Here’s a story from 2022. Please remember our heroes on this Veterans’ Day They deserve our respect.
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 in Vietnam. Some of his 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 told me that he had learned to deal with some of the things he had gone through in Vietnam because of the talks he had with me. Veterans generally don’t talk about that stuff to civilians.
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 something to do in their off time. The program Full Battle Rattle supplied guitars for the vets, and they would come in for a few weeks, maybe learn a few tunes and then I would never see them again. Anyone who stuck with lessons for six weeks earned a free guitar in the hopes that they would continue to play.
There was quite the cast of characters. Felix, 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. I don’t know if she was impressed, but he was proud of what he had accomplished. Months later, he attended one of our songwriting workshops and told his story of the hatred spewed at him upon his return from Vietnam. With myself and two other songwriters, Felix came up with an incredible song about that experience. He moved to Phoenix, and I 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 following week. One week a young man came in, his first time there with his own guitar. He couldn’t have been more than 25, slight build and dark. He looked more teenager than soldier. He had his own guitar, a really nice vintage pale green Fender Stratocaster that must have set him back at least $1000.00. The problem was, he was high.
I’m an alcoholic but have been sober for 45 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.
After the theory part of the class, I pulled up a chair next to him. He held his guitar tentatively. I introduced myself and commented on his guitar. He mentioned that he had had the guitar since his teens. I noticed again that his speech was slurred, and he seemed a bit off kilter, confirming my first impression.
“Dammit,” I swore to myself internally, “If you are going to come to my class at least have the decency to not show up high.” This had happened before. The vets who showed up stoned rarely disrupted the class and if they did, they were asked to leave. Mostly, they would sit and just listen, killing time before moving on to the next thing, whatever that might be.
I gave the kid 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 by trying to find some common ground with him.
“Is there a particular song you want to learn?” I asked.
“I want to learn….,” he paused to gather his thoughts. “I want to learn to play Enter Sandman by Metallica.”
“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.”
“Cool, I said, making the effort not to scold him. “I don’t know it, but I can learn it and if you come back next week, I can teach it to you.”
At that point I was done with him and called Phillip over to teach him some basic chords and theory. I went on to visit with the other students, the whole time fuming over this kid who had shown up to my class drunk or high on something.
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. I learned the song and while I’d rather this guy didn’t come back to my class, if he did, I’d be ready.
The following week, I carted my guitar into the rec center, asked the attendant to bring out the loaner guitars and sat myself down to greet the class as Felix, Phillip and most of my regular students drifted in one by one. I didn’t see the kid and was glad of it. “Dodged a bullet,” I thought to myself. Maybe he got some sense or was embarrassed about showing up to this class in a stupor.
About halfway through class, the young man stumbled in, his guitar case in hand. He looked rough, as if he hadn’t slept, but I let it go. Maybe music would save him. Music had saved me, after all. 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. “Want to take a crack at it?”
“Hey,” he said tentatively, slurring the word a bit. I felt my anger rising.
I reached into my notebook and pulled out a sheet of paper with the chord progressions and lyrics for Enter Sandman. He paused and put his guitar strap around his neck. I showed him how to hold his guitar and where to place his fingers on the neck, pointing out their respective positions.
Enter Sandman’s distinctive guitar riff runs throughout the song, but it’s really simple. I played the song slowly, showing this kid each of the chord progressions and the guitar riff. His eyes lit up and he smiled, something I had never seen him do before. He recognized the song. At least I was getting that part right.
After playing though the tune a couple of times, it was his turn. I placed the second and third fingers of his right hand onto the fretboard on the fourth and fifth strings, second fret and encouraged him to strum the chord. He did so and he smiled again. I was making progress. If only he were not stoned, I thought, he could easily pick this up.
We moved onto the next chord and the next and finally the guitar riff. Each time he accomplished something, he smiled. He struggled through the guitar riff, slowly at first, but gradually picking up speed and sounding familiar. He smiled again and was starting to work his way through the entire song. I encouraged him to sing a bit of the lyrics, but when he opened his mouth, his hands would stop, typical for a beginner guitarist.
Again, I thought that this wouldn’t be very hard if he were sober.
“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, mentally exhausted.
“That’s what drugs and alcohol do,” I thought to myself. I’d 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. What I thought was some sort of addiction was in actuality, brain trauma. This kid whose only concern up to hat point was learning the latest tunes had enlisted, gone to Afghanistan and for his service had been rewarded with a bullet to the head that took away most 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 kid 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 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. Here are a few links to some of the music our vets have written through our songwriting program over the past few years.
I’m Afraid I Can’t
Copyright 2022 by Jose Antonio Ponce