PICKIN’ UP THE PIECES
by Larry L. Hamilton
When Uncle Luke called him “Your Honor” in his best big round revival voice and rolled out words about satisfying the court and serving the needs of justice, Judge Brown just beamed. Uncle Luke hoped to get us to our next performance on schedule; we had folks to feed back home. That old sinner of a southern country magistrate said that we at least looked
like a band of sorts. “They don’t have anything much to serve us Vets down here and the money we get for recreation don’t go far. There’s some visitors comin’ to see how we’re treating our Vets, and it’s nearly Veterans Day.” He didn’t have to paint in more numbers for Uncle Luke. It was settled that we’d do two shows to cover the sham of an outrageous fine for speeding, resisting arrest and other charges.
VA buildings are pretty much the same inside with endless corridors paved with green or brown linoleum and marked every half-mile or so with yellow signs warning about wet floors. According to a marker out front, this one began as a state insane asylum in 1898. We’d played these places before and we knew those veterans’ home faces well – some old, some younger. Each resident was missing some parts: some physical, some mental, some both. Plus, some of us had lived this life. Me and another of us couldn’t walk naked through an airport metal detector without it going off because of the bits and pieces of metal junk some Viet Cong boy had packed into his homemade mine. Those simple mines shredded bodies the same way a lumber mill’s chipping machine turns loblolly into gondola loads for 3-M.
The staff seemed happy seeing us. The first show would be in their cafeteria and they helped Latrell hook up our smallest system. By now we were certain that the Deputy and the Judge were in cahoots and it was them instead of Justice that we were serving.
If we had a secret weapon to help us make a getaway with no serious damage done it was Uncle Luke. Back home some folks thought he was something of a conjuring man. There were more tales about him than could possibly be true. But as a first cousin, I knew that he had been raised up to live honorable and to use his considerable wits to make his way with whatever was available. I figured he already had the makings of a plan but that judge had us over a good-sized barrel.
The evening show was just for the hospital workers, the vets and a few special friends the Judge was busy rounding up. While we were setting up, a young woman from the Judge’s office fixed up flyers for the next day’s afternoon show. Uncle Luke assigned me to help her. When he left, I told her he picked me because I was the only one he trusted to tell the truth.
The first things she wanted to know was the name of the band, where we had played and were we famous. I told her we were so unfamous we didn’t have a name, but when needed we were Uncle Luke’s Band. I told her we did a lot of studio work for small labels, played clubs, fairs and sometimes revivals because we all had done a lot of gospel growing up. And some of us were still doing that – growing up.
She laughed at that one. Since she just asked about the music I didn’t volunteer about carpentry, painting, and occasional body-guarding. That part of the music business is sort of assumed unless you really are famous.
I noticed she had put down a ten-dollar price tag, five for youngsters and twelve and under free. I guess Uncle Luke already had figured that Judge Brown would find a way to work a little extra dividend from our predicament. Maybe we were wrong but we figured the Judge wasn’t planning to share any of the gate money with us and most likely the Vets’ recreation fund wouldn’t see any of it either.
Her name was Patti Sue. She worked for the Judge but she weren’t kin. Her Daddy was minister of the biggest of the three churches in the city limits and she was engaged to a minister’s son from the next county. She was right pretty, smiled and blushed a lot; said she had been a volunteer for the vets since junior high.
She introduced me to the oldest resident when a man she called “Chief” came up and asked what was going on. He was called “Chief” because he’d been a very senior Chief Petty Officer in the Navy when he got a medical retirement in the late innings of the Viet Nam war. ‘Nam was the third battle star on his flag. Another resident told me Chief was just a year out of high school and most all of it spent on the USS Arizona except for that first Sunday in December 1941, when he had forty-eight hour liberty ashore in Pearl Harbor.
Chief was a tough old salt, even though he carried his teeth in his shirt pocket and his eyes were weak. He didn’t have family left but he was cheerful and full of history. What female nurses there were kept their eye on him because he was full of mischief they said. True or not, he liked to hear it. You could tell because he’d look around and catch somebody’s eye and give a wink and a toothless grin – unless he had his teeth in. Sad, thinking that the bathtub was about the most water he likely would ever see again.
As Patti Sue finished the flyers, the Recreation Director, Mr. Gabriel Hubbard, came by to talk private about one of the local boys named Ruel Lee Jeter, who was a part time resident. He played guitar pretty fair and had a special thing with Hank Williams’ music. According to Mr. Hubbard, he did some of old Hank’s songs like it was him reincarnated.
