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?”

        “Yes, sir.”

        “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…..”

Dr. B

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20 Comments on “A Mandolin Lesson for Doc: The Circle Unbroken”

  1. Billy Says:

    Boy you got the cobwebs in my mind shaking. Years ago there was a guy who played every Friday night after midnight at a local White Castle. He would sit in the back corner with his guitar and sing for the late crowd. Someone said when the sun rose he would go to shelters and schools and prisons and old folks home, he never stopped. Last time in Louisville I saw a young guy playing the old man’s guitar at the truck stop. The music goes on.

    • drtombibey Says:


      When I saw that man it hit me that no matter how humble our efforts might be we all gotta keep on trying.

      Dr. B

  2. junebugger Says:

    Aww this was such a touching story. Thank you so much for suggesting this post to me. It made my day. And you are right–through art, I’m also even able to connect with people older than me..because the love of writing would be our common ground.

    I hope you’ll get to know that gentleman better. He seems like a really great inspiring person.

    • drtombibey Says:


      With my writing I hope to show stories about people who do some good but are unknown.

      I have zero interest in celebrities who just take advantage of people for money. My journey will not end with me labeled as a “great” writer but it is the path I have to pursue.

      I appreciate you, and each person who follows old Doc along. To me each one is a person I am connected with in some small way.

      My buddy Darin says we choose our music because it is what we do, even though we have no notion where it might or might not take us. My writing is the same.

      Dr. B

  3. Val Says:

    …there’s a better, home awaitin’
    In the sky Lord in the sky…

    I think I’m becoming a fan of yours Dr. B. You are an incredible story teller. 🙂

    • drtombibey Says:


      If folks want to read physician bluegrass fiction I believe my site is the number one ranked one in the world. (Did I mention it is the only one?)

      I enjoy yours too ’cause it is ‘New Found Land’ for this old Doc. I hardly ever get out of the county.

      Dr. B

  4. worddreams Says:

    My old gourd mandolin went through WWI with my grandpa. When I was ten, he taught me to play and we did duets–him on his banjo and me on the mandolin. When I got it, I spent hundreds repair the collapsed back and have loved it ever since. Thanks for the memories.

    • drtombibey Says:


      Thank you so much for your comment. One major reason I write is for the chance to connect with folks like you and get to preserve these kinds of stories.

      Dr. B

  5. Fiona Skye Says:

    I love that song. It reminds me of my Dad. He’d listen to that album – yes, an honest-to-goodness vinyl LP! – whenever my Mum was away. He’d let me sit with him in his study, and he’d smoke and sip his scotch and listen to the music with his eyes closed.

    Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane, Dr B.

    • drtombibey Says:


      Your Dad sounds like a cool guy. My daughter was raised on the music too, and she is a fine girl.

      Your comment shows why vinyl is making a comeback. A lot of people think it has a warmer sound. I miss all the liner notes and graphics too.

      The Grascals, a fine bluegrass band who got their start as Dolly Parton’s back-up band, offered their last project on vinyl and I understand Elvis Costello did too.

      Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you’ll come back to visit again.

      Dr. B

  6. What I love about the way you write Dr. B is that you tell a story, you write from the heart and you reinforce the importance of helping out other people. You make it sound simple. We should all do as much. Every day is a chance to live God’s grace. I think an ‘older’ audience is what people need. I’ve taught English now for 15 years and I see that learning doesn’t have an age. If it does, I hope it’s mine.

    • drtombibey Says:

      you make me smile,

      You’ve about got me figured out already. My daughter always says, “Daddy, you’re so simple you’re complicated to people.”

      I agree about learning. I try to learn something new every day. Tell your students they better stick with those studies ’cause old Doc is still digging to stay ahead of the curve.

      Dr. B

  7. Dr B, reading your blog always makes me want to put my favourites on and sit back to enjoy the sensations.

    • drtombibey Says:


      My friend when I get comments like yours it makes me want to dig deep and get all my stories out there. After a lifetime as country doc I have a bunch of ’em.

      Dr. B

  8. Ted Lehmann Says:

    Hole in one. The other comments say it all. – tl

  9. Simpkins Says:

    Thats Awesome Right There


  10. drtombibey Says:


    The mandolin, and the music in general, has many lessons, doesn’t it? I hope you and yours have a blessed Christmas.

    Dr. B

  11. Daniel Wargo Says:

    I am not sure if my comment went through the first time, but I thanked you for putting up the Links for Haiti Disaster Relief, stated that in recent History, Haitians had suffered repeatedly more than most, if not all, other peoples, and also thanked you for visiting my website to leave a Comment there about how you enjoyed my Radio Program…”The Hayride”. My Show airs each week on Yellowstone Public Radio, and is available FREE for all Stations.

    Dan Wargo 1/14/10

    • drtombibey Says:


      Yes sir it did. After I get my book out there I’d love to do an interview on the Hayride. As far as I know I am the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer, so it would be unique if nothing else.

      Dr. B

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