Back from death: a metaphor about me and a uke

The smashed Martin soprano uke


I wish I could still remember the day I made this decision, but I was in a hospital struggling with the impact of a heart attack and the lingering effects of a brain infection from 2019. I still have pictures in my mind about what happened to me, but any attempt to draw on the specifics?

Well, that’s just gone.

I do know that at some point on the Reverb website, a great place to look for used musical instruments (which I love) I saw a smashed Martin Soprano ukulele, very old and very damaged, and found an instant attraction to it.

I bought it for not very much money and it came in a box back when it was still very cold out and it sat in my garage like a mysterious challenge from another world, a world where people are stupid enough to sit on Martin ukuleles!

I was afraid to open the box. More on that later.

But my thought was that it would be a metaphor for me, a man smashed by a big heart attack that killed him for eight minutes, and a brain infection before that that sapped him of all kinds of left hemisphere brain powers.

I would buy this plastic bag full of broken mahogany parts, split wood, smashed tops and backs, and try to find my old skills at musical instrument building to bring it back to life. As I did this, I would play more and more music on my guitars and my piano. This, I thought, would prove, at least to me (my biggest critic in the ‘what has gone wrong with me?’ world) that I had not gone so far down the track I could not get back.

A couple of things to note up front.

I am not bragging about this.

I was actually dead for eight minutes at the end of last July and returned only because Evanston’s paramedics would not give up on me. The doctors at St. Francis jumped on me the way a falcon pounces on a pigeon.

They decided what was wrong, put what seems to me like erector set parts in my heart veins, sent me down to Resurrection to get a brand new aortic valve (up through my crotch) and then set me off on a rehab effort that had me working my balls off for very intensive periods to make my heart stronger.

It was a big pain in the ass. I was also so good for me, and the therapists were so great, that, even after the sessions three times at week at Evanston Hospital’s Cardio Rehab room ended, I decided to continue the process down at the Levy Center in Evanston, which has almost exactly the same machines and is cheap.

All you need to be is old, from Evanston, and willing.

And I am all three.

So why am I telling this story?

I learned some lessons about myself that might be valuable to any of you who, reaching a certain age, feel as though the sand has just drained out of you and left you feeling like a shell. Maybe you think it’s over, or closer to over than you ever thought it could be. Maybe you have lost hope.

I’m not going to say I know that feeling, because it is uniquely yours. My heart (literally) goes out to you. It doesn’t have to be this way. But I do know what it is like to hear the birds in the morning at sunrise and thank good Gawd that I am still here. That doesn’t come automatically.

Some mornings, you wish you never woke up.

I remember an old man I talked to along time ago about a coal mine disaster I wanted to write about. We finished our mining talk, and then something clicked in him and he started talking about how his penis just didn’t work any more and how his beautiful, red haired wife, who was hot as an iron skillet, was dead and long gone and how he missed her.

The penis reference didn’t bother me. He was delivering it like it was just a piece of information. He said it just hung there, like an empty sausage casing. I got the picture, the very sad picture. I grieved for him quietly, and to myself. The thought of an old man remembering and longing for a woman that important was just heart breaking, but it’s a lot better than forgetting.

That would be the tragedy.

He was about the age I am now.

But he had lost his purpose, lost his lover, lost whatever it is that makes you get up and move and move and move and sweat and dream and imagine. I can still remember how he looked, how he sounded, and how much I did not want to age into being that sad a man.

Always go for your delights.

I learned that a long time ago. I know what can make me happy.

That is where music and this wrecked ukulele fit in for me.

The one way to know whether you still have the chops to take care of your business is to use your chops. I don’t care what field they might have been in. Writers got to write. Poets got to expound. Thinkers got to think. Bankers go to bank, and so on.

Did it delight you? Did it fulfill you? Did it make you want to get up every day and haul ass over to the el and go downtown and do what was uniquely yours? Remember that. You might not have that job anymore because things change. But you had the drive once, and you need to think about where you can apply it now.

That’s enough lecturing from me. I hate it when people suggest what I might do to improve my situation. It’s all so personal, you know.

Beyond my 40 years as a reporter and editor, beyond being a foreign correspondent, beyond money, clothes, cars, almost anything but my family, what I have always loved is music. I played and sang all my life, and I’m not stopping now just because I eat the equivalent of a chemistry set in pills each day and do at times feel like a tree that is about to fall over.

After I had exercised and dieted myself back into some condition, I went to my garage on a warm day and looked at the box. I knew it would be full of the despised packing peanuts we all hate, or little plastic bags full of air.

And all that was there.

Along with the ukulele.