Local folks who liked country blues style loved to hear him do it. Some others just liked the excitement. He would play some then stop, look real sad for a bit and then smash the guitar into splinters like he was Sampson with that jawbone working on the Philistines. He didn’t ever try to hit any people, but, whenever it happened, he would later claim he didn’t remember anything about it. When Ruel Lee was living outside, Mr. Hubbard said local pranksters were always trying to set up some unsuspecting stranger so he would hand over his guitar to hear that boy play Hank.
Mr. Hubbard didn’t want to see us get stuck with a busted guitar nor misunderstand about this haunted man. “It must be something about them Hank Williams songs that puts him into some kind of torment. I’ve seen it happen and there ain’t no doubt that boy’s fightin’ for his life wherever it is he goes in his head.”
He also told me the boy had been awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in ‘Nam after his unit had been over run. There was some bickering about it ’cause he was a Medic and technically a non-combatant and not supposed to be shooting at people. But he got it anyway along with another cluster for his Purple Heart.
After I told Uncle Luke about Ruel Lee we had a little meeting before the rehearsal. Then Uncle Luke sent me to fetch him and Mr. Hubbard. We each introduced ourselves and them that had been there told him what unit they’d been with in ‘Nam and when.
Odell was the last one – our standup bass, rhythm guitar and keyboards man. I thought he was staring kind of strange at Ruel Lee, but he did that a lot. Finally, he said, “Look at me real close Ruel Lee. You used to call me Boojee. You remember that?”
Uncle Luke got his “Now what next weird is going to happen?” expression for a second and then he looked hard one at a time at both of them.
Ruel Lee blinked a couple of times and smiled real polite. He looked close at Odell’s face. You could tell he was trying hard.
“I don’t think so,” he said real soft.
“Look at this.” Odell bent over and pulled up his pants leg to show the artificial leg attached at his left knee.
“You used to see me at the Rat Shack in Nha Trang. You called me Boojee ’cause I played boojee-woojee on that beatup old piano they had.”
Something seemed to register. He squinched his eyes up tight looking way back hard. When he opened them he said, “Beard.”
Odell’s beard was thick, dark and curly. His hair hung past his shoulders and matched his beard.
“Yeah, man. I was a grunt back then. No beard, no hair either. Skinnier too.”
He gestured downward again, “Look at this tin leg man.” He grinned.
“You fixed that. I know it ain’t the only one you did, but it’s the only one of mine you did. And maybe it was your last one. My platoon was at your base camp when it got overrun.”
“You were showin’ me and my buddy TJ some licks on your guitar outside the medic hooch when the mortars and rockets started droppin’ in and me and TJ went out on the fire line.”
“After I got hit TJ hauled me back there and you had put a tourniquet on my leg when the VC finally broke through and started hosin’ the medic hooch. There musta been twenty or thirty of us dead and wounded stacked up around there. Damndest thing I ever seen, man. You bashed your guitar on the first one that came inside before you got hold of TJ’s M-60. He’d a-been proud of what you did with his chopper man. I heard later you got the star but was messed up worse than me.”
Ruel Lee blinked a couple of times, looked at Odell for a bit and then, like he was just waking up, said, “Boojee.”
“Yeah, that’s me man – Boojee.” He went over to the old upright in the corner and standing up began some left hand work that started in New Orleans and worked its way up to Chicago before his right hand joined up. When he stopped Ruel Lee was looking happier than he probably had in awhile.
“Yeah, Boojee. We did some jamming at the Rat Shack a couple of times, a bunch of times.”
He paused. “Your buddy, TJ, he was a big black dude?”
Odell nodded yes.
“He didn’t make it did he?”
“Naw, man. He already had some holes in him when he drug me to the tent. You had just put the tourniquet on my leg when Charlie came in there. TJ took most of the first burst. I guess Charlie could see he still had that M-60.”
“I reckon you and me took some of that burst, too. But he got too close and that’s when you took after him with your guitar. The last I remember was a crowd of Charlies rushing the hooch and you workin’ out with TJ’s M-60. You saved some lives, man. Thanks.”
Then it was still like a thick quilt on a cold night. I thought I could hear Ruel Lee’s eyes blink it was that quiet. He had a way of looking at you that made you stare at him because you could see his face working like he was fixing to say something. It took a few minutes to realize that what he was seeing from his side of those blinking eyes was far far away.
But he answered when you spoke to him. He answered again like he just woke up when Odell asked if he’d like to sit in while we rehearsed a little.
“Don’t have a guitar, Boojee.”
“Man, I got one you can play. It’s real special.”
