It was Christmas 1970 and, even though my eight track tape player was constantly playing George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band that holiday season, I had somehow decided that I wanted a banjo. Seeing Roy Clark on Hee Haw had put it in my fourteen-year old mind that I could actually play this instrument. I’m not sure if I had even heard bluegrass music at that point, growing up in Norfolk, Virginia.
There was a music store at Ward’s Corner, about a mile away from our house, and an Aria banjo had been placed front and center in the store’s Christmas window arrangement since early November. Priced at over $200, this was way too much of an extravagance for my mother, who supported the two of us on a meager Social Security disability income. She almost never called upon my dad to help out with anything extra — just getting the monthly child support was miracle enough — but somehow an agreement had been worked out to buy that banjo.
We brought the banjo home two weeks before Christmas and it was stored underneath the spare bed in my mother’s bedroom with the promise that I would not open the case until Christmas morning. Well, you know how that worked out. As soon as Mother had left the house on an errand, I pulled the case from underneath the bed and opened it up to take a look.
You can imagine my shock when I found a banjo with a broken resonator. The back of the instrument was a landscape of cracked wood with the resonator’s binding splayed out from the sides at various angles that obviously were not intended by the banjo’s Japanese manufacturer. My heart sank. Did this happen in transport from the music store? Had I done this myself in carrying it into the house? I had held the banjo in my own hands before we bought it and it was fine. Was this some kind of Christmas curse — God’s retribution to me for opening the case before Christmas? Could I not get away with anything?
I then remembered that there were two banjo cases in the back room of the music store. Perhaps, just perhaps, the store owner had switched banjos and had given us the one with broken resonator. I immediately felt guilty even thinking this thought but then another much larger issue loomed in front of me, like a ghost of Christmas present: how could I tell my mother about this? If I confided that I had discovered that the banjo was broken, I would also be admitting that I broke my promise not to look inside the case before Christmas. This was a tough existentialist dilemma for a fourteen-year old suburban teenager.
Full disclosure won out, along with the overriding desire to get a banjo with a good-looking resonator. My mom’s anger mingled with my own somewhat twisted Christmas joy as I watched her chew out the store owner, who promptly traded banjos with apology. When the new new banjo arrived home, it went under the bed once again and was not to be opened before Christmas morning.
This time, I kept my promise.