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The Banjo Chaser

A Man of Constant Talents
My husband is a special kind of man. For one thing, he’s from Minnesota, where people are pretty special anyway. There’s such a thing called “Minnesota Nice” which I’d heard of even if I’d never actually found myself in the way of it. That’s because Minnesota is in the Midwest. At least, most of us think it is. My husband respectfully disagrees. “It’s an inaccurate description,” he opines. “It’s in the Midnorth. And we’re nothing like Midwesterners either, by the way.” Oh really.
Midwest or not, before I met T, Minnesota belonged to that Other. That part of the country where I had languished ever briefly, usually en route to someplace else. Thus, nice or otherwise, Minnesota meant little to me. It was a place where people spoke with weird Scandinavian accents and joked endlessly about a couple of stupid oafs named Sven and Oley. (Now I love Sven and Oley jokes.) And I love my husband’s Northern Minnesota accent. I grew up in Nova Scotia, but we joke that he’s the one with the Canadian accent.
One of the many things my husband can do well is play Norman Blake’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” on his Tony Rice dreadnought. (A wedding gift from his loving wife. The guitar, not the song.) One day before we were married he sat in my living room picking it on my cheap Seagull. The phone rang, and I picked up. It was my sister. “What song is that?” she asked. I told her. “I like it. I should go get the CD. Is the rest of the album this good?” It wasn’t a CD, I informed her. It was T. “Are you kidding? God, I can’t believe how well he plays.” I relayed the compliment to T, who accepted it humbly, with a slight twist of a smile. He can also do a mean version of Leo Kottke’s “The Fisherman.” (Playing anything by Leo Kottke is no easy feat, if you’ve ever tried it.)
He has other talents too, many of which I’ve only discovered slowly over four plus years of marriage. As it happens, I’ve been married to T for nearly as long as I’ve known him. That’s because we didn’t date long. We counted up and figured we had maybe six dates (and that’s being generous) and a long course of e-mails before he popped the question. He said he could have done without the long composition I gave by way of an answer. A simple “yes” would have sufficed. You see, they’re taciturn up on the North shore of Lake Superior besides being nice. In my family, we ate words for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In T’s family, talking at the dinner table (as he likes to quip), “was punishable by death.” His father (who passed away in ’86) would have had little to say to mine. If he could have gotten a word in edgewise, that is. I come from a long line of talkers, pontificators, professors, debaters and philosophers. We don’t give up the point easily.
T and I met on an American Airlines flight en route to Hartford, Connecticut via St. Louis, one cold January 6th. For both of us, it was a connecting flight. In both cases, the circumstances were interesting. T had been out in Los Angeles, where he’d been spending two weeks out of every month at the bedside of his niece (now my niece) who was very ill with Leukemia. (I was returning from Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I’d experienced the miraculous birth of R, the son of my good buddy KC.) T and I met thanks to the magical intervention of a musical instrument, my 1889 Buckbee banjo. As it happened, it was slung on my back, hobo style. As I trudged through the Jetway toward the plane, I heard a pleasant voice behind me. “Is that a banjo?” The usual litany of thoughts that habitually march through my head were at once interrupted. It was like a phone call ringing through the house when I’m trying to write a lede paragraph. “Damn it all, who wants to know?” I thought irritably. “Can’t I just think my thoughts and walk onto this plane, anonymously?” But no. Destiny had a louder knock. I turned around. The man’s face was as pleasant as his voice. Full beard. Soft hazel eyes. A baseball cap. A green backpack. The look of an L.L. Bean catalogue model on vacation. Maybe a little bit shorter than the catalogue model.
“Yes,” I replied to his infectious smile. “Yes it is.” A witty British friend, upon hearing about this chance encounter slam-dunked me an e-mail from Hong Kong with a title line that has burned in infamy ever since. “HOW’S THE BANJO CHASER?” his subject header sang out.
