Martin guitars. Finest in the world. Handmade in the U.S.A. Aged spruce tops that turn vibrations into rich, resonant music that can fill a concert hall. Rosewood body that glows deep red like a tropical sunset. If Florida homes were braced like Martin guitars, they would be hurricane impervious.
I bought my Martin guitar 26 years ago with three years' worth of bartending tips.
I sold it recently. It wasn't easy.
Watergate was a hint in June 1972. The war in Vietnam wasn't over. Bill Gates hadn't even set up his garage workshop. I lived for bluegrass music, cold beer and pretty girls. My horizons extended all the way to the next $50 gig, the next beer, the next girl. My Martin was my most prized possession. Except for a decrepit, black VW Beetle I had won in a poker game and a pile of philosophy books, it was my only possession.
I played it every day -- six, eight hours a day. Sometimes my fingers bled.
The guitar baked on a hot stage under a July sun at the New York State Fair where my band opened for The Byrds. It took me to Nashville, Boston and roadhouses up and down the East Coast. It inhaled a lifetime supply of cigarette smoke at Ide's Bowling Lanes in Ithaca, N.Y., where we played for beer until the owner figured out it was cheaper to pay us in cash.
It took me to North Carolina, where Doc Watson picked a tune on it in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain. Arlo Guthrie strummed it at a Cornell gig. At an old-time revival near Saratoga, Ricky Skaggs pronounced it "sweet." Tony Rice, Russ Barenburg, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, they all played my guitar. If you know folk music, you know who they are.
More than one girlfriend said choose: her or the guitar. I forget their names.
It predated my first marriage. It postdated my first marriage.
I played Irish lullabies to my daughters every night for 10 years. When my eldest daughter was big enough to get an arm around the guitar, I taught her a few chords. She learned a lick of "Greensleeves."
Then I found an even sweeter sounding Martin. This time, no scrimping was necessary. My relative fortunes were waxing. The old guitar spent more time in its case, more time in the closet. Months. Years. It became the Puff the Magic Dragon of guitars, still loved but very lonely.
Teen-age daughters, huge phone bills, college coming fast, two boys with big appetites. The old guitar, regrettably, became something other than a storehouse of memories, something other than a masterfully crafted musical instrument. It became an underutilized capital asset.
So I put the ad in the paper a few weeks ago and all sorts of people wanted my guitar. And the more they tried to talk me into lowering my good price, the less I felt like selling. They frowned and furrowed their brows and examined my old Martin like a kid picks at a plate of lukewarm lima beans. It needs this, it needs that, they said.
But old Martins don't need anything, except to be played. They were nit-pickers, I told myself, not guitar pickers. I decided to keep it.
But one last guy was coming to the house. One last nit-picker, most likely.
Sam Chaney's his name. He's 74. He picked up that guitar like it was a new baby and turned it over and looked at it, gazed deep into the brilliant finish, ran his fingers gently down its back and up its neck.
I don't play, he said. I just love them, always wanted one. He speaks with a South Georgia lilt.
A daughter and a grandson are all the family he has. Wife gone, Georgia kin gone, Army buddies gone. He's got his butterfly gardens behind his home, 200 varieties of hibiscus, miniature red peppers, old and bulbous ponytail palms. He does volunteer work at Mounts Botanical Gardens. He's happy, he says, and busy.
But he wants something to leave to his grandson. He wants an old Martin. My old Martin.
So we sit for an hour and Sam talks and we go from music to his war, the Big One. Silver Star for taking out a German machine gun nest in France, 1944. The German gunners ambushed and killed 23 of the 49 men in his platoon before they met Pfc. Sam Chaney. He was 19. He was promoted to sergeant, earned six battle stars, nearly froze his toes off in the Battle of the Bulge. Two years later he was a squad leader in Nuremberg, Germany, after the war crimes trials. A firing squad. I did my duty, he says. He speaks softly.
Sam's talking and I'm listening and feeling downright inclined to give the guy the guitar. I want my kids to meet him, to hear his stories and see his gardens. Come on over for iced tea, he offers. You visit, too, I say.
So what about the guitar? I ask.
"I believe I'd like it," he says.
He pays for the guitar. Cash. Sam doesn't quibble.
The last I see of my guitar, it's riding like an old pal right next to Sam in the cab of his pickup.
After he's gone, I realize that after weeks of seeing ghosts and faded memories every time I looked at the guitar, my feelings are no longer mixed. I feel good. Sam feels good. Hell, the guitar would feel good if it could. It has a new friend.
Maybe I do, too.
Pub Date: 6/22/98