By Mel Tharp © 1991
Issue: November, 1991
Over the years, I have derived a lot of pleasure from playing string instruments, especially the guitar. I have owned a lot of guitars, but I suppose the one that remains foremost in my memory is the first guitar I ever owned. I have owned better guitars, but the initial one stands out in my memories because of the ordeal I went through in order to obtain it.
While growing up during the 1930s I sort of had the best of two worlds. I lived in a small western Kentucky town were my family operated a restaurant. In the summer, during school vacations, I spent most of the time with my grandparents who owned a farm 15 miles out of town.
It was in 1934 when my grandmother bought a Victrola. That stimulated my interest in music. I would sit for hours, literally enthralled, listening to the sounds coming from the big walnut cabinet model phonograph. I liked the sound of the guitar and especially the style of Jimmy Rogers.
Jimmy Rogers was a legend in the true sense of the term. He left behind him a great contribution to music. He had the gift of being able to express the musical moods of the South as no one had done before. Rogers directly caused the sale of more guitars and phonographs, inspired more youngsters to take up music than any single person before him. So, it was only natural that I would develop the urge to own and play a guitar.
Granddad promised me a guitar for the following Christmas, but from June to December seemed like eons. My impatience was exacerbated when the Bucks, a neighboring family bought Hugh, their five year old son, a new Silvertone guitar out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog. It was one of the expensive models with gold plated keys and onyx inlay between the frets.
Hugh had been born to Lee and Annie Buck after many years of childless marriage, and they wasted no time in spoiling him to the extent of making him an insufferable brat. What Hugh wanted he got. As is usually the case, the more he got, the less appreciative he became and he disdainfully wasted and destroyed his toys like they were worthless chaff.
Hugh's attention span was very short. This was graphically exemplified when I passed the Buck house one afternoon and saw Hugh in the yard with the guitar. He had a string attached to it and was pulling it along on the ground like a sled. I noticed he had several bricks stacked on the guitar. Evidently Hugh had given up music and was now aspiring to be a freight hauler.
Annie was standing in the yard grinning with approbation as Hugh drug the guitar along behind him.
I was shocked, even angry, but I tried to conceal my feelings by speaking in a friendly tone. "Hello," I greeted. "Isn't Hugh playing his guitar now?"
"No, he's found a better use for it," Annie chuckled. "It was hurting his fingers."
"This thing ain't no good," Hugh whined petulantly. "It don't carry enough bricks. I want a red wagon."
"You'll get one, honey," Annie assured him. "Just as soon as we go to town."
One look at the guitar was enough to give me a feeling of nausea. What had been a beautiful instrument was now in shambles. The strings had been broken off, the pegs were missing, and it was badly scared. The box was, however, basically sound. There were no cracks, and fortunately, the neck had not been warped. Perhaps, I thought, Hugh might be induced to part with the guitar at a bargain.
"Do you want to sell the guitar?" I asked eagerly.
Annie was a cunning, sharp-eyed dealer who wasn't averse to taking advantage of a young boy. My enthusiasm was too evident. She hesitated, looking first at me then at the guitar as if dangling the bait. "Well, I don't guess we'll sell it," she said finally, "It'll make some good kindling wood come this winter."
"Well, thanks anyway," I said, trying to conceal my hurt. I turned and started to leave.
"Wait up, boy," Annie called. "Maybe we can make a deal. Hugh is mighty fond of blackberry cobbler. I got a three-gallon milk pail hanging out in the barn. I'll tell you what. You pick me three gallons of blackberries and you can have the guitar."
At first glance it seemed like an excellent bargain. Then, I quickly realized it was not easy. It was late in the season and most of the blackberry patches had been picked over.
"Do you know any good patches?" I asked hopefully.
"I sure do," she replied. "I know where they're hanging in clusters as big as basketballs."
"Where is that?" I asked, darting at the bait like a catfish at a juicy worm.
"The Swob place," she replied, punctuating her reply with a cackle that I thought reminiscent of the wicked witch in Snow White.
The Swob place indeed! Annie was sending me into the very jaws of hell.
