There wasn’t any obvious reason why I knew it was the last time I’d ever see him, but I knew it was.
On a hot July day, standing in the yard outside of the house where I grew up in Virginia, my grandfather handed me a weathered, dusty leather hard-shell case that carried his prized possession – his Regal dobro.
“That’s him in a box,” my dad told me a little later.
A dobro is a resonator guitar, but the strings sit about an inch off the neck. It’s played with a steel bar, and it’s the acoustic equivalent to a steel guitar. It’s very prevalent in bluegrass music, and if you like country music, I can all but guarantee you’ve heard one. Think the intro of Randy Travis’ Deeper than the Holler.
It’s not an instrument you’ll see on many street corners, and I doubt anyone has ever broken out their dobro to wow co-eds at a party. It’s beautiful when it’s played well, but it’s a lot harder to master than guitar and, as such, it’s rare. In this part of the country, I’d wager to say it’s an obscure instrument. But this particular dobro is more than an instrument.
It’s brown and gold sunburst, with a dark fretboard. The neck is a slot head, and the resonator in the middle is silver. I haven’t had the guts to open the case since the middle of January, but I know what it looks like, from the old shoelace that connects the woven strap to the wood filler that covers a hole he knocked in the binding.
That’s Papa’s guitar.
When he handed me that case for the last time, he told me I could “play that thing all the way back to Wyoming.”
I tried to take it back to him the next day, but he was sure. It was my dobro. I put it in the backseat of our Chevy, where I could keep an eye on it through the rearview – and I took it back to Wyoming.
It’s in a place he never got to see. We lost my grandfather in January.
Paul Edward Milstead was a character. He could tell the wildest stories, but they had to be true because they’d be impossible to make up. Once, he was driving down a road in Texas with my uncle when they passed a hitchhiker. My uncle started begging him to pull over because that hitchhiker, he thought, was gorgeous.
“He said she looked like a country singer,” Papa always said. “We let her in the car. She looked like a country singer all right - she looked like Willie Nelson!”
That was in the early 80s – it could have been ol’ Willie, for all we know.
Sometime before that, when he was young and in his prime, he and his brother drove an old Ford coupe to the top of a mountain in Virginia. Keep in mind, the roads in Appalachia are basically carved into the mountain, wide enough for one car and they don’t have guardrails to protect you from the steep ridges on the other side. Before they reached the summit, the car ran out of gas. Pete and his brother had a couple of options, but help wasn’t exactly a call away back then. They could try to back the car down the mountain, which would have proven impossible on account of all the moonshine they’d been drinking.
What they decided to do was just push it off the side of the mountain.
The car rolled all the way down and onto a highway. Eventually some cars stopped, then emergency workers came on scene and they were frantically searching for the driver of the coupe that just rolled off the mountain.
Of course, the car’s occupants were sitting halfway up the mountain, passing moonshine back and forth and watching the show.
The man lived 1,000 lifetimes in his years, but the stories he told the most were about me, my siblings and my cousins. He told everyone who would listen what we were doing, and how good we were at it. I’ve been in a career crisis for about five years, and in that span, everyone in the Shenandoah Valley heard about how I was the best journalist, deputy sheriff, teacher, coach, carpenter, jiu jitsu fighter, writer and whatever else I tried to blaze a path in. It was a lot of HR paperwork and everyone around me was clearly tired of it, but he was always proud.
It was like I lost my one true believer.
But I think he knew that.
I think he knew that back in July when he handed me that case. He used to play me old tapes of bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe and The Easter Brothers, and I came to love that old-time mountain music just as much as he did. When I hear those old songs, it takes me back to his house in Buffalo Gap, where’d we stay up late watching NASCAR, eating stovetop popcorn and ice cream.
When I open up that old leather case I can still smell his unfiltered cigarettes. When I tune up the dobro and start playing, it’s like he’s right there beside me once again. My one true believer is still there, and he’s still proud.
I need that some days.
The dobro is a little rough around the edges. It got knocked around a bit over the years, but you can see it’s a quality instrument. It’s got some age, maybe a spot or two of rust in the resonator, but in the right hands, it can tell a story you wouldn’t believe. I guess my old man was right: that’s my grandfather in a box.
That’s Papa’s guitar.