Archive for February, 2019

  • Blog
  • February 22nd, 2019

WATCH WHERE YOU STEP

By Joel M. Vance

Leave it to science fiction to predict what’s in store for us. Ray Bradbury, the finest of all science fiction writers, summed it up in a short story written in 1952 about time travel. “The Sound of Thunder” appeared in Collier’s magazine— which perhaps prophetically is a magazine that has gone extinct.

 

The short story is set late in 2055, not so long from the present day, but quite a while distant from 1952. In the story a hunter pays $10,000 (which, if I compare it to the $2800 we paid for a brand-new Ford station wagon in the 1960s, today would probably be $40,000 or more. The $10,000 the hunter paid probably translates to upwards of $100,000 now. Anyway, the fee allowed him to join a hunting party to go back in time to the age of the dinosaurs in hopes of bagging a Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

In Bradbury’s 2055, time travel has become possible. While that probably will not actually happen, what does happen in the short story seems more and more likely in today’s chaotic world. Before they leave 2055, the hunters discuss a recent presidential election where a fascist oriented candidate has lost to a moderate (are we getting some chilly vibes here?).

 

The hunters discuss what has come to be known as the “butterfly effect.” What would happen, they wonder, if some tiny event from so long ago were changed so that its infinitesimal echoes would magnify over the centuries to unimaginable consequences in today’s world?

 

Sure enough, the hunter protagonist of the story steps on a butterfly in the late Cretaceous and when he returns to the present he finds that the fascist dictator has won the election and the country is in chaos. Is it possible that someone has gone back in time to the late Cretaceous, stepped on a butterfly, and so we have Donald J Trump as our president, a would-be dictator every bit in the mold of Bradbury’s spooky story?

 

Trump doesn’t even have to go back to the Cretaceous to step on butterflies— he’s doing it as we speak. As part of his insane compulsion to build a 2000 mile wall between us and Mexico regardless of how damaging it is to the country, to the environment, and to the eons to come, one small segment of his idiot plan is to disrupt and basically destroy the National Butterfly Refuge.

 

Butterflies are pollinators, one of the most necessary insects to carry pollen from plant to plant, ensuring that those plants will endure and in many cases, provide food for humanity. Without pollinators, notably bees and butterflies, plant life is imperiled and without plant life we are without food. It is the modern day example of Bradbury’s thesis— alter one tiny aspect of the environment and risk dire consequences down the line.

 

Ecologist Barry Commoner summed it up succinctly  “Everything is connected to everything else.” Step on butterflies, whether in the Cretaceous or right now, and you run the risk of future chaos. While chaos theory is as difficult for a nonscientific type like me to understand as is thermodynamics or balancing my checkbook, I can understand that one small change in a system can result in large differences later on— one theoretical example is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas. Or stepping on one butterfly while dinosaur hunting in the late Cretaceous can result in Donald Trump being elected president.

 

Obviously, no one knows what an infinitesimal change today will result in eons in the future and none of us will be around to see it. But we already are seeing the results of climate change, no matter how vociferously Trump and his clueless allies deny there is such a change. Dramatic swings in weather are already upon us, probably the result of centuries of burning fossil fuel and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s not just from burning coal but also from the exhausts of millions of vehicles and from the clearing of forests (which also decimates the resident insect population).

 

And if there is any lingering doubt that the Trump administration is the worst threat to the environment  in modern history, comes the word that the Environmental Protection Agency (why don’t we just rename it the Environmental Destruction Agency?) has given approval to allow spraying of sulfoxaflor, a highly toxic pesticide to bees, on 16 million acres of cropland in 18 states— on crops that are highly attractive to bees. The EPA terms this an “emergency”. That seems to be the buzzword today for any stupid and destructive action by the government. If you want to do something that figures to be highly unpopular and damaging to boot, call it an emergency and to hell with the consequences and, for that matter to hell with human health and happiness.

 

None of those conditions existed in the late Cretaceous and, for that matter, mostly didn’t exist a few short centuries ago. Yet, we are seeing dramatic changes in world climate and the bulk of scientific thought is that it will only get worse unless we do something quickly—and by quickly they mean right now not when push comes to shove. Human tendency to kick the can down the road no longer is a viable chickening out for the problems that face us.

