A Mandolin Lesson for Doc: The Circle Unbroken
One damp, cold, Tuesday morning several patients cancelled. I guess it was too bad out to go to the doctor. We finished up early so I went over to Johnny’s Jewelry and Pawn at lunch. They have an easy chair over there I’m fond of. The stuffing is about to come out of it, but it is very comfortable. Sometimes I try out a new mandolin, and some days I take a nap. Johnny knows what time I start back at the office and he wakes me up in time to get back and see my afternoon patients.
That day he had a used Gibson F9 on consignment. I picked it up and sat down to try it out. After a minute an elderly man came in the store. He wore a heavy overcoat and a rain hat and carried a battered mandolin case. He hung his hat on the rack. Johnny helped him get his coat off. He walked over my way.
“Ain’t you Dr. B?”
“I saw you on the cable T.V. I like the way you pick that thing.”
“Get it out and play one with me.”
He laid his case on the counter. He had a noticable tremor. I was afraid he wasn’t even gonna be able to open it up, much less play. He finally got the mandolin out of the case and handed it to me.
I checked it out. The mandolin was at least as old as the man. The finish was worn down to the bare wood in spots. This was an ‘auto-distressed’ ‘A’ style complete with coffee stains and a variety of scrapes and scratches. I sighted the neck, and it was fairly straight. I held it up to my nose. It smelled like an antique piano. “Hey brother, you’re missing a string.”
“Really?” He peered over his glasses and stared for a moment. “You sure?”
Johnny walked over and handed me a pack of strings. “How ’bout fixing him up Doc?”
“Sure.” I put on the missing ‘E’ string, tuned it up, and handed it back to the man. “Ready to rock and roll, my friend.”
“Thanks. I’m going over to the nursing home to play for the old folks. I want to get it right.”
I was impressed. This man was every bit of 85. “Pick one with me before you go. How ’bout ‘Home Sweet Home?'”
“I only strum, Doc. I can’t pick it like you.”
“Don’t matter. I’ll play the lead, you back me up.”
We played it about 80% pace and he held his own well. He sung the lead in a shaky voice and I took the baritone line.
“Enjoyed, Doc. Gotta go. Don’t want to be late for my gig.” He laid the instrument back in the case, closed the lid, and fumbled with the latches. His hands trembled so bad it was almost painful to watch but after a while he got it shut and secured. Johnny helped him get on his overcoat. He put on his hat. I followed him to the door, opened it, and the cold slapped us in the face. The man put his head down to make his way into the wind, and waved good-bye. The rain streaked down the glass of the showroom front window as we watched him pass by. I’m pretty sure he whistled ‘Home Sweet Home’ as he shuffled down the sidewalk. A memory of Indie flashed up in my brain.
I went back to the easy chair, sat down, and cross-picked a bar or two of the tune. Johnny walked over. “Do you know Wilbur?” he asked.
“I’ve seen him in the store. I don’t recall that he ever played with us.”
“Unlikely he did. Mostly just plays at his apartment. He’s in here every week. He tries to change his strings at home but he always breaks one or two. He can’t tune it up any more either. He brings it in before he plays over at the nursing home. We always oblige him; sometimes one of the customers does.”
“Hm. I’m glad I was part of that. That man is my hero.” I played a few bars of ‘The Circle.’ “I hope someone plays for me at the nursing home. I want to be like him when I grow up.”
“Me too, Doc.”
“Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by…..”