His face worked like he was struggling real hard inside.
“Boojee I break guitars. I don’t know it when I do it, but the people here have seen me do it and I’ve seen a couple I busted. One was a really nice old Martin. I felt awful bad about it when they told me I had done it.”
“Maybe this time it’ll be different. Like I said this guitar is special.”
Odell brought out a battered hard shell case and set it down between them. Ruel Lee looked at it then looked up at Odell who nodded his head, “Do it man, it’s OK.”
He slowly opened the case and pulled out an electric that had been re-worked some but would be a treasure to any guitar player. He caressed it like an infant child and whispered, “Man, this is a Les Paul.”
We were all impressed. As long as I’d known Odell he’d been a bass and keyboard man and good at it. It had just never registered with any of us that he was carrying a Les Paul guitar in that old case because all we ever saw him play was his bass guitars, keyboards or his standup.
“Yeah, well maybe it’s a Les Paul. It’s been re-worked and it came from Saigon. I think it’s mostly a Les Paul original, but what makes it extra special is who it belonged to.”
“Its not yours?”
“TJ willed it to me. Just like I willed him my Fender bass. He wanted somebody to have it that would appreciate it and make sure it got into good hands. I been carryin’ it around near twenty years now Ruel Lee, and I think you got the right hands.”
“Aw man, I ain’t all that good and I don’t hardly ever play anymore. God, what if I broke it?”
“It don’t matter Ruel Lee. I don’t know if TJ was still alive when you busted your guitar on that first Charlie that hosed us, but I know he would have wanted you to have it. He liked pickin’ blues. I’m sorry ya’ll never got to jam together.”
“But man, what if I break it?”
“It don’t matter Ruel Lee, it’s yours. Me and TJ are givin’ it to you. You do what you want to with it. If you play it and break it that’s OK. If you want to play it and not break it I’ll do my best to stop you if you want me to. But it’s yours man. Now, you gonna’ hook up and set in or what?”
“I don’t want to break it Boojee.”
His face was beading with sweat. His left foot was heel-tapping at high speed, but the rest of him was still.
We waited. Nobody was sure if what Odell was doing was the best thing but it was real personal and he was doing what he felt was right, no question.
“Will you help me not break it?”
Odell lit up. “We’ll sit on you man.”
He hadn’t let that Les Paul run down a bit. Ruel Lee tuned it slow and careful and worked some chords and he looked like a man having the best dream of his life.
He played “Red River Valley” like the slow country waltz it was in its first life and everybody smiled. When Toby our pedal steel player gave him some old time support, it sounded like the Porter Wagoner show on TV in the fifties. Then Ruel Lee changed tempo and style and took it to country rock, R and B, and then did a little jazz progression. He was a little rusty, but he was a man come alive and happy.
It was kind of strange him feeling so good. He was surrounded by the rest of us and we were picking and grinning. Although Mr. Hubbard had told us that he’d never hit a person when he had a guitar smashin’ spell, we all were tensed to jump him if he tried to whack somebody with that Les Paul.
Must of been that a lot of VA folks knew about Ruel Lee’s guitar picking and smashing because they started drifting into the cafeteria. We were working through some old Jimmy Reed and people were smiling and shaking around like they were ready to dance. The head nurse who came into the cafeteria was the biggest black woman I think I’d ever seen. She had to go at least two thirty and she towered over just about everybody there except Toby and Uncle Luke and a couple of others in the crowd.
Chief went right over to her and pulled her out to do a little jitterbug. I thought he might’ve gone too far and be getting himself into trouble. But fool me, she grinned at that scrawny old man and took him two laps around the dance floor that suddenly opened up. In spite of the differences in their size, color, and age they looked for a minute or two like a team in an old movie dancing the 1940s.
When Chief and the nurse stopped dancing the music stopped too. The crowd was looking at Ruel Lee like something might be going to happen. But nothing did. Mr. Hubbard and the head nurse shooed people out so we could get ready.
Ruel Lee smiled and listened while Odell and Uncle Luke set him up for rehearsal, which wasn’t much. Everybody made a little cheat sheet, then we went through the first few chords and talked about solos. We’d just do our best and make room for some audience requests and some sing-a-longs if they were in the right mood.
We went at it for nearly an hour. Odell stayed close to Ruel Lee, but he did fine.
The VA cafeteria offered to feed us and while we were eating Uncle Luke talked serious with Patti Sue. Then she bustled out with her notebook held high like a woman on a mission. Uncle Luke went back to eating his bowl of corn muffins and buttermilk.
