Uncle John

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:

“Holy [beep].”

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.

66 comments

  1. Scott Caples - June 12, 2021 7:07 am

    I am so very sorry for your loss. The words are often overused and said automatically but I truly am sorry for the absence of your Uncle John. We all have those formative people that alter the course of our lives. We think that we will always have time to somehow repay or thank them for the lessons that they shared. I am grateful that you have had the time you did have with him. I am also so very grateful for you and the comfort, joy, laughter and loving pathos that you share with me and the rest of the world. I love you, Sean Dietrich and I love all of your people.

    Reply
  2. Liz Eberle - June 12, 2021 7:22 am

    My heart aches for you, Sean. My family calls me the woman of many words, but I have none tonight. The comment above by Scott Caples said it all… and beautifully. I, too, love you Sean. Your uncle IS proud of you. My prayers are covering your pain.

    Reply
  3. sparkerlpc - June 12, 2021 7:52 am

    Bless your heart, Sean. I mean it. Everybody who has ever lived has thought they’d call, or mail a letter, or go see somebody “later”. You didn’t invent or worsen that one. And as much you and your Uncle John loved each other, he knows it was never a lack of love that kept you away. May God comfort you.

    Reply
  4. Steve McCaleb - June 12, 2021 8:00 am

    Great story, beautifully told. Your uncle sounds like one heck of a man. Oh, and thanks for the unspoken reminder. When you hear that people of a certain age are what we in the South refer to as “ain’t doing no good”, it’s probably a good idea to drop what you’re doing and go for a visit. You might not get a second chance. Sadly, I’ve done that too. A very wise man once told me that the things he had done over his life bothered him some, but the things that kept him up at night was the things he DIDN’T do. I’m beginning to understand. Sorry about your uncle.

    Reply
  5. Sandi. - June 12, 2021 8:08 am

    Sad news like this is never welcome, Sean. Glad you have such fond remembrances of your Uncle John, especially the free guitar lessons. May he R.I.P.

    Reply
  6. Taylor L - June 12, 2021 9:07 am

    Sorry for your loss. Condolences

    Reply
  7. Christopher Spencer - June 12, 2021 9:22 am

    So sorry for your loss Sean. May God comfort and strengthen you and all of your Uncle John’s family and friends. May God bless you all with His peace of heart, mind and soul
    Chris

    Reply
  8. Nancy Copp - June 12, 2021 10:07 am

    Thank you Sean for your beautiful tribute to John.

    Reply
  9. Norma Den - June 12, 2021 10:18 am

    Deep condolences Sean. Everyone has those “ I should or could have done, this or that”. Remember the good times, remember the man you knew and loved, I’m sure he remembered you too. Life sometimes gets in the way and before we know it, it’s too late. As a word of comfort, my great niece Caitlyn was born this morning, mother and baby doing so well. There is always good news and you share your thoughts and feelings so generously and improve so many folks lives just by being you. God bless and always remember so many people love you, across the world.

    Reply
  10. joan moore - June 12, 2021 10:57 am

    Praying that God will give you peace. Isaiah 57:1 and 61:1-3. I hope you sang some Hank.

    Reply
  11. Gayle - June 12, 2021 11:00 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss Sean.

    Reply
  12. Diane - June 12, 2021 11:07 am

    Hold fast to your memories.

    Reply
  13. Virginia Russell - June 12, 2021 11:13 am

    Oh boy

    Reply
  14. dymenovel - June 12, 2021 11:47 am

    “Every mans life is a fairytale written by Gods finger.” Hans Christian Anderson.

    We all have a story that needs to be told…thank you for sharing, Uncle John. Sorry to hear about your loss, Sean.

    Reply
  15. Dean - June 12, 2021 11:49 am

    Sad we all wish we had done more. I sometimes don’t go to the services because I feel so bad because I didn’t go see them before they died
    Good reminder we should go visit people when we can.

    Reply
  16. Debbie g - June 12, 2021 11:57 am

    Sorry Sean. But you know he loved you and you loved him. Us older people do know how time gets away so he’s ok. I’m sure he said I’ll see you later love you and Jamie

    Reply
  17. Wendy - June 12, 2021 12:05 pm

    I am so grateful for this story. Every bend and curve of it brings the people you love back to life and honors the time you spent together. It brings to light how they are blended into the fabric of who you are and always will be. Amen.

