammer remembered. "I offered him $5. He says, 'How about four and a half?'"
Although Dammer didn't know how to play the accordion, he quickly picked it up, playing by ear because he couldn't read music. He learned familiar tunes first, like "You Are My Sunshine," and before long, Dammer was holding noon-hour performances in the mess hall.
Music lifted his spirits even as the young soldier was loaded into a boxcar and transported across the Rhine River. Luckily, by the time his unit arrived at the front line, the war was over.
"If the war had lasted another month, probably half of us would have been buried in France," Dammer reflected.
Nearly 50 years later, Dammer still has that accordion that he carried through the war, and has since collected several more.
Just two instruments wasn't enough for the nonagenarian. He recently acquired a concertina — another free reed instrument that uses bellows and buttons, but operates quite differently from an accordion — and a guitar.
Dammer purchased his concertina from one of his nurses at Ecumen Meadows, where he now resides.
"Man, that's a pretty one," he said of the new instrument. A concertina plays a single note at a time, unlike an accordion, which can play chords.
Just a couple months ago, Dammer attended a Memorial Auditorium show featuring a local guitarist, and he left feeling inspired to learn the guitar himself. He purchased one and began his study of the stringed instrument.
Over a lifetime of musical learning, Dammer shared that he has followed this principle: "You've got to keep at it." As he continues to explore new instruments, the accomplished musician plans to do just that.