Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Luthier's Life-Baseball Trip Chapter 1

"Eventually, I want to become a luthier."

We didn't understand this sentence any more than the rest of what Jeremy was saying, but at least it was a breath of relief from the alphabet soup of guitar model numbers he had been reciting ever since I asked him about his job. Gibson LC-33 from 1963, Fender this, Martin that. Each model he mentioned was bigger, better, older and worth even more than the last. Some of the guitars in his long litany were part of the collection at the shop where he worked. Some occupied his own stock, accumulated over the years as a reflection of his all-absorbing passion for the twang of classic stringed instruments, from the giant mando-bass down to the smallest ukulele.

Jeremy is a former student of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., an unassuming college-aged guy living with seven or so (it fluctuates based on the season) roommates in a crusty old house affectionately known as "The Toolbox". When we arrived, most of the house's normal occupants were either on summer vacation. We had stopped by on our way to Washington D.C., to crash with a friend that had had enough room in his downstairs bedroom for three college guys who were too cheap to spring for a hotel, especially when it was already one in the morning.

This is the anatomy of the American road trip. No trek across the country would be complete without exhausting every possible human connection to stay in random places and meet obscure new people. Evan, my best friend, and I have become professionals at the art. After graduating high school, we used $700 each of what should have gone toward books and college fees to log 7700 miles on his mom's Cadillac Seville. During a two-and-a-half week span, we hit 13 different baseball stadiums and only stayed in a hotel for one night. (Seriously, who has connections in Toronto?) The pay-off from that was huge, allowing us to save money and stockpile some unforgettable experiences.

I have just graduated from college and am getting married in a little over a week, so as a semi-bachelor party, Evan, Drew and I decided to hit three more stadiums: RFK in D.C., Shea in New York, and Citizens Bank Park in Philly. My next few posts will catalogue this 1600-mile whirlwind and the characters we met along the way.

We met Jeremy and Ernie, another roommate, on the deck outside the Toolbox. Our host had already retired for the night, and we decided that hanging out with the two strangers was a favorable alternative to sleep. Ernie, we found out, is a software programmer for the language software company Rosetta Stone, which is headquartered in Harrisonburg. A laid-back guy, Ernie lit up a Camel cigarette (precisely the fifth he ever smoked) and talked about his job, how he had stayed at the office from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. to get everything ready for an upcoming software release. Both of the guys were actively involved in Young Life, and we soon found out that we all share the same faith.

All the while, Jeremy continued to enlighten us about guitars. A tried-and-true aficionado, during his first year or so of school he had frequented the Guitar and Amp Center, a shop in Harrisonburg that looks bland outwardly, but according to Jeremy is a veritable classic guitar paradise on the inside. The place boasts one of the country's largest collections of ukuleles, and the variety is staggering. Some of the hand-made Martins are worth over $10,000, and there are also banjo ukes, 1950s boomerang-shaped ukes, even one made from a cigar box (see photo).

As far as Evan and I were concerned, we had to see this shop on our way out of town. Drew was a little more skeptical, but now that we've seen the uke motherload, I think we can all say that it was a welcome addition to the trip. By the way, a luthier is a maker of stringed instruments, and since Jeremy dropped out of college to work at the shop, that's his new career goal. As a musician myself, you can bet I'll try to exploit that connection one day.

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