 

It’s well documented that climate change has caused widespread decline in the biomass of insects in many study areas throughout the world. In simpler terms, bugs are vanishing. Not just bugs, but mammals as well— human activity has resulted in the last 50 years alone for a decline of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish by an average of 60%.  One telling test about the decline of insects alone is easy enough for you to run the next time you go for a summer evening drive. Compare how many bugs smash into the windshield with how many you saw a decade or two ago. Not only are you actively killing bugs by running into them with the front end of the car but you also are contributing to their overall decline by the exhaust from the butt end of the car.

 

The National butterfly Center is a 100 acre refuge in South Texas along the Mexican border that is imperiled by Trump’s unnecessary and idiotic border wall that would separate 70% of the Center from its headquarters. It is far more than a symbolic refuge for threatened insects— it is a way station for migrating birds as well as butterflies in the Central Flyway. It was set aside specifically for threatened and endangered species and eliminating or imperiling its existence, which the wall would do, would, among other catastrophes create flooding to all property (which is privately owned) up to 2 miles behind the wall.

 

The center is the creation of the North American Butterfly Association, a nonprofit organization which is dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. It was established in 1993 and now has nearly 5000 members in 30 chapters across the United States. It runs butterfly counts in Canada, the United States and Mexico, similar to bird counts and other wildlife surveys that keep tabs on the health of countless wild creatures. Without such counts, conservationists are basically operating in the dark.

 

While the Butterfly Association primarily concentrates on Monarch butterflies, it can take credit for preserving the Royal Fritillary butterfly and saving the Miami Blue which is known from only one colony at Key West in Monroe County, Florida. These once were thriving insect species, now nearly extinct. If the Monarchs are next to go, where does that leave humanity? Is it the butterfly effect sooner than later?

 

Yet, even as I write this, Trump’s bulldozers, like Hitler’s Panzer tanks invading Poland, are moving in to the Butterfly Center grounds preparing to turn it into a lifeless no man’s land. The Butterfly Center immediately filed for a restraining order to stop the border Nazis from cutting down trees, ripping out fencing, widening roads and other activities detrimental to the purpose of the Center. A judge threw out their motion essentially granting the immigration intruders the authority to do what they damn well please. Among judge Richard Leon’s reasoning was that the refuge is “an open field” which would seem to be the very description of what is needed for a butterfly refuge.

 

Federal judge Richard Leon is a George W. Bush appointee.  He is a former attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service—the very folks who are bent upon destroying the Butterfly Refuge, literally clearing the way for Trump’s wall. Among Leon’s previous curious rulings is one blocking the Food and Drug Administration from stopping the importation of e-cigarettes which have become an epidemic problem among young people.  Enough said about the judicial climate today in Trump’s world of environmental destruction.

 

We have a mini tallgrass prairie of perhaps a quarter acre which I rescued from a wasteland of broom sedge and purple top, both plants of land too poor to support much of any value. Within a few years, big bluestem grass began to appear—apparently the seeds had lain dormant for who knows how long? I added some seed collected from remnant tallgrass patches and now have Indian grass to complement the big bluestem. And I collected seeds from purple gayfeather and now have a glorious blooming crop that annually attracts butterflies of all kinds. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, but for some reason that has dwindled to a single plant. I need to plant milkweed, the favored plant of Monarch butterflies and without which the Monarch is threatened with extinction.

 

Google milkweed sources and you’ll find many outlets for both seeds and plants– americanmeadows.com is one source for both, dedicated to the native plants found (or once found) on America’s native prairies.  I would love to see my mini prairie alive with butterfly weed and common milkweed— and also alive with the incomparable bloom of butterflies.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote another prophetic book “Fahrenheit 451” which is the temperature at which books ignite. In his book a future society had taken charge and confiscated all books and were burning them—which, if you remember your unpleasant history, is how the Hitler regime treated books it deemed subversive. Bradbury’s fragile underground population preserved books by memorizing them word for word and passing them from generation to generation.