He wasn’t my seatmate. The Gods weren’t that obvious, alas. It was 2003. After 9/11, but before they jammed the flights so full your little toes lose circulation jammed down beneath your carry-on in the hole called leg space in front of you. I had a whole row to myself. More room for my endless thoughts. I was used to being alone, used to having only thoughts for company. Musings about my recent encounter with the unknown banjo chaser were not among them. I’d had plenty of attention from men my entire adult life, but I was finally wise enough to know that little good usually came of it. I was 37 years old. The life of an old maid seemed to suit me better. Or so I thought.
As the jet throttled airborne the voices of the silly, sophomoric college students behind me intruded into my coveted mental ramblings like a knife through lettuce. At the ripe old age of 37, I knew professional style flirting when I heard it, and these kids were rank amateurs. I felt like an egg set to coddle in chemical reaction to the saccharine quality of their voices and irritating, protracted posturing. If only I had some noise cancelling headphones. But I didn’t, damn it again. I ratcheted up the thought menu in my head in an intent (albeit failed) attempt to block out the cloyingly intrusive sound. Instinctively I grabbed for a piece of hair and began winding it tightly around my index finger. With the index of the opposite hand I began rasping at the hair with a nail until it made a satisfying clicking sound, a peculiar noise that I have weirdly enjoyed since I was at least three years old. This bizarre habit, which has annoyed nearly every member of my family of origin, and which, moreover, a college boyfriend spent the better part of a two year courtship trying to break me of, proved to be a defining moment in my life. Many seats back, in the jowls of the airplane, the shy stranger from Minnesota was working up the courage to work his way back to me, babe. Later, I would learn, he seldom if ever spoke to strangers. Especially not strange women. But somehow, the banjo and my swinging hips had emboldened him. Now it was this odd gesture of a strand of hair, wound until it crackled like the steel strings of a guitar high above the back of a second class airline seat that caught his attention. He found it gently endearing, if not eccentric. “I figured any woman who could sit and do that, oblivious of the stares of strangers,” he told me later, “probably wouldn’t bite.” And with that he dispelled the nay-saying voices in his own head and made his move. As he eased up the aisle way toward me, the sight of his pleasant Midwestern face was most welcome. When he asked “do you mind if I sit here?” he wasn’t referring to the seat directly next to mine. (I had taken up residence in the middle of a three seat row, which, given my druthers, is the perfect assignment on any flight. When the contiguous seats are empty, I mean.) No, he was politely referring to the empty seat across the aisle in the opposite row. And I remember thinking, “God, that’s polite. What a gentleman.”
We talked for the next two and a half hours. That’s when I found out that this unassuming man had sailed huge boats in the Pacific. That he had a pilot’s license. That he could build houses and barns and just about anything else. That he could finger and flatpick guitars. That he, like me, had lost a beloved older brother to an untimely death. I decided that anybody who had that many talents and could speak about them with such detached modesty was somebody worth getting to know better. Much later he would confess that he isn’t usually in the habit of spewing out his list of accomplishments in such a hurry. I asked him why he had. “Well, time was running out and I had to think of as many things as I could–that were true–to impress you.” There’s that Aries fire for you. Finding out he was born in April was the icing on the cake. I’m a Sagittarius. A fire sign. Aries is the best love sign in the Zodiac for me, but up until then I’d been plagued by Capricorns, Pisces, Taurus, and other such unsuitable matches. In this man, the fire smoldered slowly, but it was there. Boy, was it there.
He had done a lot with his life, but it was what he was doing with his life now that got me. He was in the middle of planning to buy a boat and sail it around the world solo when he found out his niece was dying. And so, he put his plans aside and spent the next year opening up his big heart and wrapping love around that little girl like a toasty warm blanket. He loved and he gave and he gave and loved some more until she got better. One year later that same sick little girl was a beautiful, radiant flower girl at our wedding. Now she is a beautiful teenager who continues to blossom. And considers her Uncle T to be the greatest guy in the world. That’s because he is. I’m glad you interrupted my thoughts, mi esposo. And I’m glad you chased that banjo. Nice move.