Time. Ben couldn’t get it out of his head.
As Angie placed her old Martin in the back of the car and then started to program the GPS for Red Brown’s house, Ben sat silently and wondered.
They were in the parking lot of the Martin factory in Nazareth Pennsylvania. Tour guide and Martin historian David Rusk had just shown them the date written inside Angie’s Model 1-21 guitar. Over a century ago in the original Martin factory, less than a mile from this spot, shop foreman Samuel Dietrich picked up a pencil and wrote his initials and the date 1874 on the underside of the guitar’s top. Now, in a future that Dietrich could never have imagined… a future that includes electricity, automobiles, radio, television, and computers… his guitar is still being played. And it plays and sounds as perfect as it did the day it was made.
Ben’s mother bought him his first guitar, the Gibson Melody Maker, when he was eleven years old. In 1968. Forty-five years ago. So long ago that it now seems like a distant dream. In moments they would be heading to Red Brown’s house, a man that Ben’s Aunt Maggie met in 1955. Fifty-eight years ago. Before Ben was born. And along they way they are traveling with a guitar from 1874. One hundred-and-thirty-nine years ago.
Time was speeding by him. Yet there was no way to see it. In moments he’d be steering the car down Route 191. He’d see the passing guardrails, and the telephone poles, and the houses. All of the indications that they are moving forward. But where are the indicators of time? Where are time’s signposts?
Changes in time were all around him. The memories of his past. The guitars and notes left behind by Aunt Maggie. He could feel that things were different. Last night’s dinner with Angie had stirred emotions that he hadn’t felt in years. But now, a day later, even that felt like a dream.
What would it be like if we could see time the way we see distance, he wondered…
“Hey! Are you gonna start this car or what?” Angie said, shaking Ben from his mental wanderings.
Quickly bringing himself back to reality Ben said, “Oh, ah, yeah, sorry. I’m ready. Which way are we heading?”
“Turn left at the end of the parking lot,” she said.
Then she added, “You almost kissed me back there, when we bumped heads looking into that soundhole, didn’t you?”
Ben, completely surprised by her comment, considered denying it. That would have been his natural response. But after the just-finished mental trip through time and space, he felt that there was no point in wasting the ‘time’ that he was traveling through.
“I thought so,” she replied. “Well, maybe the next time we’re looking at a lighted mirror inside an old guitar.”
Ben didn’t know what to think of Angie. She constantly surprised him. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage guitars, and a self-confidence he had never encountered before… in a man or woman.
“Tell me something I don’t know about guitars,” he asked. He loved listening to her talk about guitars. Yes, it was an odd thing to base a relationship on. But it was their thing, and he loved it.
“What’s the topic?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “First ever electric guitar…”
“Hawaiian or Spanish?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Like an African versus European Swallow?” he added, referencing a scene from Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
“Ha! I loved that movie!” she said, “‘It’s just a flesh wound!’”
He smiled as she referenced yet another scene from the movie. He was happy to have her on this trip. He was happy to have her in his life. And all thanks to late Aunt Maggie, someone he hadn’t spoken to in three decades. ‘Time’ again. It was everywhere.
“For some reason,” Angie said, switching back to his question, “back in the old days they described guitars that are played the way we normally play a guitar, vertically against your chest, as ‘Spanish Guitars’. Compared to a Hawaiian guitar that you would play in your lap, horizontally. I don’t know what’s up with the ‘Spanish’ part. I guess I should learn more about that.”
“Okay…” he hesitantly said, waiting for more info.
“Anyway,” she continued, “The first commercially produced electric guitar was a Hawaiian guitar, the Rickenbacker ‘Frying Pan’ in 1931. The first electric ‘Spanish guitar’ was Lloyd Loar’s ViviTone in 1933. And the first electric ‘Spanish’ solidbody was Rickenbacker again in 1934.”
“Not Gibson or Fender?”
“What?” she said, pretending to be disappointed, “Come on, Ben, don’t embarrass me in front of the old Martin in the back seat!”
“Sorry…” he laughed.
She continued, “Gibson was a big corporation, even back in 1931. They weren’t going to jump on some new fangled fad, like electricity! And Leo hadn’t opened his first radio shop yet! He was still working as an accountant.”
“What’s up with the questions anyway?” she added.
“I don’t know. I just like listening to you talk.”
“Well then listen to this: Turn left onto Spruce Street. It’s the third house on the right.”
Back at the Martin factory, David Rusk had given them directions to Red Brown’s house. David knew Red through a model train collectors group. He had visited Red’s house a few years ago. Ben was a little surprised that David would share that information with two strangers, but apparently Ben and Angie looked innocent enough that David accepted their ‘Red is a family friend’ explanation.
As they got out of the car Angie asked, “Is Red even going to know who you are?”
“Good question. Only if Aunt Maggie mentioned me. But I don’t know why she would.”
Their knock on the door was answered by a tall, handsome 26-year-old.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Hi,” said Ben, “Is this the Brown residence?”
An elderly voice came from the kitchen, “Who’s at the door?”
Yelling toward the kitchen, he said, “I’ve got it Grandma.” He then turned back to Ben and Angie and said, “What can I do for you?”
Ben could see the skepticism in his eyes. He was clearly protective of his grandmother.
In an effort to explain the situation Ben reached into his pocket and unfolded the note that had been hidden in the Strat. Holding it out, he said, “My name is Ben Cooper, from Pittsburgh. And this note is from my Aunt Maggie. She was a friend of Red’s. She sent me to help him with a guitar.”
Looking down at the note, puzzled by its cryptic message, he said, “Hi. I’m Mike. Mike Richards.”
Slowly walking up behind him appeared an 80-year-old woman. “What is it, Mike?” she asked.
“It’s a message about Grandpa,” he said, handing her the note. “From someone named Maggie…”
“Oh my,” she said, stopping in her tracks.
Looking up at Ben and Angie, she said, “Come in. Come in.”
Mike stepped aside and the four of them sat down in the living room.
“I’m Ruth, Red’s wife. It was so nice of Maggie to send you here. How is she?”
A little embarrassed by the question, Ben said, “Oh… I’m sorry. Maggie passed away last month. But she left this note for me. She wanted me to help Red.”
“Oh dear,” said Ruth. Ben could see the sadness in her eyes.
In a comforting tone, Ben said, “Were you and Maggie close?”
With a tear in her eye, Ruth nodded.
She dabbed her eye with a tissue, looked down and said, “We knew she wasn’t well. She wanted to come up and visit, to see Elizabeth one last time.”
Ben and Angie looked at each other, sharing the same confused thought, ‘Who is Elizabeth?’
Mike moved next to his grandmother and put his arm around her. She continued, “And then Red passed…”
Ben and Angie again silently looked at each other.
“That was six weeks ago… I called her to tell her… I wondered why she didn’t come for the funeral. Now I know.”
“I’m so sorry Mrs. Brown,” Angie said softly, speaking for the first time.
Her eyes red, Ruth looked at Angie, and said, “Thank you, dear.”
She looked back at Ben. Still very sad, but this time with a touch of frustration in her voice, she added, “And then there’s the issue with that guitar…”