Monday, May 16, 2005


All my Dad ever wanted to do was play the guitar.

In high school,and right after, he and his buddies had a band. They toured, cut a few singles, even got some regional air play. He dreamed he could take it further, all the way to Memphis. There he'd play the clubs, do session work, and then maybe...Who knows? But his life was circumscribed; legacy college, naval engineering degree, and future position in our small town's gentry. After his first year of College, to his family's collective horror, he dropped out and took a summer job with the Post Office. He never left. It was the first independant decision he'd made in his entire life, and there wasn't a thing Grandpa could do about it.

After taking early retirement, and with a zeal and enthusiasm he never focused on being a dad, he devoted himself to grandfatherhood. I have copies of the video tapes he made for my Brother's kids, standing in front of the dark mahogany dresser in his bedroom, playing bluegrass songs. His broad hands strum steadily, his fingers pick with precision and speed, and slide along the ebony neck of the flat top guitar he'd crafted himself in his basement workshop(where he now makes tiny working mandolins, puzzle boxes and wooden trains). I'd watched him steam the thin mahogany sides in long galvanized trays on my Mother's stove top, and clamp the malleable strips curved in thick wooden forms set on a beach towel on her table. The guitar's contours fit his body perfectly; he still plays it today. I show the tapes to musician friends, they smile at the dour, spectacled man in his codger's uniform of blue work shirt and baggy navy blue Dickies, held up with broad elastic suspenders - a striking resemblance to Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' farmer, with a hollow body instead of a pitch fork. Then their eyes focus on the long, flat tipped fingers flying over pickguard and frets, and- when he breaks to anounce 'Shady Gove', 'Turkey in the Straw' or whichever song he'll play next - they turn to me in surprise and a kind of mild awe:

"Your dad, man, he's GOOD."

He never made it to Memphis. Before enough money and motivation could be banked for a trip to Tennessee, my Mother, we three boys, and the mortgage arrived in succession. In the dining room of the house he constantly had to patch and repair, my Mother kept a stack of photo albums in a maple hutch. Most were filled with familiar family scenes. One was different, a black bound scrap book with 'Memories' printed across its cover in tarnished silver script. It held images of my Father's pre-married life. In it I'd seen a photograph of my Dad, and the white Impala hard top which would have taken him and his Gibson L5 to Tennessee, parked next to my Grandfathers house. In the black and white picture, it's a clear, bright afternoon, and he's leaning against the front fender, legs crossed at the ankles and veiny arms folded across his proud chest. He fills out a white t-shirt, snug levis, and sports a broad confident smile. Raybans conceal his eyes. I know from standing in that same gravel driveway, that he's facing south-west. Maybe he was looking toward that magical city, and his bright future there.

My Father played all the time when we were growing up. After dinner each night, he'd lean against the washing machine by the back door, the corners of his mouth tight and level, looking out through the wavy panes of glass . He'd stare off into the sunset on Spring and Fall evenings, and into the cold dark western sky in Winter. In the Summer he'd start later, after an additional round of chores, and if it wasn't raining, he'd play outside. I remember one night just past twilight. He was leaning against the back of the white Ford station wagon which had replaced the coupe, three miles, ten years, and a lifetime from where that old black and white picture had been taken. In the yellow light from the laundry room window his deeply shadowed profile looked just like his father's stern sepia toned face in other photos from that same old book of memories. My Brother and I watched him. We sat silently, pressed against each other on the granite slab steps which still held the summer days heat, warm against the cool skin of our bare scabbed and scratched little boy legs. The polished mahogany and satiny spruce glowed softly, and the tuning keys glinted like the attendant fireflies. He stood there alone in his world, with the guitar held high across his stomach - like Buddy Holly in the Ed Sullivan Show kinescopes we'd seen on PBS. We followed every motion, and listened to each note float off into the darkness, as he played Johnny Cash songs to the lilacs, spruce tree, rose of sharon, and the far away Birthplace of Rock and Roll.
Who Links Here