In 1945 Dad came home from the South Pacific where he had served in the Naval Dental Corps during World War 2. He brought with him something I had never seen before --- a ukulele. And he could even play it. It was made of wood and had four strings and a round body. He said a nurse had taught him how to play it. Now if one of my friends had told us such a thing when I was much older --- we all would have laughed out loud. Imagine a guy is stationed overseas with a bunch of beautiful nurses --- who has been away from his wife for a couple years --- and he spends his spare time taking ukulele lessons from a nurse? Yeah, right!
But Dad could play that thing alright. He only used about 7 or 8 cords --- but that enabled you to play a heck of a lot of songs. Dad would sing along as he played and I had to admit he had a pretty good voice. When I got a little older Dad taught me to play a few songs. The first one was “Bell Bottom Trousers” because it only required two different cords. But then it was “Jimmy Crack Corn”, “Coming ‘Round the Mountain”, “Five Foot Two” and “Ain’t She Sweet”. After awhile Dad bought me my own uke --- a plastic one --- which didn’t sound quite as good as his. But sometime after that he bought me a banjo-uke --- and that was a beauty! It was a 4-string banjo made of metal --- but it was the size of a uke. It sounded like a banjo and it was really fun to play. After awhile I was even entertaining with it on stage in my grade school in front of hundreds of kids and teachers. I also performed with my Dad at a couple Rotary Club Minstrel Shows. We dressed as hillbillies, played our ukes and sang. We were a big hit!
When I was a freshman in high school I asked for a guitar for Christmas. I figured it was time to graduate to a 6-string instrument. Santa cooperated and I received a beautiful Gibson acoustic guitar that year. Of course I needed lessons and Dad had never played a guitar. I assume he couldn’t find a nurse with that talent. So Dad found me a music teacher and I went for a guitar lesson almost every Saturday for about two years. The following year I received a hardback leather guitar case --- and the year after that I received an amplifier and “guitar” pick-up (microphone) that turned my acoustic guitar into an electric guitar! I now began to entertain at parties.
By the time I got to college I was pretty good on the guitar and entertained at parties a lot. I even sat in on guitar with visiting rock bands. The summer after I graduated I entered a talent contest at a musical bar known as Tony Mart’s. I played the guitar, sang songs and told jokes. I won the contest that night and they asked me to be in the finals at the end of the summer. I also won the final talent contest --- as well as the final Limbo contest --- but that’s another story.
In the Navy I was stationed aboard a destroyer escort and my Gibson and amplifier accompanied me. Again, I played at parties and even formed a ship’s band. One night in Jamaica all the ship’s officers were partying with a bunch of women and a Jamaican Calypso Band. The Captain decided the band needed a guitar and directed me to contact the ship and have some sailors deliver my guitar and amp to the party. The ship was anchored out in the middle of the harbor --- so this entailed a sailor getting the guitar and amp out of my stateroom, getting the motor whaleboat to take them to the pier and then having a jeep deliver the goods to the party. All this was accomplished, of course, because the Captain wanted a damn guitar to be part of the Jamaican band! But we had a ball that night! There was music, dancing, drinking and partying galore!
Meanwhile, Dad was still playing his uke at parties. One of his most requested songs was “One Meatball” --- a funny song about a poor chap who goes into a restaurant and only has enough money to order one meatball. When he asks for some bread to go with it a rude waiter shouts out in a booming voice, “You get no bread with one meatball!”. My kid brother learned to play the uke, too. And then he also learned to play the guitar. Years later when I was married and had a son, he learned to play the guitar as well.
The first night I met my second wife was the night my Gibson died. It was at a party and near the end of the music & joke session the guitar just came apart. After we were married I bought a new guitar --- but it was never as good as the Gibson. One time my wife gave me the money to have the old Gibson repaired, but I never got around to doing so. Finally, some 20 years later, I got the old Gibson repaired.
For many years during my second marriage I continued to entertain with the guitar at parties. But as the years went by I became turned off by the “new” music, didn’t learn any new songs and figured people were getting tired of the old songs. So I stopped playing at parties and I seldom play the guitar at all these days.
But looking back I realize I’ve had about 55 years of fun with the uke, the banjo- uke and the guitars. And to think it all began with a Navy dentist taking uke lessons from a Navy nurse. I guess I’m lucky she wasn’t a ballerina.
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