 

Books today all too often are sensationalized accounts of some less than responsible citizen’s misdeeds but they sell in the millions and then quickly suffer the equivalent of Bradbury’s book burning— they are remaindered and forgotten. But the written word still is the major means of communicating ideas in a lasting way. Spoken media, whether television or radio, is almost as quickly forgotten as it is spoken. The written word has the potential of lasting forever.

 

But only if we can keep the Trumps of the world and their would be dictator brethren from sending the written word into oblivion, along with the insects which modern civilization seems so dedicated to eliminating. Without caring people, insects (and words to champion their right to exist), the world may come to a pass where none of the three of us any longer exists.

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • February 15th, 2019

STOP THE PRESS!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The University of Missouri journalism school dates to 1908, the first such school in the world. The first building housing the fledgling J-School dates to 1919 and became Neff Hall, named for the father of Ward Neff who gave money to build it. A second building adjacent to Neff Hall is named for Walter Williams, the first Dean of the journalism school.

 

By the time I got to the journalism school in 1954, my junior year in college (the first two years having been spent in such meaningless classes as algebra— which I would never learn if I spent 100 years in the class— and American history— which I already knew nearly as well as the boring lecturer who taught it) J school consisted of the two buildings (Neff and Williams) separated by an arch, guarded by two concrete lions.

 

The legend was that the lions would roar if a virgin ever passed through the arch. Although I passed through that arch many times en route to class, I never heard a peep out of those iconic felines, though I was eminently qualified to spark them into action.

 

Every beginning news person was required to take “The history and principles of journalism” course taught by the school’s longtime Dean, Frank Luther Mott. I was in the final class taught by Dean Mott, by then a professor emeritus. The textbook was his and I still have it and it still makes interesting reading. Dean Mott has long since gone to a corner of heaven inhabited by defunct news men and instead of listening to harp music throughout eternity, they are serenaded by the clatter of Linotype machines and the roar of a rotary press, music to the ears of print guys.

 

By taking Dean Mott’s course, I escaped the threat of what happened to the late Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. The University brags about Walker as a distinguished alum. Some years back I wrote a fan letter to him, one J-Schooler to another. Walker wrote back, “I was kicked out of J-School. I had just returned from four years in the Army during World War II and had become editor of the Show Me Magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and I had an office in the J-School.”

 

Mott called Walker into his office and said that he saw by Walker’s records that he had not taken the history and principles of journalism course and Walker said “I was too busy saving the world for democracy, Sir” and Mott screamed at him to get out of the office and the next day Walker’s office was locked and he was out of the school. During my four years at the University, the Show Me Magazine, a humor publication, was more often shut down for making fun of the administration then it was actually being published— so Walker was ahead of his time as a J-School student and instead carved out a career making fun of the Army, rather than Dean Frank Luther Mott.

 

 The J-School newsroom in those days was a noisy place populated by neophyte journalists armed with clacking manual typewriters. The only computer that any of us knew about was Eniac, a 30 ton machine that took up a whole room in a government facility somewhere and did laboriously about what it takes a modern hand held computer microseconds to do on a chip the size of your little fingernail.

 

Instead, we labored over manual typewriters that predated by decades the electric typewriter and which were barely more practical than a quill pen and a piece of paper.  The typewriters were Remingtons and Underwoods. Possibly the more affluent of students had portable typewriters like the one used by famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle during World War Two. The desk models weighed as much as a baby elephant.  You didn’t carry one of them to cover a local meeting; instead you had a reporter’s notebook and, if like me you didn’t take shorthand, you struggled to scribble down notes on what was happening and hoped to be able to read them later while writing your story.

 

I was lucky enough to have an Underwood that had belonged to my mother and father and which dated to the 1920s. The only maintenance it ever got was a ribbon change when the letters on the paper got so dim they were barely readable and I ran the risk of wrath from Dale Spencer the J-School professor/copy editor who had a tongue as biting as the sting of a mule driver’s whip.