We started at sundown. The first two rows were mostly people in wheelchairs and a few beds. There were about a hundred or so vets and a bunch more hospital people. I saw the Judge at the beginning but I guess he left before the end.
That kind of free show don’t feed your belly, but it does feed your soul some. If he could have figured a way to do it, Judge Brown probably would have fined us for having a good time while we were working for him for free. One of the best things was that Ruel Lee played and played and nothing bad happened. He even played a couple of his favorite Hank Williams songs that Mr. Hubbard had warned us about, and when he was done he bowed to the applause. He was real shy about it, but I think he understood that everybody was pulling for him.
When it was all over, Uncle Luke told us to sleep all we could and keep our gear together. We would depart the Judge’s jurisdiction as soon as we loaded our equipment after tomorrow’s afternoon show for the town folks.
Next morning we were setting up in the combination gym and auditorium when Patti Sue appeared with four boys in tow from the local high school. They carried heavy green canvas bags with ARMY ROTC in gold letters. They left the bags on the stage and Uncle Luke asked Mr. Hubbard to close down the gym because we had some new material and special effects. He was happy to oblige.
When Uncle Luke explained to us what he had in mind, there was considerable chuckling and grinning. He finished up saying, “As long as they’re willin’ to feed us free in the VA messhall you better fill up ’cause we’ll likely have a couple of days of slim rations before we get paid next.”
Latrell blushed and grinned when somebody said we’d maybe better put a governor on the bus engine so he couldn’t race any more deputies. Of course this was why we knew that we’d been sort of set up by the Judge and his deputy. It was a miracle that Latrell could keep that bus above the required minimum speed on the Interstate.
It was kind of surprising how many people the Judge turned out on such short notice. Ticket sales were just inside the auditorium door and I heard Patti Sue tell Uncle Luke they’d taken in over four thousand dollars and the vets got in free. The staff people paid half price. She said the Judge sprang for twenty tickets to cover admission for the VIPs he was trying to impress.
Maybe I was misjudging the man, but I figured he could afford to spring for twenty tickets because, if I suspected right, his plan was to pocket the gate receipts anyway. The ticket buyers probably figured they were paying for the band, if they thought about it at all. Except for us, the Judge and his deputy, nobody knew this show was a part of Latrell’s sentence.
Uncle Luke came out and started explaining how we were glad to be helping provide recreation for the vets. He told them, “We’re all Christians and we’re all veterans. We may not be the best of either that you’ve ever seen, but that’s what we are.”
Then he said, “We’re going to give y’all a chance to fatten the kitty for the recreation fund. We’re gonna pass collection plates just like it was church. Since ya’ll don’t know us, I’ll ask Judge Brown and his deputy if they’ll help out supervisin’ the collection. We’ve got some collection plates we thought were just right for this special place.”
The Judge got a handful of upstanding people in front of the stage and introduced them to the audience. Then Uncle Luke produced six steel helmets that were part of the stuff he’d borrowed from the high school Army ROTC. Seeing those steel pots sobered people a little but it sure got their attention. It was a nice touch.
Uncle Luke then asked Mr. Hubbard, the VA Chaplain, and the Head Nurse, that huge woman whose name I had learned was Annabelle Darden, to be the receivers of the offering. When they got up in front with the group holding the steel pots he asked the Chaplain to say a prayer thanking veterans and the people here who supported them.
Then he said, “Now there’s one more thing. Ms. Patti Sue tells me there’s a good chunk of change, a bit over four thousand dollars in that box she’s guardin’. I’d be real surprised and disappointed if there’s anyone here who would object to that box of cash bein’ the first toss in the collection plate.”
We were all watching the Judge out of the corners of our eyes, but were disappointed if we had expected him to have a conniption or something. His smile maybe looked a little forced and he didn’t jump out to make a speech like he’d been doing earlier. But Deputy Brown was turning red, gritting his teeth and in general looking like a man who’d just found half a worm in his apple and was struggling with whether to throw up his last bite or ignore the whole thing. It never occurred to me that he might be stifling laughter.
Patti Sue, with tears streaming, trotted right over to the Chaplain, Nurse Darden and Mr. Hubbard and plunked that box down in front of them and then led off a big round of applause. In a heartbeat, Uncle Luke had the ushers moving those steel pots across the rows of metal folding chairs that were now passing for pews.
When it was done, the whole collection was presided over by what were probably three of the most honest people in the county. Uncle Luke had just neatly bypassed the Judge and put the gate directly into the hands of the VA folks.
