Today’s Essay

Memorial Day 2022

Memorial Day is the official start of summer with barbeques and travel and so many more things that don’t really have anything to do with the reason for the day itself. Please indulge me as I take a moment to remind everyone what exactly this day was created for.

Some time ago, I was asked to teach guitar at the VA Center here in Albuquerque. The VA here is central to our state and there are lots of men and women who come here from around New Mexico for everything from surgical procedures to mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Not a veteran myself, I first became interested in veteran’s affairs while listening to the stories of my late friend, Henry Grier, relaying his experiences as a Sargent in the U.S. Army. Some of his Vietnam stories were brutal, but there were also anecdotes that were funny and telling about the nature of being in the military. After he passed away, his wife, Martha relayed to me that he learned to deal with some of the things he had gone through in Vietnam because of the talks he had with me. Apparently, he did not discuss these things with many folks.

So, teaching guitar at the VA was a no brainer. It wasn’t about counseling anyone, it was simply about giving some of these men and women who were patients there and often hundreds of miles away from home something to do in their off time. The program Full Battle Rattle supplied guitars for the vets to borrow during the class. Vets would come in for a few weeks, maybe learn a few tunes and then I would never see them again. The program would offer anyone who stuck with lessons for at least six weeks a free guitar in the hopes that they would continue their lessons.

There was quite the cast of characters. Felix was a Vietnam era vet who wanted to learn only one song, Ernest Tubbs “Waltz Across Texas” so that he could impress his ex-wife. The simple three chord riff took him months to learn, but he did it. I don’t know if she was impressed, but he was proud of what he had accomplished. Months later, he attended one of our workshops and told his story of rejection coming home from Vietnam and with myself and two other songwriters, came up with an incredible song about that experience. He moved to Phoenix and we never saw him again.

Another vet, Phillip, wanted to learn to play guitar, I mean really wanted to learn. The problem was that Phillip could not carry a tune and had absolutely no sense of rhythm. I taught him song after song after song and he learned them all, banging away in some unrecognizable time signature and wailing an equally undistinguishable melody. Each guitar lesson for the class came with a little bit of music theory, and Phillip ran with it, learning to read and write music on his own.

I had a standing offer for the class. If there was a song that they wanted to learn, all they needed to do was tell me the name of the song and if I knew it, I would teach them the basics on the spot. If I didn’t, I would learn it and teach it to them the next week. One week a young man came in, his first time there with his own guitar. He was shy and didn’t say much, but when he did, there was something off about him.

Now, I’m an alcoholic but I have been sober for 41 years, so when someone would show up to the class high, I would immediately get an attitude about them. I understood that many of the vets were having difficulties with their combat experience and would self-medicate, but it still rankled me that they would show up to my class drunk or otherwise. This kid was high. I could tell. The slurred speech, the awkward gait, that glazed look. Still, saying something might drive him away, so I held my tongue.

I made the rounds with my usual students who were working on various projects, correcting a chord position here or a melody line there, saving this kid for last and sort of hoping he would get impatient and leave. He did not. When I got around to him, his fingers were stumbling around the fretboard. I gave him my orientation speech about the lessons and told him I would try to teach him any song he wanted to learn. I handed him a half dozen sheets of paper with chord diagrams, major scales, a diagram of the guitar fretboard and so on. He looked at them quizzically.

I tried to get past my frustration at him being high by trying to find some common ground with him.

“Is there a particular song you want to learn?” I asked.

“Enter Sandman, by Metallica,” he slurred.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “I know nothing about heavy metal music and it’s going to sound like shit on an acoustic guitar if I manage to learn it.”

“Let’s do this,” I said, “Let’s go over a few of the basic chords and then next week come back and I will show you the chords for Enter Sandman and we can work on it together.” He nodded in agreement.

I worked with him for the rest of the class, thanked him for coming and thanked the class and told them I would see them next week.

As it turns out, Enter Sandman is not that complicated a song, only three chords. It turns out to be all in the presentation and the instrumental hook. While I’d rather this guy didn’t come back to my class, if he did, I’d be ready. The next week came and I wandered into the VA recreation center to find Felix, Phillip and most of my regular students there, but not this kid. “Dodged a bullet,” I thought to myself.

About halfway through class, the young man stumbled in, his guitar case slung over his shoulder. He looked rough, as if he hasn’t slept, but I let it go. I was just about finished with my regular students and so I walked over and sat down next to him.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked. I found that song you wanted to learn. It’s pretty simple, like three chords. You ready to rock?” For the first time, I saw a little bit of a grin cross his face. Maybe this was helping. I began my lesson, showing him the first of three chords, a simplified E-minor that only requires two fingers. I helped him place his fingers into the proper position, but he was having trouble with this, the simplest of guitar chords. After a few tries, he got it. We moved onto the more complex G and F#-minor chords with extreme difficulty and I was getting frustrated, but I tried not to let it show.

Finally, I began to teach him the guitar riff that is the signature to the tune. It involved moving from the E-minor to the three-note riff and back to the E-minor. He was struggling, but working to get it right. “This wouldn’t be so hard,” I thought, “if you were sober.”

After a bit, he began to put the riff and the chords together and the grin began to turn into a smile. He was getting it and he seemed pretty pleased with himself. I must admit I felt a little bit of pride myself for being so patient with this man who couldn’t seem to keep himself straight.

“I used to be a pretty good guitar player,” he said to me as we approached the end of the class. He propped the guitar on his knee and turned it toward his face looking at his distorted reflection in the pick guard.

Really, I thought to myself. That’s what drugs and alcohol do. I’ve seen it first-hand. I was ready to dispense some advice about staying sober when he spoke again.

“And then I got shot in the head. Now I don’t remember anything.”

In that moment it hit me. I had been wrong all along. What I thought was some sort of addiction was in actuality, brain trauma. This young man had enlisted, gone to Afghanistan and for his service had been rewarded with a bullet to the head that took away most if not all of who he was. I have never felt so guilty in all of my life. Self-righteous pig that I am, I had condemned this man for his lack of discipline when I should have been praising him for his courage and his willingness to move forward.

“I’ll keep working on this,” he said as he put his guitar back in its case. He shook my hand and left the rec center. I never saw him again.

The lessons we were taught about judgement are easily lost on us when we see a someone on the street that doesn’t look like us. We see addiction, poverty, mental illness but we never see the person who was there before or who might still be in there. We never see the person who had dreams and aspirations or the person who is trying to dig her or himself out of a black hole that they may have fallen into through no fault of their own.

I look at people differently now, especially our veterans. It’s a lesson I should have learned from my friend Henry and one that was driven home by a young man trying to find himself in the reflection of his guitar.

May God bless all of our veterans and their families that they may find peace at home among those they fought for.

Copyright 2022 by Jose Antonio Ponce