 

The luckless student in whatever the course was that included a session on the copy desk prayed that he or she would bask in the benevolent presence of anyone other than Spencer. When Spencer’s glowering presence dominated the copy desk we approached writing a headline as if it were a coiled rattlesnake. Once, however, I wrote a headline for a one paragraph wire story about how a prison convict had escaped by hiding in an empty soap barrel. Inspiration struck! “Con in soap barrel/makes clean break” I slid the headline timorously in front of Spencer and waited an eternity for his reaction. I think I saw the corner of his mouth twitch briefly and he spiked the headline. (Copy spikes were lethal looking pieces of equipment, a metal base topped with a long, sharp stiletto-like spear on which you would slap stories and headlines ready for the Linotype machines— you ran the risk of impaling yourself, a sort of Jesus like mutilation.)

 

We wrote copy, the now archaic term for how one constructs a news story for the press, on flimsy paper backed with a sheet of carbon paper which, in turn, was backed with an even more flimsy second sheet that served as the backup copy. Make a mistake and you either X-ed it out or painted over the mistake with White Out, an extinct substance which came in a little bottle, equipped with a tiny applicator brush like something you would use (well, not me anyway) to apply eyeliner.

 

Once spiked, your copy went through a mysterious process which resulted ultimately in it appearing in that day’s Columbia Missourian, the daily newspaper printed by the school of journalism in competition with the Columbia Tribune the city’s family-owned commercial newspaper. We had the advantage of an unpaid reporting staff; they had the advantage of professionals who knew what they were doing.

 

Today the Missourian still is published by the University but the Tribune has, like so many other one time family-owned operations, become a cog in a conglomerate, sold out of the family to a faceless corporate entity. The fate of the Tribune is symptomatic of what has happened to the newspaper business in the last few decades. The “local” newspaper of yesteryear today is more likely to have corporate headquarters far from the town it supposedly represents. This is not a good thing.

 

The erosion of the nation’s print media starts at the top with a socio-pathetic president for whom the nation’s legitimate press is “the enemy of the people” and to whom any story he does not like is “fake news.” If he were to have his way, any news media with which he disagrees would be eliminated, leaving only regime-approved news sources. And this is the very definition of a totalitarian society. Once you get rid of the truth tellers, all that is left is a dictatorship.

 

General Joe Hooker, one of Abraham Lincoln’s best officers, got in trouble with his boss when he said that what the Union needed was a dictator. That earned him a tongue lashing from Mr. Lincoln, who understood democracy and how it operates better than just about any of his Republican descendants, today in positions of political power.

 

But equally as malicious a threat to the printed word is the gobbling up of the nation’s small dailies by corporate conglomerates to whom the backbone of such newspapers— local news— is a foreign concept. The local newspaper for 200 years or more has been the source of a community’s daily identity.

 

The newspaper I worked a decade for was family-owned for a century by the White family. The first Robert M White, back in the 1870s, apparently had at least one fistfight with an irate subscriber and the concept of horse whipping the editor occasionally  substituted for dissatisfaction with news coverage. I think maybe a good old whuppin’ might soothe everyone’s feelings better than the half-baked and often half witted letters to the editor which litter the op-ed pages of today’s newspapers.

 

Corporate giants have swooped down on the newspaper industry and the family-owned dynasties of yesteryear are vanishing. Even the Washington Post whose team of investigative reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) brought down the pernicious president Richard Nixon, no longer is family-owned. Instead, it is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.  The Washington Examiner, Donald Trump’s Trojan horse in the print media world, is trying to destroy Bezos’ reputation because Trump doesn’t like the Post’s reporting of his nefarious dealings.

 

Trump may have picked a fight with the wrong guy because the Amazon-owning zillionaire has vowed to spend what it takes to whup up on the Examiner and by extension, quite possibly pull off another Nixon coup de grace. Maybe print media is not quite dead and the concept of horse whipping those who abuse the public trust likewise still exists in modernized form.

 

My old newspaper today is a cog in a conglomerate machine and one of the first actions it took after its takeover of the paper was to fire the sports editor— the job I had for 10 years. Maybe that colors my feelings about corporate ownership of small-town dailies, but such personnel decisions all too often are made by bean counters far removed from the community their newspaper is supposed to serve.

 

For a semester in J-School, my beat was the school board. Unfortunately for me, the board met at the north end of the city and I lived at the south end. I had no car and in order to cover school board meetings I had to hike the length of the city, scribble my notes, hike back to the dormitory, write my story on my antique Underwood in what Frank Sinatra called “the wee small hours of the morning”, turn my copy in virtually at daybreak to a well rested Dale Spencer and then trudge wearily to the first class of the day.

