The first guitar songs I learned to play were crying songs. They were the only songs I liked as a kid. Back then, 99 percent of the country music genre was comprised of sad songs that caused grown men to weep into their malt beverages. Crying songs.
It was my uncle John who taught me to play my first crying song. After my father died, my uncle John parked his RV at the edge of our land and lived beside us. He needed a free place to crash; I had no father. So it was a win-win.
Within his dank RV he doled out my nightly music lessons. I learned to pick six strings beneath his tutelage, I learned how to handle tunes like “Faded Love.”
Sometimes John would stay up until one in the morning, fueled only by caffeine and his big heart, teaching me the workings of the fretboard. To the untrained eye it looked like we were practicing music, but really he was helping me grieve.
It was John who helped me find the nicest instrument I would ever own from the wall of a dingy pawn shop. He negotiated with the stogie-chewing clerk until we got a “sweet deal” on a battered Gibson B-15 model, 1968 guitar. Truthfully, the guitar was glorified firewood, but to me it was twenty-four karat.
John haggled like a horse trader until he’d whittled the pawnbroker down to his penultimate dollar. They shook hands. I dug into my pocket and placed a pile of crumpled cash on the counter. John immediately removed a ten-dollar bill from my money stack and said, “My commission.”
One time we went to Branson together. My uncle and my mother treated me to a non-stop week of country music and Dolly Parton impersonators. We must have visited every opry theater and playhouse in town.
Throughout each live performance, Uncle John would make wisecracks, trying his best to make me laugh and disrupt the show.
I remember being in Andy Williams’s amphitheater and the ushers threatened to expel us from the auditorium during Andy’s heart stopping finale of “Moon River” because I couldn’t quit cackling.
We left the show early. Out in the lobby John dusted off his shoulders and said, “I’ve been kicked outta fancier dumps than this.”
We also went to see Branson’s Shoji Tabuchi play his old-time fiddle for a packed house. Rumor was that Shoji’s theater bathrooms had golden toilets and billiard tables. Before the performance began my uncle whisked me into the lavatories so we could take a gander at the famed johns.
Sure enough, the restrooms were fit for royalty. There were wingback leather chairs, gold trimmed sinks, piles of ice in the commodes, and rose petals sprinkled in the toilet bowls.
I’ll never forget my uncle’s remark when he stared directly into the perfumed latrine and said:
That was just how he talked. John was a Vietnam veteran, 101st Airborne, 506th Infantry, the Screaming Eagles, specializing in air assault operations. He suffered from the aftereffects of Agent Orange, one of the “tactical use” airborne poisons used in combat. He’d seen a lot.
I don’t know much about that piece of him, but I know war left its mark.
I remember once when several of us kids were watching a graphic war movie on TV. Uncle John was walking through the room when he saw the battle depicted on the television. He had a visceral reaction, then he abruptly turned off the TV.
We kids moaned and whined and begged him to turn the tube back on.
John merely spoke in a soft voice. “Nobody should ever have to see that.”
Later in his life they moved him to a veterans’ home. A place where I am sure John fit in quite nicely. Someone told me that the military oldsters in this particular home are legendary for their rowdiness.
I understand that the retirement home staff even went so far as to ban the game croquet because the mallets were being used as weapons to settle arguments among the retirees.
I didn’t stay in touch as often as I should have. It had been a little while since I’d called. He had his life, I had mine.
I told myself I would visit him this summer, and I almost bought plane tickets twice. But I kept putting it off because… Well. I’m not really sure why. I guess because I’m self-centered. Because time got away from me.
I got news this morning that he passed away unexpectedly, and I almost dropped the phone. I felt numb for a few moments.
I tucked my head into my arms and immediately remembered a broken boy sitting in his uncle’s RV, late at night. I remembered the way an old soldier gently helped me position my little fingers on a rosewood fretboard and taught me how to make music.
I couldn’t think of anything to do after I heard the sobering news. So I picked up a faded Gibson that still sits beside my bed, and I played as many crying songs as I know.