The audience was ripe for the musical tour of American history we had ready. “Wabash Cannonball” had them singing the chorus before it was over.
Uncle Luke did some narrating and we did a few bars into “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn” and then enough of the “Yellow Rose of Texas” so the audience got in on two choruses.
I don’t know where it came from but I thought Uncle Luke would likely have been a sorcerer if he had lived in some ancient time. The way he handled that crowd was magical.
We did a history of the Opry and Ruel Lee got a standing ovation when he did a Hank Williams solo. Since most of the town folks knew him I guess they were cheering as much for him not smashing his guitar as they were for his singing and playing. In the middle of the applause he held that Les Paul over his head and then gave it a big kiss. That gave everybody a big dose of feeling good.
Soon Uncle Luke said, “This is grass roots gospel South,” and that cued our quintet to form up. We did some of “I’ll Fly Away” and “When The Home Gates Swing Open For Me.”
Then Uncle Luke and Eddy Blair, who was one of the three black members of our band, joined us and we did parts of two spirituals that would have passed us all for black on any southern Sunday radio program. It was hard to tell who was more astonished, the black folks or the white folks in the audience. They all laughed and some just howled.
Now it was time to bring the house down. Uncle Luke said, “Folks, ya’ll are a real fine audience and we’re gonna do somethin’ special to say thanks for this VA hospital and you folks who live in and around it. One thing that’s already been special for us is findin’ Ruel Lee Jeter. I guess most of ya’ll know about him. Anyway, we invited him to join up and him and his doctor agreed that he’ll leave the hospital and go with us at least to our next show. And he’s welcome to stay with us until he can’t stand us anymore.”
That caused more applause and lots of smiles.
“A fact about what the military is all about is that not everyone comes home. And some of them that come back don’t come back whole. And sometimes when the battles are over, the rest of us forget. We forget the price and we don’t much want to be reminded.”
Then Uncle Luke put on his black Johnny Cash hat and coat. The lights dimmed to one spotlight. He strummed a low chord that matched his voice. With a little snare in the background he started singing low and deep, “Call him drunken Ira Hayes he won’t answer anymore, not the whiskey-drinkin’ Indian nor the Marine who went to war.”
The timing made “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” just the right song for that group. You could hear the tension set in almost like a whip crack and then it was dead quiet while they listened.
When he got to the part about Ira and the others “raisin’ Old Glory on that Iwo Jima Hill,” the back-lights on the stage came up and there were our boys in silhouette wearing those steel pots, rifles slung over their shoulders, and raising the flag in a pretty fair imitation of the original. When they got it up they stood back and saluted it one at a time, about faced, and walked off into the dark. The back-lights kept the flag in profile and a fan came on to give it a little movement while Uncle Luke finished.
The applause was loud and sincere but not as wild as earlier because so many people were fooling with handkerchiefs and feeling a little sheepish about their wet eyes. We closed out with a medley from the Outlaws includin’ Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Mr. Hubbard got on the microphone and said the VA Rec bus was going to convoy with the band’s vehicles to the county line as kind of a celebration parade for Ruel Lee and anybody who wanted to join the parade was welcome. He then asked the Judge if his Deputy could escort the whole shebang and he of course agreed.
We set a record for loading. It was some parade. With Latrell straining to keep the bus up to 55 mph, the Deputy led us all the way to the county line with blue lights flashing and a little siren wail. When he pulled over to let us by at the county line he was blowing his nose and didn’t wave but we blew our horns and waved thanks anyway. We didn’t think then we’d ever have a return engagement, but we knew it don’t pay to burn bridges you might have to cross again.
I moved back to where Ruel Lee was sittin’ and asked him about that deputy. I just didn’t know what to think about him, or the Judge.
He smiled big at me and said, in the happiest voice I’d heard him use yet, “He’s my Daddy. He started me on guitar and he said he was glad to finally have me back. He never gave up on it. Here’s his card. He said if I have any problems, ya’ll should call him and he’ll fetch me home. He said to tell ya’ll thanks, and he’ll be prayin’ for us all.
“What about Judge Brown?”
Another broad smile, “He’s my grandaddy.”
About the Author:
Larry L. Hamilton, native Georgian, now 75 and living in Asheville, NC, grew up as an Army Brat, traveling from school to school, state to state, 2 tours in Germany. He then spent a few years on active duty himself in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He earned three degrees in Government and International Studies from the University of South Carolina many years ago and spent most of his career in SC state government while also running over 50 marathons and coaching his sons’ soccer and chess teams. He has been trying his best for years to write some publishable fiction and is thrilled this is it!