 

Today’s reporter can dictate his story to a smart phone, using voice recognition software, download it remotely to a computer where mysterious things happen electronically and the result is a pristine column on that day’s Columbia Missourian. No more wearying hikes to cover school board meetings, wee small hours laboring over a clackety Underwood. It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days, but they weren’t. Technology has made today’s news gathering and reporting a cakewalk by comparison. But the dark downside is the erosion of a free and unfettered press and that is a dark side best exemplified by what happened to Rod Smith.

 

Our local television station sold out to a large corporation and one of its first acts was to fire Rod Smith who had covered sports locally for the station since his high school days, the television version of an old time shoes-on-the pavement reporter. There was an immediate and virulent blowback from the community and the bean counters hastily reconsidered and rehired Rod. In a classic in your face moment Rod recently has been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Chalk one tiny win up for the good guys.

 

The last refuge for local news is the weekly newspaper, too small to attract the attention of the great white sharks of conglomeration, where you still can read about family reunions and bowling scores. It may also be the last refuge for hilarious typographical errors. Every old print guy collected such gaffes and passed them along to fellow news men (often over beer) to general hilarity. They were funny only if you had not been responsible for them. When I was at the Alabama Journal we lived in the eternal fear of any story or headline concerning Fort Rucker. Once, so I was told, a society story in the Sunday edition of the paper referred to a prominent society girl who was having a coming-out party as “A classy young lass” only the Linotype operator dropped the L in the last word. The story goes that the entire newspaper staff spent several hours roaming the streets of Montgomery collecting papers off people’s lawns and sidewalks before they woke up and read the society page.

 

My favorite such story which may be apocryphal—but who cares— concerns two Missouri Ozark towns that actually exist–Licking and Halfway The headline in a local paper supposedly read “Licking Girl to Marry Halfway Man”.

 

Once, when I was in high school, the local weekly newspaper transposed parts of two stories, one an obituary, the other a report of the activities of a social club. The obituary ended interestingly “At the end of the evening, Sally Smith organized games and a wonderful time was had by all attending.”

 

Perhaps, at the bitter end of the nation’s print media, if such a dire fate awaits the profession that I cherish, the last struggling little weekly newspaper will publish an obituary for the voice of democracy and those who now call for an end to what they disparage can organize games and have a wonderful time by all attending.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • February 7th, 2019

LOVE AFFAIR

By Joel M. Vance

Bobby Bare said it best in a Shell Silverstein song “This guitar is for sale.” The song, sad enough in itself, hits home to me, although my guitar is not for sale and never will be. But my picking days are ended, thanks to the after effects of a stroke, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome which have combined to stiffen my left hand and made it impossible for me to dance around the fretboard the way I used to (well, try to anyway).

 

                “This guitar is for sale/I’ll let her go cheap.”

 

That’s what Bobby Bare sang, except I wouldn’t let her go for $1 million. She is a part of me as much as my heart. I worked detasseling seed corn for $.50 an hour, 10 hours a day during one of the hottest summers in modern times to earn the money to pay for her. “She” is a 1950 mahogany topped C. .F. Martin 00 17 guitar.

 

The Godfather of jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt, made do with two fingers on his left hand, the other two having been burned and disfigured in a house fire and missing two fingers didn’t stop him from being one of the greatest guitar players in history, but missing the use of all four of my left hand fingers prevents me from being even the palest shadow of a Django. I am not and never was and never would be a Django. But even Django could not have played one-handed although he came close.  There is no such thing as a one-handed guitar player. Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for the left hand only for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I so it is possible to play at least one piece on the piano with one hand. You even can play major league baseball with one hand. Pete Gray lost his right arm in a childhood accident but played in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns. Not possible with the guitar–it’s strictly a two-handed operation.

 

                “Just touch her once gently/and she’ll take you on home.”

 

 My little guitar has always been a refuge for me when things got gloomy and blue. I could take my little Martin 00 17, bought in 1951 for $60, go off by myself and serenade anything or anyone who wanted to listen (which usually was, at maximum, a disinterested dog).

