Uncle Don.


I woke up this morning on a picnic table. 

My last attempt at camping - at Craters of the Moon - ended in a 3 AM retreat to the driver’s seat. So this time I thought: if I pick a place unlikely to host predators, and if I stay off the ground, then maybe I can trick my brain into turning off for a few hours. Survival strategy didn't include setting up the tent. Not sure why. Maybe, it seems like a wasted opportunity if you can't look at the night sky while you fall asleep.

Anyway, success! I woke, which means I slept. I tipped my head up and saw the sun hovering over a line of trees at the far end of the meadow. I also saw my sleeping bag was covered in a thick glistening sheet of dew. Like I had been slimed by the night. Further investigation revealed my head, pillow, face and the table were all similarly shiny.

“Small price to pay!” I said to no one, sitting up.

Sometimes, if my suspicion of future discomfort is strong, I take preventative measures: before I went to bed, I set the Coleman stove I bought at Target on the bench part of the picnic table. Beside it, I'd placed a small, covered camping pot, filled with exactly one cup of water. Underneath my wet pillow was a dry lighter, which upon waking, I fumbled for and found. Squinting in the glare of the morning light, I leaned over in the direction of the idle stove. With one hand, I twisted the small black knob beneath the burner until I heard the whoosh of butane. The other hand flicked the wheel of the lighter. I heard the thwap and hiss of the lit stove. What a pleasing sound! Even in the sunlight I could see the blue ring of civilizing heat. I picked up the lidded pot and carefully balanced it on the burner.

Only then did I sit up and remove myself from my bagged bed. My body expressed its regret between the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae.

There were shoes waiting for me on the bench opposite the camp stove’s, so I put them on. Then I stood up and turned toward the sun. My face was immediately, pervasively warm. I bent down and touched the ground, slowly.

A few days ago I saw a woman on TV talking about her habit of using the power pose or confidence pose or something — I can’t remember the name she gave it — but it’s where you hold up your arms with your palms out like you’re blessing a multitude of people. It’s supposed to make you confident. I thought it was dumb when I saw it on TV but for some reason out here by myself in the meadow by the river I thought “Why not?” so I straightened my back from the bending over and stretched my arms with the palms out and held them there, like Moses. 

I felt silly but I held my arms up and blessed the meadow anyway and listened to the hissing camp stove and got excited for how good coffee tastes when you’re cold.

Then I remembered I left my coffee cup in the car. Done with the power pose, I went to fetch it out of the car. I held the cup with both hands and looked into it. Pretty clean. Maybe, C+. But there was a problem. The ceramic was cold, which would mean a luke warm morning beverage. Unacceptable. But aha! I grabbed the other ceramic cup (I travel with two - one for coffee and one for tea). I went back to the picnic table and gingerly removed the lid from the pot and poured more water into it. 

I sat down on the bench next to the stove and waited. The birds of my childhood filled the meadow. Killdeer. You know them because of their black and white bodies and also because of their mean, cackling chirp. I watched one chase another, both shooting across the wide flat river bottom and into a thicket of scrub trees. A heated argument followed. Then it was quiet. I watched the tree the birds disappeared into, but no one emerged. I imagined them discussing their conflict in low tones, discretely. 

The lid on the coffeepot made a clinking sound, shifted by the boiling water. I let the birds be and took the cold coffee cup and filled it with boiling water. I waited until the cup was warm, and then I dumped the water out of the coffee cup and into the tea cup. I set the coffee cup back on the bench. Next I took my pocket knife and drew the blade across a small pouch of instant coffee sitting beside it on the bench. The blade left a short mark in the wood. I poured the powder into the cup, and poured the rest of the boiling water over it. While I waited for the coffee to cool enough to drink, I sipped the hot water, immediately drinkable, having been cooled by two cold cups. I’m getting better at camping.

This place is called Martin Landing. It’s located just outside of Parma, Idaho, situated at the confluence of the Boise and Snake Rivers, very near where old Fort Boise used to be. Fort Boise was once a fur trading post, and later, an important stop along the Oregon Trail. Did you know Fort Boise was operated by the British until 1854? It was made of adobe, and then a flood destroyed it, and then the British left. Amazing what you learn if you stop at those historical marker signs. 

I realize I’m doing that thing where I don’t start writing what I mean to write about until I’m fourteen paragraphs in. I should take a class and fix that. 

I meant to write about my visit yesterday, with the charming man pictured above, Don Hammond. He’s my great Uncle. He lives in Nampa, Idaho, the place where I was born. He just turned ninety and lives with his daughter Marveen and her husband Joe. 

Here is the thing about Don. He is never not playing music. When I was very young, before I knew anything about measures or melodies, my parents would refer to Uncle Don as the musician in the family. His name always had a ring of mystery about it. 5 year old me wondered what a person who played music was like. Did they talk differently? Did they eat the same thing as normal people? The idea of a musician in my family was more fascinating than Legos or GI Joe or saturday morning cartoons. 

