Thursday, December 20, 2007

“Guitars on Patrol”

c. 2007 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Normally, journalists like to write about holiday cheer and fellowship in the month of December. But as you read the following page, I ask you to think instead of our friends and neighbors who are currently engaged in defensive combat, half a world away.

The holiday season typically inspires many positive emotions for everyday folk. It is a time when our best qualities are on public display. We ponder the value of giving and goodness during this special period. For that moment, our lives are bettered.

Then, most of us are swept away by a turn of the calendar page.

Happily, some have taken the uplifting message that is interwoven in these traditions as inspiration for action beyond the festive winter weeks.

Count Stow resident Paul Hickman among that intrepid group of souls.

While worshipping in Thompson with my family, I have often been moved to think of his ongoing ‘Guitars for Grunts’ project. During songs by our praise team of musicians, my heart has reverberated with the same thought – how might citizens in Geauga help this noble cause?

For the sake of explanation, let me return to the beginning…

I first spoke with the retired Marine in September. His story was a compelling tale of generosity, patriotism, and sheer ingenuity. I was spellbound by the authenticity he projected.

“I was in the Corps from 1984 to 1988,” he mused. “I had been a guitar player in high school. So while serving overseas, I took my instrument with me. When I wasn’t working on helicopters, I played that axe.”

Years later, the bond between this soldier and his plectrum remained. A chance encounter produced the idea that would change his life.

“I was at a friend’s music store, in Cuyahoga Falls,” he recalled. “A guy came in with an Ovation Celebrity. Only its fretboard was holding the neck in place. It would have cost a hundred-and-fifty dollars to fix. I wondered if it was best suited to be re-made into a lamp.”

But Hickman saw opportunity in the wounded guitar.

“I bought the item for thirty dollars,” he said. “And then tried using epoxy glue to fix it up. Eventually, things worked out. So I made contacts through and told them my story. As a result, the Ovation was sent to Fallujah, in Iraq.”

Soon afterward, the erstwhile Marine received a message from the chaplain on duty where his instrument was deployed.

“I was told that their only guitar had been stolen,” he reflected. “Then, my package arrived. It replaced their loss perfectly. He reckoned it was a higher power at work.”

With one instrument on active duty, Hickman began to locate other potential six-string soldiers for re-assignment. He developed skill as a healer, both for battered guitars, and the military personnel who welcomed having such gifts of music.

“I started saving nickels, dimes, and quarters, and found a local distributor who agreed to sell me scratch and dent guitars for a very generous price,” he said. “I spent several hours on each guitar leveling frets, and making adjustments so they played to my standards. Next I got the idea to have the Mayor sign one of the guitars, and then took the guitar to the Safety building where both the Police and Fire departments (also) signed the guitar.”

His ability to control expenses made it possible to supply greater numbers of instruments in spite of a limited budget.

“Keeping costs to a minimum is important,” he explained. “I can help more people that way.”

Eventually, the retired soldier went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and visited ‘Wounded Warriors’ who also hungered for the chance to play music in a personal setting.

“We took eleven guitars, two amplifiers, two violins, and supplies,” he said with satisfaction. “I thanked them for what they had done for America. And they thanked me! They weren’t bitter. They had so much pride. They only wanted to go back… to re-join the troops.”

He professed feeling changed by the experience.

“It gives you energy of a different kind,” he said. “People have asked me - ‘Why send guitars?’ It's a very easy question to answer. They will help the troops relax… and make them feel like a little bit of home is right there with them.”

Hickman observed that his idea had become an ongoing mission.

“I started this on a whim,” he observed. “But I’ll keep doing it as long as our people are in harm’s way. I feel pride, but this isn’t about me. Everything is for our soldiers. I know they appreciate these gifts.”

For weeks after the interview, I pondered the Marine’s inspired idea. I repeated his story to anyone who would listen. A call of duty seemed to echo with persuasive force, growing stronger with each new day. Mind and body wandered on an intellectual trek from charity store… to pawn shop… to garage sale, and back again.

But affordable, journeyman instruments were nowhere to be found.

I felt slightly betrayed. In yonder days, budget axes seemed to be plentiful. I’d never had a problem snagging tuneful twangers for my personal collection. Yet now, the cupboards were bare. What had happened to the humble products of Teisco? Or Premier? Cort? Airline? V. J. Rendano, Kawai, Silvertone, Kay, Harmony, Univox, Hondo, Kent, Aria, Penncrest, or Tokai?

My golden touch had tarnished. I couldn’t find anything.

I even tried the dependable strategy of entering favorite thrift shops with an empty wallet – normally one of the quickest methods to guarantee that bargains will appear. But the plan failed. Not even a lowly, second-hand Wal-Mart special was for sale. Yet Hickman’s laudable program remained a priority. I wanted to write about his ambitious work, and how it might translate to other counties, like our own.

Then, the Yuletide magic took hold. I began to compose a holiday letter:

“Dear Friends – As we celebrate this season of joy, most of us will revel in family relationships and theological traditions. But also, I ask you to open your hearts to those who are serving in our military forces. Many kindred souls will once again be observing the holidays in foreign lands. They are far removed from the everyday privileges that we take for granted. A gift of music from home would carry blessings multiplied many times over. With that in mind, let me gently encourage you to visit and consider the efforts being made to reach out and comfort our soldiers. Paul Hickman has lighted a candle in the darkness of an unpredictable world. By joining this call to action we may bolster the citizen spirit that first made America strong in the face of adversity.”

After finishing the note, I took out my own guitar, and strummed a blues progression. Lights twinkled from our tree. Yet something different hung in the air - a scent of sand and sweat, mixed with mincemeat and plum pudding. Of boot leather and scented candles. Of diesel exhaust and pine boughs. Suddenly, I realized that the gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’ had been closed with love.

No matter where duty may take us… in the holiday season, we are together.


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