 

The sense of accomplishment and the thrill of conquest when I got something right amid the six strings was every bit as pleasing as calling in and killing a trophy gobbler in the spring. I couldn’t take a cool lick home and eat it or brag about it in the coffee shop the way I could with the trophy gobbler (because no one cared), but the thrill of the chase and the accomplishment was there and I could enjoy it over and over again, something not possible with the gobbler.

 

The 00 17 is small, of a size that they used to call “parlor guitar,” meaning that it was not a lusty loud instrument suitable for auditoriums, but rather one for playing in the front room and that was good when applied to my little Martin because often that’s where I played it—sitting on the couch while the family eddied about the house doing household things. What I was playing and singing was for me fairly obviously, because no one seemed to be overwhelmed by my talent. Bill Monroe put a rattlesnake rattle inside his fabled Gibson F5 mandolin to sweeten the sound. There is nothing inside my baby Martin except dust and I don’t think it needs sound sweetening— especially if it takes rectal amputation of a rattlesnake to get it.

 

                “She’s won me some ladies/with her sweet lovin’ songs.”

 

Twice did the little Martin and I entrance a lady with sweet lovein’ songs. The first time happened in 1956 in El Paso, Texas, where I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss. Several young married couples occupied an apartment complex on Fort Boulevard and one of the couples, Reid and Lois Hanmer had a daughter, Shelley. Shelley was two years old, blonde and impossibly cute and I used to serenade her on the apartment complex lawn. There is a photograph of me singing to Shelley as we sit facing each other and she obviously was hugely enjoying the experience. She was my little groupie and I know how Elvis must have felt when girls squealed and shrieked at his singing— although Shelley never squealed or shrieked. She just listened and enjoyed when she wasn’t playing with ants in the grass or watching planes flying overhead from El Paso’s Air Force base.

 

I acquired another groupie a few years later. I sat on the stoop of our house and the five-year-old daughter of a neighbor would toddle across the street and listen to me singing. Her name was Jessica and I teased her by asking “is that spelled with two essicas?” My clumsy attempt at humor was miles over her head, as was my singing—she was mostly interested in chatting tirelessly. Even my spirited rendition of the gruesome ditty “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” failed to interrupt her stream of consciousness gossiping. Too bad—it was one of my better attention getters.

 

Once I handed Bobby Bare my copy of his inspirationally named, but wonderful long play album “Bare” for an autograph and he laughed and softly sang “This guitar is for sale.” Apparently, the song was as memorable to him as it was to me.

 

                “If you think she looks weary,/you’ve been readin’ our mail.”

 

Like me the little Martin has suffered the scrapes and bumps of time. The bridge pins became so worn and brittle they had to be replaced. The tuning knobs likewise wore down and the machine heads and knobs were replaced and, not too long after I got her, I managed to knock a hole in the lower bout on the corner of a dresser, an injury that caused me to break into tears. The wound was invisible to anyone in front of the guitar, but I knew it was there like an open sore that never heals. One day I read a for sale item in the local paper advertising a Martin guitar for sale and I jumped on it immediately.

 

                “So please treat her kindly./Keep her out of the rain.”

 

The guitar turned out to be the bastard child of a Martin and a Gibson— it had a Martin body and a Gibson neck and it cost me all of $15. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t sound as sweet as my little Martin and it became my float trip guitar so I didn’t have to risk the Martin in the rain or the river.  I could sleep with it in the tent, and keep it out of the rain and the river. My little Martin stayed home, safe. The Mar-Gib was no collector’s item— but as the illegitimate child of a Martin it had value. Then a savior appeared in the form of a luthier who offered to fix the hole in the little Martin in exchange for the Mar-Gib. Not only did he fix the hole but he leveled the frets, installed new bridge pins and tuners. Thus, cosmetically restored, the Martin was once again virtually the same as it had been factory new.

 

                “She’ll tell you sad stories/’bout junkyards and jails.”