Bob Swob was a man few people liked and everyone feared. His farm was plastered over with "NO TRESPASSING" signs. Even the bravest boys in the area wouldn't dare make an incursion into his watermelon patch. It wasn't that Swob had ever actually hurt anyone, but his rhetoric left nothing to the imagination as to what would happen to anyone he caught uninvited on his place. "Anyone found on my place at night will be there when morning comes," was one of his threats.
I suppose more than anything else, it was Swob's physical features and demeanor that intimidated people. He looked like the classic caricature of an undertaker. He was tall and thin with deep-set eyes and a cadaverous complexion. He had thick, black hair which he wore in a brush style haircut.
"I don't know," I hedged. "Mr. Swob doesn't want anyone on his place and he's pretty mean, isn't he?"
"Oh pish," Annie scoffed. "Old Swob's too lazy to get out of his own way. The back part of his farm is overgrown with berries and he just lays around the yard in the shade. He never goes on the back part of his place. It's up to you, though. The bucket's in the barn."
I looked at the guitar laying there on the ground and thought that it would be much cheaper for Granddad to get this one repaired than to buy me a new one. Also, it was a long time to Christmas. "I'll do it," I said. "Show me where the bucket is." So into the valley of death rode the brave six-hundred.
The Buck farm adjoined the Swob place, so I was able to gain entrance undetected by taking a circuitous route through a wooded area.
The day was a scorcher, but the berries were plentiful. Within an hour I had my bucket over half filled. While I picked, I allowed my mind to drift off into visions of grandeur. I saw myself on the stage playing and singing to a packed house. I no longer thought of Bob Swob as a threat. My biggest concerns of the moment were chiggers and the ever-present snakes who seem to like to spend the heat of the day coiled up in blackberry patches.
Suddenly, I felt I wasn't alone. It was as if a cloud had come over me. Yet, the sun was dazzling. I dreaded to look behind me. I turned my head slowly, hoping to find that my fears were unfounded. They were, however, confirmed. I looked straight into the eyes of Frankenstein. Bob Swob had me cornered.
His face was frozen in an ugly grimace. "Do you go to school, boy?" he roared.
"Y-yes, Sir," I managed weakly.
"Can you read?" he demanded, moving closer.
"Then read that sign to me," he said, pointing to a "NO TRESPASSING" placard tacked to a tree about twenty feet away.
I read the words of the incriminating sign, feeling that I had just signed my own death warrant.
"You had to see the signs and you know I don't allow trespassing, so why are you picking my berries?"
One of my grandmother's favorite expressions was, "The truth will set you free." If I ever needed release from trouble, it was now. I told him I was interested in music, and that I was picking the berries to trade for a guitar. Then, I apologized for trespassing and offered him the berries I had picked.
He declined my offer. I thought I could even detect the faint semblance of a smile on his face. "No," he said. "You worked for them. Go ahead and fill your bucket and go get your get-box. But don't tell anybody I let you get away with it. I'll have people tramping around all over my place." With that final admonishment, he left me to finish my picking.
Annie seemed shocked and somewhat disappointed that I was returning with body and soul intact. Then, she turned her attention to the berries. I had the feeling she was about to renege on our deal. "They're mighty puny berries," she said scornfully. "Wouldn't make much of a cobbler." Then she looked at me as if she were studying someone who had just returned from the dead. "How did you get in there without old Swob seeing you?"
I knew I was about to be rooked, and I felt I was justified in fighting fire with fire. "I didn't," I replied. "He caught me and he really tore into me. He let me have the berries, but he said if he ever caught me there again he would fill me with buckshot. He said he was letting me go because he knew somebody had put me up to getting his berries. He said if he found out who it was, he would burn their barns."
Annie's complexion turned rapidly from a livid pink to an off-white. "He's a maniac," she gasped. Then, picking up the bucket of berries, she pointed to the guitar which Hugh had left leaning against the trunk of a tree. "Take the thing. It ain't nothing but junk anyhow."
It cost less than ten dollars to restore the guitar to playing condition. It gave me many hours of pleasure during the ensuing years. I have owned a lot of guitars down through the years, but the old blackberry guitar, as I fondly dubbed it, will always occupy a special niche in my memories.