    Reply
  18. Jean - June 12, 2021 12:07 pm

    I have always been told that people are sent into your life just when they are needed. Sincere sympathies are sent to you and your family.

    Reply
  19. KAY JENKINS - June 12, 2021 12:10 pm

    Crying songs unite us. I will sing some today for you and for your Uncle John. I will ask the angels to join me. God bless you both.

    Reply
  20. Leia Lona - June 12, 2021 12:12 pm

    Wishing you peace and comfort in the loss of your uncle. It is clear he loved you.

    Reply
  21. GARY - June 12, 2021 12:13 pm

    Sorry for your loss 🙏🏻

    Reply
  22. Amanda - June 12, 2021 12:14 pm

    Ditto to all who wrote from Scott to Wendy with their many wise words of comfort. I add my simple prayer of sympathy.

    Reply
  23. Marilyn - June 12, 2021 12:28 pm

    🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

    Reply
  24. Pam - June 12, 2021 12:37 pm

    I’m so sorry….
    What wonderful memories you have of your Uncle John! Thank you for sharing with us.

    Reply
  25. Joanne B. - June 12, 2021 12:39 pm

    Our tears are not for our loved one who has passed over, but for ourselves. He has just stepped over to a higher realm! Uncle John was a good man with a good heart. He now has a peace that has been a long time coming; but he sees it all clearly now. Celebrate his life and Rejoice with him! Have no regrets. You will meet again! Peace and blessings to all his family.

    Reply
  26. Nancy Wright - June 12, 2021 1:03 pm

    I am so sorry, Sean. Prayers for you and all his family.

    Reply
  27. Linda - June 12, 2021 1:04 pm

    I agree with Steve’s comment. The things that keep us up at night are the thoughts of things we didn’t do. Your uncle was the ultimate giver. He gave his all to protect and serve his country and to help mold a boy into a man, and what a man you are. You carry a piece of him in you. So, by way of song you accompanied him on his journey home. I believe that, those who were such a important part of our lives, visit us on their way home to let us know they are ok. When you say your prayers, ask God to give Uncle John a message, tell him thank you for his service and for the boy he helped make a man. And thank you Sean, for making us part of your extended family so we can share what makes you you.

    Reply
  28. Tom - June 12, 2021 1:07 pm

    A great man. Sorry for your loss. “GEE AIN’T IT FUNNY, HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY.”

    Reply
  29. James e inman - June 12, 2021 1:15 pm

    God Bless your Uncle John. Welcome home soldier, welcome home.

    Reply
  30. Linda Vaughan - June 12, 2021 1:30 pm

    Thank you for pouring your grief into words–a catharsis for you and a reminder for us.

    Reply
  31. Jan - June 12, 2021 1:31 pm

    Time gets away from us and the chaos we have dealt with during the pandemic has seemed to make time pass in an entirely different way. It often seemed as though time was standing still as we waited for the cloud of the pandemic to pass. I am so sorry for your loss. However, I am glad for the wonderful memories you are blessed with of a very caring man who taught you much more than playing the guitar. May God be with you and your family.

    Reply
  32. Tammy S. - June 12, 2021 1:31 pm

    We had a character in our family, Uncle Charles. He went home to heaven recently. He played guitar and sang as well. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read your piece, if Uncle Charles and Uncle John have met each other and singing songs together. I know this, your Uncle John would want you to remember how much he loved you! And that he was so very proud of you. And he’s told your Dad all about the fine man you have become. A man who encourages so many people. Today both men have big smiles on their faces and you put the smile there. Hope you are filled up and full of peace to know they both know just how blessed they were to have you in their lives. And just how much they love you! No sadness about any of that to sing about. Big hugs, Sean.

    Reply
  33. Mark Fendley - June 12, 2021 1:33 pm

    Sean, you’ve been making me think a lot and pray a lot lately. This is from a guy with family in Thomasville, Grove Hill, and Whatley Alabama. From a guy and his wife that are really contemplating moving to Point Washington , or north of the bay in Walton county…wishing we could afford Grayton Beach. And the thoughts about your uncle being there for you. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I’m praying for you and your family

    Reply
  34. jane winton - June 12, 2021 1:36 pm

    Vets are special people…holy. I’m so sorry.

    Reply
  35. Helen De Prima - June 12, 2021 1:36 pm

    Never okay to postpone spending time with elders. My mother’s sister raised me, and I did my best to care for her in her final illness. I made mistakes, but I was holding her when she died. I hope she knew how much I loved her.

