My hands, no matter how hard I scrubbed them, always seemed to smell of motor oil.

You probably remember that Walker County was dry back then, and the Sportsman was the first stop in Jefferson County where you could get a tank of gas and beer cold enough to crack your teeth.


Late one Friday night an ancient red and cream colored Oldsmobile as big as a land barge rolled into the parking lot with gravel popping under the wheels as it coasted up to the pumps. It had rust spots in the fenders big enough to throw a puppy through.


A guy climbed from behind the wheel wearing jeans and a cowboy shirt with dark stains under his arms that went half way down his rib cage.


He walked over to talk to me about a problem he had. The veins in his eyes looked like road maps and he smelled of whiskey, cigarettes, and sweat. He’d been drinking a long time.


His breath was toxic and I took a step backwards to put a little distance between us.


"I'm outta gas," he said matter-of-factly."And what's worse, I'm out of beer. I ain't got no money either," he said with his hands shoveled deep into his back pockets.

"I do have something to trade," he explained.


The Olds was a two-door hardtop and he had all the windows rolled down. He leaned his scarecrow frame into the back seat and pulled out an ancient guitar.

"I've got this," he said. "It ain't much to look at, but it plays sweet."

He handed me the guitar.

I gently took it by the neck, and held it up to the florescent lights to see the name on the headstock. It was a caramel-colored Gibson.


Determining the age was hard. Gibson started making guitars in 1902, but if its life had been as hard as that of its owner, it could be less than 10 years old.


It had a small wood screw in the headstock where it looked as if it had been dropped, but it was sturdy.

There was what looked like a bullet hole from a small caliber pistol near where his heart would have been if he'd been playing it when the shot was fired.


I stepped my boot up on the bumper of his Olds, laid the guitar across my knee, and strummed a few chords.

I had to agree it wasn't much to look at, but it played sweet.


In those days, I didn't have a lot of money either, but I recognized treasure when I saw it.

I filled his tank up and laid a cold case of Budweiser in his back seat.


"I thank you" he said as he cranked the Olds, a cloud of cigarette smoke drifting out the window. "I wish I had time to tell you the story behind that guitar, but I'm running late."


He opened a cold Bud, slurped foam from the top, and set it between his legs.  He waved as he headed out of the parking lot.


I never saw him again, but I’ve often wondered if he made it to where he was headed. I also wish there’d been enough time for him to tell me the story of that guitar.

I think about him every time I pick up that old Gibson and strum a tune.