The dusk is reflecting off Douglas Lake. I am nestled in the French Broad River valley, seated on the porch of a log cabin, watching the Great Smoky Mountains continue to be Great.
I am playing the mandolin with some friends. There is an upright bass, a flat top guitar, and a Deering banjo. I have known these fellas since I was a kid. They are bluegrass musicians, passing through Tennessee on the way to a gig. We are playing a few old tunes.
We are all outside. On the deck of my rental cabin. The distant blue mountains are laced with wisps of low-hanging fog. The trees are leafless and stoic. God was showing off when he made Appalachia.
The tune we play is called “Old Joe Clark.” We sound about as good as a dump truck driving through a Steinway factory. But that’s not the point. The point is, we’re having fun. And that’s what this New Year is all about.
Today is the first day of 2023, and the keyword of this current year is “fun.”
This past year, I didn’t have nearly enough fun. The reasons don’t matter, but this upcoming year is going to be different for me. This year, I am making a fresh start. This year, the F-word is going to be my go-to experience.
Last April, I wrote a column about a 100-year-old woman in a nursing home located in rural Virginia. I traveled to interview her in a rundown elderly care facility that looked like a condemned shack. Her name was Miss Lorena. She was in bad shape. She received two insulin shots during our interview.
She passed away before the column ever ran in the local papers. She never read what I wrote about her. Still, her parting words have been lodged in my brain.
“In all my years,” she said, “I’ve finally discovered the meaning of life.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“The secret to life is F-U-N. Do things that make you smile. That’s your only job here on earth. Never regret anything that makes you smile.”
“Fun? Is it that simple?”
“Oh, no, sweetie. It’s not simple. It’ll be the hardest thing you’ll ever did.”
I’ve been thinking about that old woman ever since. And here I am, playing a mandolin in the Smoky Mountains, on New Year’s Day, with old friends. Having fun.
Oddly, my earliest memories are of the mandolin. My grandfather, Sam, played a Gibson F-4 mandolin when he was a boy. He bought it for $20 from the back of a “Popular Mechanics” magazine in 1924. The ad’s headline read, “Five Cents A Day Buys a Gibson!”
I once asked why he chose mandolin. He said he chose the instrument because it was the cheapest one.
The most infantile memory I have of Granddaddy is on the porch of his single-wide, playing “The Swallowtail Jig.”
“Wow,” I said, watching him pick faster than a babysitter’s boyfriend.
“I got good at the mandolin during the War,” he said solemnly as he picked.
My grandfather was shot in the armpit while fighting in France. They sent him to rehab in Italy. One day, he saw an old man on the streets of Anzio playing a mandolin. The man was playing “O Sole Mio.”
Granddaddy was so inspired that he bought a cheap mandolin while in rehab, and started practicing. By the time he got back to the U.S., he was a white-hot virtuoso.
I am not the musical talent my grandfather was. But I got my first mandolin when I was 4 years old. It was my first instrument. Granddaddy showed me three cords on the mandolin. I played backup while he picked “Angeline the Baker” on the old Gibson. He kept stopping the song to adjust my little fingers.
I gave up the instrument when I turned 16 because the mandolin wasn’t “cool.” I was interested in the opposite gender. And girls wanted a guy with long hair who could play guitar and sing like the lead guy from Journey.
But here I am today, middle-aged schmuck, doing something my grandfather once did. I’m here in the Smokys, playing the music of my people. And I can truly say I’m having fun.
My aim this year is to have 365 days of pure fun. No matter how I accomplish this, no matter how hard it is, Fun will be my goal. F-U-N. No more, no less. I will fail along the way, of course. I will have a lot of mishaps. I will fall on my face. Some days will be anything BUT fun.
Even so, if I try really hard, I know I can make Miss Lorena proud.