Last Page: Strings Attached

“You want the greatest guitar ever?” Dad asked

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

For my 8th birthday, I wanted a guitar. My father had played a little back in his day. He said he dreamed of being a rock star with a traveling band surrounded by beautiful women. He said Grandpa could never afford a nice guitar for him, but he wasn't going to let that happen to me. He had an idea.

"Let's get lucky," he said.

I hopped into his old Wagoneer, and we drove to the auction house on Main Street, where they were selling off instruments that day. "So what kind of guitar do you want?" he asked me.

"A wooden one," I said.

"It's called an acoustic. You sure you don't want an electric?"

"Mom said wood ones make less noise."

Inside the big, echoing room, about 60 people sat in rows, and a man stood at a podium holding a ukulele. "We got one-twenty for this here fine piece of craftsmanship, do I hear one-thirty?"

Someone shouted, "One-thirty!"

"Sold for one-thirty!"

"Next up," the auctioneer said, "a classic Gibson with custom sunburst finish, no dents, no scratches and the most magnificent sound you've ever heard. This is why you started playing. This baby goes for over a grand in the stores. The bid's open!"

My father's eyes grew wide. "I can't believe it," he said. "That's the guitar Grandpa told me was too expensive." He looked in his wallet, then at me.

"Pat," he said. "You want a guitar?"

"Yes."

"You want the greatest guitar ever?"

"Yes," I said, growing excited with his excitement.

"OK. Find a seat up there and shout out ‘Sixty.'"

"Sixty?"

"And if someone says ‘Sixty-five,' you say ‘Seventy.'"

"Seventy?"

"Yes, go, go."

I pushed up to the front.

"Forty!" someone called out.

"Come on," the auctioneer said.

"Fifty!" another bidder yelled.

"Fifty? Are you kidding?" the auctioneer said.

Then, with my timid voice, I said "Sixty."

"What!" the auctioneer growled.

With the pressure on, I shouted "Sixty!"

"Sixty from the little guy," the auctioneer said with a chuckle.

"Sixty-five!" someone yelled.

"Hey, who's bidding against a kid?" somebody called out. "You shouldn't outbid a child!"

It was my father.

"Seventy!" I shouted.

The auctioneer answered, "Seventy! Let's go a hundred!"

"Let the kid have it!" my father called out. Some of the spectators followed his lead: "Yeah, give it to the kid!"

The auctioneer grew nervous. "This thing here has been played by some of the finest musicians of our time," he said. "Seventy dollars would be an insult to this guitar, to those musicians! Now, do I hear seventy-five?"

"Give the kid the guitar!" my father yelled. He turned and left the hall. The auctioneer tapped his gavel, and there was an eruption of applause. He handed me a slip, and I ran outside. My father handed me 70 bucks, and I went back in and got the guitar in its case. I could barely carry it out.

"I won it, Dad!" I said.

"You did, Pat."

We put the case in the back seat and gingerly opened it up.

"It's not wooden," I said.

"This is the greatest guitar ever," my father said, rubbing his hand down the neck.

"But it's not wooden." I repeated. "I want a wooden one."

"Look, this is your guitar for your birthday. There's no other one." I started to cry.

We drove home in silence. I opened the passenger door and hopped out. I looked at my father.

I can see him even now, smiling at that guitar—and at how he'd scored himself a classic Gibson for 70 bucks.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus