Chapter 2: The Guitar

“This journey requires two keys.
The first, you will find in a garbage can.”

Spring 1962. Saturday loomed big in the week if you delivered newspapers. The Saturday edition was huge. Just getting the bags on the bike was a chore. And the papers were unfoldable – too many sections; too many glossy inserts.

Saturday’s edition also contained the weekend magazine, or at least it did after you hand stuffed it into each of 56 papers. Still, it had that full page, full colour shot of the NHL player of the week so I didn’t mind. But you had to watch that it didn’t slide out on you. There was nothing worse than getting to the end of your route and finding a weekender in the bottom of your bag. It meant you were going to get a call from the office.

“Mr. So and So just called, and he is missing his magazine. Run one over right away, and make sure you apologize … blah, blah, blah …” And you can pretty well count on the fact that Mr. So and So lived right at the far end of your route.

Every kid knew that Saturday was going to be a bear. But at least today it wasn’t raining, which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

The Thompsons had a rambling wooden house that sat on a narrow lot. The basement was only partially buried in the ground, giving the impression that thebuilding had three stories. It was one of those places that paper boys hate delivering to. It was overgrown, the walkways were narrow, and the steps were slippery. And you had to deliver right to the door otherwise the paper would get wet. Finally, to add insult to injury, they wanted the paper delivered to the BACK door which meant you had to prop up your bike, grab a paper, walk it around the right side of the house, negotiate the garbage cans and climb a set of slippery steps to the back porch.

Still, the Thompsons were nice folks. They always tipped me at Christmas, and they had a daughter who sported outfits that seemed to require all manner of straps – thin straps, lacy straps, frilly straps, to hold them together – a state of affairs that was creating all manner of physical symptoms in me, and one that caused me to tie a lot of shoelaces and shuffle a lot of newspapers in their backyard.

This particular Saturday, I was running a little late. Slamming the bike against the fence, I slithered along the skinny walkway, dodged the garbage cans, scampered up the stairs and stuck the paper underneath the doormat that offered a begrudging ‘ _elcome’ in raised rubber ridges.

Just as I was starting down the steps, I spied something sticking out of one of the cans, partially obscured by sheafs of newspaper. It was a guitar neck, no doubt about it. There was no question of it being an entire guitar, the can simply wasn’t big enough. But where there was a neck, surely there was a body.

I dug into the second can. Nothing. The third and last can contained little more than regular garbage, and I was about to give up when I noticed a large card- board box underneath the steps. And there it was – an old arch top guitar body in what looked like fine shape.

I tugged it carefully from its cardboard nest, retrieved the neck, and matched them up, slotting the male and female parts of the dovetail joint together. It held just enough so I could stand it upright, heel against the side of the closest trash can.

There is something magic about an arch top guitar. If a Spanish guitar wandered into Italy, seduced a cello, and the offspring combined the best qualities of both, the result would be the arch top. Every line caresses the eye – the angled headstock; the nut with the shining strings running through it; the silver frets set into a fretboard inlaid with mother of pearl; the hardwood bridge; the splayed tailpiece; the perfect angle at which the neck meets the body, and the piece de resistance – the carved top itself with its delicate ‘f’ holes and tobacco sunburst finish. It is a magnificent piece of work.

With the parts assembled, I stepped back, looked at the instrument, and felt a strange tug in my solar plexus.

Mrs. Thompson answered the door in a T shirt, a pair of green tights and pink slippers with Donald Ducks on the toes. She always looked like she had been caught in the middle of something and the Pebbles Flintstone hair didn’t help much.

“Are you really throwing this out?” I asked, pointing at the instrument propped against the garbage can.

”Why? Do you want it?” she replied, removing her Winston.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind.”

”Help yourself then hon, it’s all yours.”


Then there it was – sitting on my bed, as if it had always been there. I couldn’t move it of course. The neck, while comfortably nestling with the body, was just a mock up. I really needed to re-attach the two parts. And for that, I needed glue.

The glue I found in the shed was peculiar. It was a brown nasty smelling powder that needed mixing with water; in correct proportions of course. Following the instructions, I applied the mixture, which had only grown more foul smelling as it fermented, to both surfaces of the dovetail joint. I pressed them firmly together. Then came the wait. ‘One hour to dry and 6 hours to cure,’ it said on the label – the longest six hours of my life.

When the time finally came, I gingerly lifted the body from the workbench, and lo and behold, the neck followed. Grasping it by the headstock, I held it upright. and the whole thing felt like one. By gum, I had a guitar – a beautiful sunburst arch top guitar!

Now, I needed strings.


I pushed through the front door of the music shop. The bell rang, and the rusty spring that held the door shut squawked as it opened and closed. A tall, bony figure on a high wooden stool peered through a veil of cigarette smoke from behind the counter – a figure hailing from a disappearing era, with the Elvis hair, sideburns and all the rest.

A Gibson guitar sat on his lap – the famous black Everly Brothers model I had seen so many times on TV. A smouldering cigarette sat wedged between the strings of the headstock.

‘Yep,” I thought. “This is my guy. He’ll know what strings I need.’

He raised a pair of bushy eyebrows.

“What can I help you with son?”

“Well, I’m fixing a guitar, and I need a set of strings.”

“Steel string, nylon string, 12 string … what?”

“Ah, steel string I’m pretty sure. It’s got an arch top.”

“An arch top. Nice. “

He put the guitar down, reached under the counter, and pulled out a set of Black Diamond guitar strings, slapping them down on the big rubber pad next to the register.

“I think these are what you need.”

I spied the price tag on the package and blinked. He must have caught the hesitation, because he peered at me crookedly for a second or two then, leaning conspiratorially over the counter, he said,

“Of course, there’s the standard 10% discount for professional guitarists, and the extra 5% saving if you pay in cash. You are a professional guitarist right?” He nodded emphatically as he spoke.

“Uh, yes I am,” I replied.

“And you’ll be paying cash?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be paying cash alright.”

“Well in that case, the final damage ends up being more like …”

He wrote a figure on the pad in front of him and swiveled it around to show an amount more in line with my budget.

“That’s great,” I said, “Thanks.”

He wrote it up, I paid the cash, grabbed my strings, and turned for the door.

“Thanks again” I called over my shoulder.

“Good luck,” he shouted back over the skirl of the rusty door spring.


The stringing seemed to take forever. I made every mistake in the book, but finally there they were – six glistening strings running from headstock to tailpiece. I’d never seen anything quite so beautiful.

I sat the instrument on my lap and started experimenting; plucking a few strings here, strumming a few strings there. Then, suddenly feeling my oats, I wound up and gave all six a grand open strum … Ta-daah!

And with a screech like a barn door opening, the neck wrenched itself out of the dovetail joint, flew off the body, climbed up my arm, and smacked me smartly in the side of the head.

The first key wasn’t giving itself up so easily.