 

Closest I came to a brush with the law was in college.  Thinking to become the next rhythm and blues sensation, I bought and installed a pickup on the sound hole of the little Martin and then realized that I had no amplifier to plug into. One night Stan Krueger and I invaded the music building, him with his harmonica and me with my ready-to-boogie Martin. We found an amplifier and proceeded to re-create BB King and Little Walter and found that instead of a howling mob of rabid fans we had a less than appreciative audience the next day with the Dean of Students who informed us that any further attempts to bring the Mississippi Delta to the University of Missouri campus would result in us being former students of the University of Missouri. I pitched the pickup which had done nothing more for the world of music than leave a few scuff marks on the guitar’s sound hole and once more became a parlor picker well out of sight of the Dean of Students.

 

So I’ve stayed out of jails and largely out of junkyards although some years later I was heading south on Highway 63 when I passed a yard sale (not a junkyard) and caught, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of guitar cases leaning against a table of for-sale items. I burned rubber and did a U-turn that would’ve done credit to a highway patrolman involved in a high-speed chase (and possibly could have landed me in the aforementioned jail) and made it back to the sale in time to close the deal on a mahogany topped Martin D 15 guitar that the man selling it described as his “Willie Nelson guitar” because it had a hole knocked in the lower bout. Anyone who is a Willie Nelson fan knows that Willie plays a Martin classical guitar with a hole worn in the top from decades of being battered by guitar picks. So I now owned two Martin mahogany topped guitars that had been identically wounded in combat. It was as, as Yogi Berra was fond of saying “déjà vu all over again.”

 

Lacking the appearance of an angel in the luthier form, I fixed the hole myself with a scrap of mahogany from my workshop. The D 15 had cost me, on sale, approximately six times as much as its smaller cousin had in 1951–inflation personified. My repair didn’t look as pretty as a professional job would have, but I didn’t have a Mar-Gib to trade for the work and I wasn’t about to offer my little baby in trade.

 

I now had two Martin guitars, one more than I was able to confidently play, but there’s something about the Martin mystique that has been around since 1833 and which has captured the affections of countless entertainers over the years

 

                “She knows every sad song/that Hank ever wrote.”

 

Hank Williams played a Martin guitar and while I don’t know every song he wrote, I know several of them. Unable to cure my addiction to Martins, I splurged for a 1970 Martin D 35 in a moment of profligate insanity and today it’s on a stand, side-by-side with the baby Martin, like a protective big brother, as equally unplayable by me as is my baby, thanks to the buggered up left-hand.

 

David Gilmour, guitarist for Pink Floyd, will auction off more than 120 of his enormous guitar collection with the money going to charitable causes. Included in the legendary collection is a 1969 Martin D 35 that is expected to bring as much as $20,000. The entire sale probably will top $1 million— maybe more. I doubt that my D 35 is a $20,000 guitar.  But I did try to sell it several years ago and no one wanted to pay the price I was asking so I retrieved it and it has joined its two family members among musical instruments that I can’t play anymore.

 

My baby Martin and I have traveled all over the country, not as minstrels but because it and I are fond of retreating to a quiet place to sing the blues when they come calling.  Aside from the occasional two-year-old blonde, no one much cares when I sing the sad ballads of yesteryear. I can still sing “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” even if I can’t hit any hot licks to punctuate the poignant ode. But singing a cappella without the support of my baby Martin is as unsatisfying as a diet consisting wholly of broccoli.

.

 

                “If you got the dough buddy, take her and go.”

 

I could be persuaded to sell the D 35 and the D 15 to someone with the dough.  I’m willing to part with them for my price. You won’t see them at a yard sale.  But the baby Martin, unlike its big brothers, is not for sale and never will be. It has my sweat impregnated in the timeworn fibers of its mahogany top and body. It is as much a part of me as my heart and, if there is such a thing, my soul.

 

                “It’s funny you askin’/ I never gave her a name.”

 

She’s just my baby Martin and, for all I know, she may not even be a female— she may be a guy guitar, but there is in her softly rounded contours a feminine beauty. The relationship of this little guitar with me is nearly a lifelong one, a love affair that never ends. We know each other so well. We learned “The Wildwood Flower” together and have sung it to the stars and the full moon and to the dark night. It has chased the blues and soothed the hurts that come with life.

 

If there is any justice, one night when things are gloomy, my hand miraculously will be limber again and I will sit on our deck with the little Martin and play and sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and a flash of lightning will send us on our way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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