The biggest remaining part of the smashed Martin

What a heartbreaker that little soprano ukulele was! I could tell it had been very well built. The mahogany was thin and resonant, even in its smashed state. You could thump what remained of the back with your index finger and hear a little ring.

It must have been magnificent when it was intact. I hope the person who sat on it knew that, although I doubt it.

Ukuleles have been very popular musical instruments in the United States for a long, long time. The first big craze was early in the 20th century, when vaudevillians and specialists like Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike and the voice of Jimminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinnochio) were big dollar players.

But the instrument, invented by Portuguese sailors who dropped them off in Hawaii, which led to the first great ukulele boom, was kind of ideal for Americans. Guitar, as we all know, is hard to start on because it hurts both your fingers and your pride.

Ukulele is not. Four strings, generally nylon, are pretty easy to push down.

More important, pretty easy to get a tune out of if you get a good one. And pretty good to sing with, even if you don’t know much about music.

I was always a guitar guy. Bruce Roper of the Sons of the Never Wrong, a fine luthier and the repair guy at Old Town School, took me under his wing and showed me how to build a guitar so I could do a blog that would help his guitar building business.

It’s a great guitar. He remains a great teacher and musician.

And that was where my interest in ukuleles began. It takes a lot of time to develop the skills and precision you need to build a guitar. Not so with a uke. You have to be a little meticulous, but not wildly meticulous the way luthiers are with their instruments. Even better, there is an immense store of broken, old, cracked up ukuleles available all over the place because lots of people just bought them and put them under their beds when they discovered they required at least little patience.

They fix up quite nicely. My favorites were the mahogany baritone ukuleles the Harmony Company built in Chicago in the mid-20th century. They made them by the thousands. The mahogany baritones apparently sold very well because you can still find them for not much money. Just go on Reverb and search for Harmony baritone.

I bought a lot of them, refinished them to spunk them up and make them look pretty, set them up so they played well and founded little company called “Travelin’ Rat Ukes”, mainly because my wife sketched a stunning little picture of a rat with a stick over its shoulder and a bag on the stick. It became my symbol.

The deal on these things was pretty simple. I would buy them for a decent price (around $200) then rebuild them (about 40 hours of work) and resell them and donate $200 of each sale to food programs here in Evanston. I think I may have done 15 or 20 of them. It was a good effort and a good contribution.

Then I got so sick I thought I was going to die.

In the process of putting in a shunt to deal with hydrocephalus (which I didn’t know I even had until I became wet, wacky and wobbly, as the neurologists not so gently put it) I developed an acne bacteria infection that took out the left side of my brain, where lots of decision making and executive functioning are wired.

It was crippling.

With the help of my family and maybe 40 gallons of vancomycin antibiotic over six weeks or so, the infection went away. Then I had to work on getting my brain back in shape. I shouted at many speech therapists, God bless them. They kept asking me to find the best parking arrangements for a hair dresser’s salon. That is really not in my wheelhouse. On my first day home, my son handed me a guitar and I didn’t know how to hold it, this after a good 40 years of guitar playing.

I though I was screwed.

I was not. The speech therapists, I learned, were right. Logic practice makes you more logical. My son did the research and told me to play, that my brain would rebuild itself. I did. He was right. It took a while, but I can play pretty well again. My family gathered around me and brought me back.

I was very happy.

Then I died of the heart attack and ended up in the hospital for a long time again where, desperate for something to do I looked on Reverb on my laptop and saw the destroyed Martin.

Fast forward to my garage after it had warmed up outside. I opened the box. Holy shit, what a terrible mess it was! Basically just pieces in a bag and the suggestion of a frame where a ukulele had once been.

Did I really want to try this and frustrate myself, maybe learning that the damage was permanent and not fixable? Was this going to be the flaccid penis story I told when my mind wandered, something about beautiful instruments I remembered, vaguely, and deeply missed.

I looked through the immense pile of stuff I brought home from one hospital or another. Then I found it. One of my speech therapists finally agreed that I should create my own exercise, but in deep detail and in a very challenging format. I would have to recite it to her in stages at each visit and she would write it down.

It was chapter and verse on exactly how to build a ukulele.

It was time to stop being afraid of what was in the box.

I determined to bring that little beauty back to life.

PART TWO: Saving what I could. Building what I couldn’t save. A ukulele reborn. (June 28)

5 thoughts on “Back from death: a metaphor about me and a uke

  1. So very enjoyable, I can’t wait to read the conclusion! PS I’m a retired occupational therapist.


  2. Most excellent story. I’ve been following the progress of some of your builds via FB and was not aware of all your medical issues, so glad you’re feeling better and playing again. I’ve heard you play at a Chicago Tribune event years ago and thought your guitar playing was superb. One question – is the uke a ‘Martigan’ now? Hoping all the best for you.


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