A few years later, my parents announced we were getting a piano, that I was going to learn how to play it. When I asked? My mom said, "Uncle Don is bringing it over today, tonight after work."

The following day I woke up early with the strangest feeling. It was one of those little kid feelings where you’re excited about something but you can’t remember what. It wasn’t Saturday. My mom hadn’t bought Fruity Pebbles. What was up? I crept downstairs in my pajamas, half awake and wondering. Then I rounded the corner of the family room. There, where the couch used to be, was an enormous upright piano, twice as tall as me. Suddenly the memory of the night before snapped into focus. My Uncle Don pulling up in our driveway with the piano covered in blankets, strapped in the bed of a mint green chevy truck. Dad helping to ease it down from the truck on long steel rails. The neighbor, Raymond, coming over to help in what was the first and only time he ever entered our house. The three men struggling to push the enormous piece of wood through the house. Hearing my mom warn them not to scrape the walls or tear the linoleum. 

When it was in its place, Uncle Don went back out to the truck and returned with his tuning lever. My little brother and I watched from a few feet away. My dad helped him remove the front cover of the piano. What an amazing thing a piano was! The thick copper cords of bass strings, the thin tripled wires of the high notes, the dark square pegs they were wrapped around. I watched what happened when Uncle Don pressed the key, the way the mechanism of wood and felt worked its way up from the keyboard into the hammer that struck the wires. Don would strike the key and listen and we would listen with him.  Sometimes he would twist a peg with a lever before moving on. He went through the whole keyboard, and then he started playing chords and making more adjustments. It took an hour. There was something ritualistic about, like a offering was being carefully prepared, which in a way, it was. 

When he was satisfied, he sat down and started playing. The ladies in church played piano and I saw them do it but I never saw it up close. This, this was something else entirely. He could play so many notes - some at the same time, some right after another. It seemed impossible that he could be so coordinated, that so much music could come out of this heavy piece of furniture. 

It was the beginning of something bigger than my child head understood. I started taking piano lessons (see Willow Reeder in Medium Hero), which lead to guitar, which lead to me being in a high school rock band, which lead to me being in a college bluegrass band, which lead to twenty years of music and records. He didn’t know it, but Uncle Don was there at the very beginning. 

Fast forward to about a week ago, when I phoned my Aunt Marveen and asked if it would be okay to come over. I would be heading west from Idaho to start recording with friends on the west coast, and I'd be passing through Nampa.  Did Don still play? I asked. Oh yes, she said, most everyday. She reminded me that he played at my Grandpa’s funeral in February. 

Just now I started to write a long thing about that, his funeral, my not being there, my guilt. But that is for another time, or a nevertime probably. This is about Don. Maybe all you need to know is that my grandpa - he went by Rudy - fought in WWII and was the pastor of a Nazarene church. He fought at Omaha Beach. Also he loved hymns, and his favorite hymn was ’"Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus." That was what Don played at the funeral. I know because my brother sent me a video from his cellphone.

So I got there yesterday having no idea what exactly I wanted to have happen. Would we record something for the record? Would we know any of the same songs? I haven’t seen my Uncle Don for ten years. Also something bad and mysterious happened a few days ago to my voice and I couldn’t sing. Only very quietly. So, that would bring things down a notch (it’s never happened before and it’s still not working and I’m hoping it was just the smoke from all the fires I built). Also it took me a long time to leave the cabin in Sun Valley so I was really late arriving in Nampa. Maybe everyone would be mad at me. Anything is possible. 

But no. Family is family. Marveen greeted me at the door with a warm smile and Uncle Don hugged me, and we sat down in the living room to visit. I realized that, even though he played a seminal role in my life, I barely know the man, so I asked him when he started playing music.  He said when he was a kid a South Dakota, the first instrument he took to was the accordion. He and his brother. They were so small he couldn’t get his arms around it, so they teamed up. His brother worked the buttons and he played the keys. Don is a very chill dude, but he was clearly pleased at the story and laughed after he told it.

We didn’t talk long. Marveen gave me an envelope of photos from my grandpa’s funeral and we went through those and she told me stories abut who was there and how the well the soldiers did folding the flag and firing the 21 gun salute. While she was talking, Don disappeared into his room and returned with a guitar and a mandolin. I told them I couldn’t sing but I would try to a little. They didn’t care, which set me at ease. It’s nice to not always have to perform. We were just going to play some music. 

We played a Norman Blake song I like called “Billy Grey”, and then we played a few fiddle tunes he taught me. And then we busted out the hymnal. I kept having to change the keys so they were low enough that I could sing, but he was fine with that. And he’s ninety years old, right? So his picking is jangly as hell, but he could pick out the melody, every single time. He’s got the ear.

After an hour of picking out hymns and fiddle tunes, he thought or I thought we should play "’Tis So Sweet.” For grandpa. So we did.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xTOADUyxEM&w=560&h=315]