    Reply
  36. Leigh Amiot - June 12, 2021 1:45 pm

    Regrets are odious.
    I have some calls to make.

    Reply
  37. Suellen - June 12, 2021 1:51 pm

    What a blessing to have that man in your life. He probably needed you as much as you needed him as he was dealing with his own memories and sorrows. My Dad was 101st Airborne and went into Normandy on a glider on D-Day. He was immediately captured by the Germans outside of St Mere Eglise and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. My nephew, my brother’s only son, was 101st Airborne also and rappelled into Iraq in the initial assault. He served two tours in Iraq and sadly ended his own life in 2012. I’m living with the regrets of all the things I didn’t say and didn’t do but, with God’s Grace, hopefully they understood my heart.

    Reply
  38. Gordon - June 12, 2021 1:59 pm

    “Time has gotten away with me” as well, Sean. How I now wish I had moved on instincts and re-visited relatives and friends who were very instrumental in my life. I think of this often, especially since I am nearing the “golden years” of my life and yearn for time with my present friends and family.

    Reply
  39. Ellen Harry - June 12, 2021 2:10 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss. Congratulations

    Reply
  40. Cathy M - June 12, 2021 2:49 pm

    Well, through tears I will say that at 73 I have lost so many sweet people who lived me as a child. Some were great Aunts and Uncles who were not blessed with children of their own. My Mom and Dad always encouraged us to pay attention to them when we were together. I remember sitting on the porch glider between them many times eating homemade ice cream. Precious CNN memories and I bet you did as much for your Uncle John as he did for you. May he Rest In Peace and I hope you and Jamie have a wonderful Saturday. ❤️🙏🏻🥲

    Reply
  41. Anne - June 12, 2021 2:56 pm

    Sending prayers of peace and comfort on the loss of such a precious man. You helped each other in those late night guitar lessons. Lessons for life. We all have those same regrets. Hopefully we learn from them and do some things differently. Thanks again for sharing your heart. I would say I love you but my husband gets jealous when I mention you too often. (Sad but true.) Oops, I just wrote it. 😊 Keep on encouraging us with your writing.

    Reply
  42. Angel Bradford - June 12, 2021 2:57 pm

    Dear Sean, I am so sorry for the loss of your Uncle John. We all have people in our lives that we think will always be there. I was lucky to have several; they’re all gone now and there isn’t a day that I don’t miss them and would give anything to talk to them.

    “May the angels lead him into paradise; may the martyrs receive him at his arrival and lead him to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive him and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may he have eternal rest.”

    Reply
  43. Christina - June 12, 2021 3:00 pm

    Sounds like uncle John gave you more than crying songs and funny memories… RIP

    Reply
  44. Vicky - June 12, 2021 3:19 pm

    I am so very sorry for the loss of your Uncle John, Sean. Your words (as always) have touched me this morning. There are several people in my life that I need to call or see before I get that phone call, but I am dealing with my own stuff right now and can’t seem to do that. I know that if I don’t see them before that call it will be okay, because the past has shown my love for them. But my heart is with you today as you grieve the loss of Uncle John-he sounds like a wonderful man.

    Reply
  45. Susan Corbin - June 12, 2021 3:33 pm

    Bless you, Sean.

    Reply
  46. Janet W. - June 12, 2021 3:53 pm

    I am so grateful that you had Uncle John in your life!

    Reply
  47. Heidi L Thompson - June 12, 2021 4:36 pm

    An incredibly beautiful tribute.

    Reply
  48. Vickie Taylor - June 12, 2021 4:55 pm

    Lifting you in prayer and thinking of those crying songs…at least I think it is why my eyes are leaking. God bless and keep you in this time of sadness.

    Reply
  49. Linda Moon - June 12, 2021 5:01 pm

    I had an Uncle John long before Branson became a ‘thing’. But you went to the newer fun Branson with your Uncle John….how cool is that! His time in ‘Nam may have helped him understand you, Sean. I think I understand, too…my blue-eyed tears dropped a little while absorbing this story of what your Uncle John meant to you. He knew how to help a boy grieve, and the Gibson’s going to help a man grieve now.

