(This began as a personal note to a friend’s son. My friend and his dad died in 2014. Holidays are especially hard on us who remember someone whom we’ve lost to death. His son enjoyed this so much I decided to change a few names in it, to protect privacy, and to publish it. Maybe you will enjoy it, too. The guitar is very real and the story is true. It’s a story of generosity.)
Christmas is the season of giving and the season of remembering.
James is my best friend. He died in 2014 and I miss him today. Samuel, his son, caused me to remember him today. He wanted a story to recall his dad. Here you go, Samuel. I’ll share it with a few others who knew him well, or who know this story, but not in a general post. You’ll see in the tags.
I’m not sure exactly sure when James and I became friends. It was definitely guitar and Jesus that brought us together. He was one of the best guitarists, especially electric guitarists, I personally knew. He could do anything, but he made the guitar sing. Bluesy style best describes it, maybe. He was a definite Rocker but he played acoustic equally as well. Besides guitar, he could play pretty much any kind of musical instrument. His basement was a kind of musical museum.
We were both at the same church. I was impressed with his playing and I just introduced myself to him. I liked him when I met him. He was a party animal. He adored fireworks, as you well know. He lived on the edge. He was brutally honest. He did not put up with foolishness. He could discern character more quickly and deeply than anyone I knew. He was crude. He offended some people who did not understand him, but he loved them deeply as well. He’d say about someone or something, “I smell bullshit. I can smell it a mile away.” And darn if he was not right. Consistently right. He was “all in” all the time. His faith was almost 100% from the heart, not the head, not much at all there. That’s not to say he wasn’t smart or that he did not think about things, but the heart is where his base of operations was located.
I spent time in his basement with him and his guitars. He’d hand me one. “Here, play this.” He gave me a couple, sold me a couple, same price he bought it for, plus $5.00 “finders fee” he called it. Which usually meant it was at 80-90% discount.
He claimed to be able to sniff out guitar deals. He said God led him to guitars. I believe God did, because of what James did with them. It was the most remarkable thing I ever saw.
He’d tell me, “I got the feeling. I smell a guitar.” I laughed the first time he told me that. Then a day or two would pass and he’d call me and tell me, “Guess what I found at the pawn shop today.” Made me want to say bad words. It used to irritate the fool out of me because he would come home with some outrageous guitar he’d get for just a few dollars. Most of us who wish for those kinds of guitar deals, maybe, just maybe will find a once in the lifetime deal, but James would find them every few weeks. Amazing. I loved just watching the man go about his miracles. It was almost always a miracle deal with God behind it somewhere. I had to retool my ideas about ministry.
James was the most generous man I ever met. When I was trying to join the worship team at Cumberland Community Church, he supported me and went to bat for me and another friend, when the leader did not want us anywhere near the worship band. James hardly knew me, and after years of acoustic guitar I was just starting to play electric. He told me, “Acoustic and electric are not the same instrument.”
He gave up his time on Saturday nights to mentor and tutor me and our other friend in electric guitar so we could be part of CCC’s team. He’d say, “I don’t want you to suck while you are playing on stage with me.” He’d laugh, but I kind of think he as dead serious. He was a relentless teacher and in your face constantly. He’d tell me, “That sucks. Do it again. Do it like this. Do it over. Do it over.” Besides church we played in another band together. He was the same there. Get as close to perfection as you can. I learned more from him about guitar than anyone I’d ever played with or studied.
Generous. Whatever it was, he gave it away; time, money, guitars. Especially guitars. Which brings me to the Warrior guitar pictured above.
I was teaching guitar to the young kids at church. They were anywhere from 7 to 11 or 12 years old. Some were teenagers too at times. Some of them had physical problems in hand or wrist. I liked the challenge. They loved their instrument, but didn’t want a standard guitar class. You never know with kids, or any guitar student really, if out of the many who say they want to play, which ones will be the ones who stick with it. Who will be the musician, who has the fire?
Some of the students could not afford guitars. I think I counted maybe 30 or 40 kids or so who went through my beginner class over about 10 years. Probably 20% of them could not afford a guitar, or at least their parents told me that. But it didn’t matter if they could or could not afford it. James would always find a good guitar for them to learn to play. For those who could not really afford the instrument, he gave them “loaners”, but many of the loaners never returned. I recall only one or two people who ever paid for their guitars, but James repeatedly would find guitars for the kids. He’d tell me, “You do the lessons, because I can’t stand to teach guitar to beginners, but you let me find the guitars.” So, we partnered. I’d tell him about a student, and it wouldn’t even be a week before he’d have a nice guitar for the kid.
There was a U.S. Army officer who also attended church with us. I’m keeping names private as much as I can and still relate the story. This was after 9/11 and his troops were in Afghanistan. This officer played guitar too. We were talking one Sunday, and he told me how some of the soldiers overseas missed playing guitar. I told him about James, made the introduction, and left it at that.
A few weeks later, James told me he was shipping some guitars over to Afghanistan. He’d gotten it worked out with my Army friend, who had gotten it worked out with his superiors. Off the guitars went to the other side of the world. I can’t remember now, but I probably high-fived him, good man attaboy, and all that. Again, this kind of thing was not unusual for James. It’s just what he did. It was his ministry.
I did not think any more about it, but one day James called me. “You are not going to believe what I found at the pawn shop.” Here we go again, I thought. Well this was the golden one. Literally.
He related the story as I recall it, like this: “I got a call from one of the pawn shops I do business with and the owner asked me if I knew anything about Warrior guitars.” [They are custom built here in Rossville, Georgia. Quite expensive. I knew what they were.] “I told him yes. Well he told me he had one at his shop, just came out of pawn and asked me if I was interested in it. I asked him how much. I thought he said $750.00. That would have been a good price. I could sell it for double or triple maybe, so I told him I’d come pick it up. Has a case too. Do you know how much I bought it for?” I told James, “I cannot imagine (thinking “you bum”). “I got it and the case for $75.00. Seventy-five dollars!”
I was floored. I went over to his house. The thing was an absolute gem. Gold metal flake beauty. Had that sword/cross at the 12th fret. They have a sound similar to a Fender Strat. James played it. I played it. Glorious barely describes it.
Samuel, when your dad died, your step-mom asked several of his closest friends if they wanted a guitar of his. Your dad had already set aside the cream of them for you, Big Red [a Gibson ES-335] and others. I told her, I did not need another guitar, that I wanted a story instead. The Warrior was the best story and kind of the pinnacle of what your dad did with his guitars, and how he blessed others with them.
It’s just wood and strings, and but for the grace of God, it would still be a tree in the forest. However, I really do think that your dad had honored soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan with guitars he found at pawn. I don’t know what they were or how much they cost. We had only one conversation I recall where we talked a little about not shipping something like a Martin over there. That was kind of an extreme example he used. Kind of obvious, because they were too precious to risk in a war zone and it would be unfair to put that burden on a soldier. I don’t know if he even considered it. I believe he might have, though.
Whatever, I think the Lord rewarded his generosity in a symbolic way; the Warrior guitar for $75, worth much, much more than that, in exchange for other guitars sent freely and generously to American warriors on the backside of the world, with no thought of reward for himself.
Recall this story, Samuel, when you think of your dad. They say that friendship is multiplied to others by the different perspectives of the friend they share. Each of your dad’s close friends saw a different side of him and we each appreciated him in a special way. Enjoy this story.
Merry Christmas, 2019