As I turn a rather significant milestone number on this date, oddly enough a Friday the 13th, I have begun thinking more and more about life. I have always been one to self-analyze, and events from forty years ago still haunt me to this day, however, lately I’ve been wondering how much my life could have been different, if not for just one or two events. Everything in life has a bearing on each individual’s outcome, and we all could say if only such-and-such hadn’t happened, or if I hadn’t met so-and-so, however the two events that could have greatly shaped my life only caused a much longer period of time for the events to come somewhat into fruition. Or maybe I’m just a late bloomer.
I never knew my father. My mother moved back home with her parents when she divorced him and lived with her father until he passed away sixteen years ago. My grandmother died in 1971, and Mom died maybe two years after Grandpa. All I knew about Grandpa’s musical background was that every once in a while when I was very young, he would get out his Old Kraftsman acoustic guitar that he bought from a Montgomery Ward catalog in 1942 and played and sang all those old-time songs like You Are My Sunshine. Grandpa always complained about his health, and once after listening to him talk one more time about not feeling well, I ask him if I could have his guitar when he died. I did not realize it at the time but this request would cause much trouble between me and all my siblings.
When I bought my first Stratocaster on my fortieth birthday, in the midst of a rather serve mid-life crisis that cost me everything, my next younger brother and an ex-brother-in-law would come out to my old farmhouse every other Saturday (with all three divorced, this worked out well for visitation with the children) and we would play all day, cook a big feast and have a great time. They both had been playing since they were teenagers. I would set the pace on rhythm and they would take turns on lead and vocals. This went on for five years until I finally lost the farmhouse and moved into an apartment fourteen years ago. At first, they would come out maybe once a year, then gradually less often.
That all ended some years back, mostly I believe because of Grandpa’s guitar. Willie, my ex-brother-in-law was killed about five ago when he was electrocuted at work and suffered a massive heart attack and died a week later. When I would tell friends about my playing it was always my two brothers, not an ex-brother-in-law. It was my guitars that gave me the will to live during my mid-crisis. And still do to this very day.
Getting back to the above photo, this is a photograph of my great-grandfather’s band. Looking at the photo, my great-grandfather is sitting in the front row, on the right side playing what looks like a G chord. I grew up living with Grandpa but never knew that photo existed until right before he died. After I asked for his guitar, my brother soon spoke up to request the photo. When I first saw this photo, I ask Grandpa if they played bluegrass, since there were four mandolin players plus that crazy looking instrument in the front row, not to mention that Grandpa’s father side of the family comes from southern Ohio hill country. Grandpa let me know that they played country music, not bluegrass. It was like he was offended that I asked if they played bluegrass. If anything, they probably played a little of both. When my mother died, riding with my brother on the way to the cemetery, he told me that it was he that should have got Grandpa’s guitar. I told him that he should have ask for it. Fifteen years later, I believe the guitar lies at the heart of why I have nothing to do with any of my siblings.
However, it is on my father’s side of the family where the story get’s interesting. All I knew of the man was that he was a photographer in the Navy. I was born in the Portsmouth, Virginia Naval Hospital. I have an 8×10 photo he took of me when I was very young that I tried to recreate with my son. It is eerie to look at both photos side by side in a photo album. Somebody told me a few years back that he might have been a police photographer in Los Angeles. When Grandpa died, at one of his viewings, my father’s sister showed up, having seen the obituary in the paper. I spoke with her for five minutes and was amazed by what she told me. Not only was my father a photographer but their father had a darkroom in his basement. I do not remember if she told me he was a professional or just a very serious amateur. However, to have a darkroom in his basement, he was definitely serious about photography.
So, on one side of my family I have a grandfather and great-grandfather who were guitar players and on the other side I have a father and grandfather who were photographers. One look at my apartment and it’s easy to see why I have wall-to-wall guitars, amps, stereo speakers, PA system and 20×30 enlargements hanging on every conceivable wall space. In an even weirder occurrence, I bought my first 55 gallon fish tank back in 1982. But it was not until almost twenty years later that my mother thought to tell me that my father’s father also had fish tanks. I now have two 55 gallon tanks plus a 125 gallon tank. A few years back, I had a third 55 gallon tank in my kitchen and a 30 gallon tank in the bedroom.
Taking long walks down to my local library several times a week gives me plenty of time to think and reflect on many things. Reaching an age that I have yet to disclose and will not do so, I think about what could have been. If only I had Grandpa teach me to play the guitar when I was young. I loved rock & roll and thought those songs Grandpa played were as far apart as the aisle separating the two Houses of Congress. If only my mother and father hadn’t divorced and I grew up with a photographer for a dad and a grandfather who had a darkroom in his basement. I could have shot some great photos at all those concerts I’ve attended since the early ‘70s. It wasn’t until I got out of the Navy before I started shooting concerts, having bought my first 35mm SLR camera and lens while overseas right before I was discharged after serving four years. They outlawed cameras at concerts several years later. I wonder what might have been. It seems to me that I was born to play the guitar and take pictures. If only I had known.
I do regret that when young, I was too foolish to think that Grandpa played hillbilly music when I only wanted to rock. I only wish I was smart enough to have asked Grandpa to teach me how to play the guitar and teach me all those old-time songs. I can, however play You Are My Sunshine. Oh yeah, I turned 60. But, don’t tell anyone!!!
Steven H. Spring