    Reply
  50. Julie Gemond - June 12, 2021 5:23 pm

    I’m so sorry Sean. He sounded like a heck of a guy, loving you and teaching you…

    Reply
  51. MAM - June 12, 2021 5:46 pm

    And I cried along with you as you sang crying songs. Uncle John was a fine man who helped you through a difficult time, while you helped him through a difficult time. He and your father are sharing notes on the wonderful writer and storyteller you are. I’m sorry for your loss, but know both men knew you loved them, as much as they loved you.

    Reply
  52. Bill Harris - June 12, 2021 5:50 pm

    Thank you Sean

    Reply
  53. Jenny Young - June 12, 2021 5:53 pm

    Thank you for sharing your uncle with us. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Remember that those of us who are older understand the shortcomings of the young because we lived them….we still have our own faults. So even though you didn’t visit….he understands & he still loves you & it’s ok.

    Reply
  54. Cheryl Weathington - June 12, 2021 10:45 pm

    Such a precious tribute to your dear uncle. Expressed exactly how I felt when my aunts and uncles left this world. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Reply
  55. Robert L Chiles - June 12, 2021 11:31 pm

    May he rest in peace and rise in Gory. While I grew up with an alcoholic father, I had a cousin who took me under his wing and taught me how to cook a steak, how to shoot a pistol, how to drive a car fast, and how to survive. He’s been gone a long time. I’m forever grateful.

    Reply
  56. Susan Kennedy - June 13, 2021 12:24 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss Sean.

    Reply
  57. Nancy M - June 13, 2021 2:04 am

    My heartfelt sympathy. May your Uncle John rest in peace, and may your heart be comforted.

    Reply
  58. Karen Snyder - June 13, 2021 2:13 am

    I am so very sorry for the loss of your Uncle, Sean. Prayers and a hug for you and everyone who will miss him. Thanks for sharing your memories of him with all of us.

    Reply
  59. Chasity Davis Ritter - June 13, 2021 5:26 am

    I’m so sorry Sean. I hope the angels sat down their harps and picked some old guitars instead when he came walking through those pearly gates today. Prayers for you and your family.

    Reply
  60. pdjpop - June 13, 2021 10:49 am

    We never stop healing.
    A Wonderful tribute to your uncle as I sit here reading your words this morning. I was already choked up over Toora Loora and remembering my mom.
    God bless us all and the mothers and mentors in our lives.
    Thanks again, Sean.

    Reply
  61. Cele LeBlanc - June 13, 2021 12:20 pm

    II am sorry for your loss and was blessed as you shared your memories of your uncle.

    Reply
  62. Paul Moore - June 13, 2021 10:13 pm

    Thanks Sean. Sorry for your loss. He sounds like the real deal. Guys who really saw combat don’t talk about it. And are not walking around in there regalia wanting everyone to thank them for there service. He didn’t want to go to war but he knew duty and obligation. Bone spurs would never had stopped Big Bad John

    Reply
  63. Lisa Anne Tindal - June 13, 2021 11:43 pm

    Sorry for your loss of such a tender soul.

    As I read this, I’m wondering if my 24yr. old son is playing his guitar. He moved from Carolina to Colorado, 23 hours away from his mama, three weeks before he turned 24.

    My daddy played guitar, loved Merle Haggard. My son’s daddy wasn’t around by the time he was 2yrs. old. My son is quiet and intelligent. He is driven. He is now in Denver with a Labrador and a few new friends. Still, I thought he might be lonely. He asked me to paint a painting for his birthday. Reluctantly, I painted my interpretation of Denver. Shipped it at great cost. Two weeks later shipped birthday 2 of 2, a lowcountry landscape and a new guitar.

    I read your post about baby Jackie and then happened upon this one. Glad I did.

    Thanks so much, good to know the guitar is just as significant to a boy, now man, as I kinda hoped.

    Reply
  64. Kim Washington - June 14, 2021 4:29 pm

    So Sorry for your loss, sometimes we put off visiting those we love because we cannot bear to lose them, we want to perserve their memory in a piont in time when all was as it should be and in our hearts we are losing them before our head knows it. May God bless your uncle and my His peace and comfort wash over you and your family.

    Reply
  65. Connie - June 16, 2021 2:43 pm

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Don’t beat yourself up. Life gets away from us and this past year has been horrendous. We couldn’t travel if we wanted to and no visitors were allowed anywhere. Take comfort from your memories and hold tight to them. Sending you hugs and love and prayers.

    Reply
  66. Susan - June 18, 2021 1:59 pm

    Praying for you, sorry that your Uncle passed away

    Reply

Leave a Comment