Search
  • Bart Blankenship

Wait! That Was A Flying Pig!

Updated: Jan 10, 2020



Tristan, my brother's boy is my only blood nephew. Imagine being the only nephew or niece to an Outward Bound instructor who's kids are grown and you're ten.

“Tristan, do you want to go fishing?”

“Maybe next year. Let me check my calendar.”

“Hey Uncle Bart! Check out this video game I'm getting good at. See, there's this room and all these booby traps and you have to get through it.....”

“T Man. I've tried video games and don't really like them. I just wind up in a corner with blood and zombies all over. Again and again.”

And so we'd have this stand off of wanting to connect but having no common ground other than family.

But one day, I was needing to build a very basic cigar box guitar to use as an example for a workshop I was giving the next day at the Bay Pines mental health ward. I would have one student and four hours to build a guitar. Four hours isn't much time when you're teaching. No time to glue up a neck. No time for much sanding or spraying on a finish. No volume control. Just tuners, frets, pickup, and jack. Most cigar box guitars are electric since the boxes are made of cheap, very thin plywood with a foam core. Not the best tone wood, and so making them electric really makes them come alive.

My mom was babysitting Tristan that day and I use her shop to build my guitars. It's nice since we live four blocks away and get to see each other more that way. And since Tristan was over, I brought a fret board in and a yardstick and set up on the breakfast table.

“Do you know how to measure with a yardstick Tristan?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said.

“I have to do it in millimeters as it's too hard to measure in fractions of an inch when it's that small. Want to try marking where the frets will be?”

“No. I'll mess it up.”

“I'll check your work. Let me sharpen the pencil.” And so we sat down and he marked out where the frets would be. To the half millimeter which is thinner than the width of my saw. I checked his work and only two of the eighteen frets needed to be re-marked.

“Want to use the saw and cut the frets?”

“OK.”

We moved into the shop and got the miter box out and fret saw and he cut the tiny slots. Then he hammered in each fret and filed the ends smooth. He spread out some wood glue on the neck and clamped the fretboard to it.

“Do you want to wind the pickup?” I asked.

“Nope. I'll definitely mess that up.”

But I showed him how to cut a top of a bean can with tin snips, and glue on the tiny magnets and then to connect it to the drill and wind 2000 turns of the tiny copper wire and finally solder it to the lead wires.

“Uncle Bart, this box says “Flying Pig”, but it's a picture of a dragon. Actually, maybe it's a lion.”

“Yeah, it's kind of weird. Why not call it Flying Dragon, or something like that?

“Maybe, cause a flying pig would be funnier?”

“I think you're right. A flying pig is funnier.”

Then we drilled the holes for the tuners, notched the box to fit the neck, used a bolt for the nut and bridge, and put on the strings. I was having fun and Tristan's eyes lit up when he hit the first cord with the new guitar plugged into the amp. We played around with it a bit and then it was time for Tristan to go home.

The next day, my class went well at the VA and the student left with his new guitar. The therapist there took lots of notes so she could be of more help in the next workshop with ten students. I went home and decided I wanted to make Tristan's guitar a little nicer and put on a volume control and a frame for the pickup. But in doing so broke his pickup and had to wind another.

I asked Tristan if he'd like to learn to play the guitar, and he declined. Oh, well, at least it was fun to build it together. And so, that bare bones, unsanded guitar sat in mom's shop for a year.





Forty guitars and two workshops later I had a show at the Art Ovation Hotel in Sarasota. Most of the guitars were very finished and lacquered and cost over $300. Except the Flying Pig guitar which I had listed for $175. At my brother, Danny's suggestion I bought a roll of raffle tickets and put the Flying Pig out front with the tickets and a jar. One ticket for a dollar. Or six for five dollars.

Danny smiled a guilty smile and said, “You could even just take the money and not have the raffle.”

“No way.” I said. “I just couldn't do that.” It's funny the moral dilemma's that come up with even honest people. But all my family knows that I am way in the red on my HighwayBluesGuitars business.

Raffle tickets are really easy to sell if you tell people about the raffle. But for some reason, I was shy about it. And so days went by before anyone bought one. Finally, the bartender who was working opposite my show came and bought one ticket. He had come over before and played some of the guitars. He was good. That one ticket sat there for a couple days before more joined it. And people would ask about the raffle and some would buy a ticket or 6 and with each person I'd hope that they would win. Mom came by and saw the unproductive raffle jar.

“There's only a few tickets. Do you have to do the raffle? You don't have to just give away another guitar.”

“Mom!” I said exasperated. “Every time that a person hands me their money for a ticket, I'm really happy and hope they will win. If I was just taking their money, I'd be looking at them smiling and knowing I was stealing.”

I had yet to sell a single guitar and was halfway through my eight day show. “I think when you steal," I told her, "you are telling the universe that you can't make it. That you're not good enough, and I don't want to feel that way or believe that about myself.”

I found out later that Jen, my wife had spoke about this with mom and Jen had said she thought I should just pick the person I wanted to give the guitar to out of the raffle jar and give it to them. Who would know? I would. But life is full of those gray areas. Right?

To attract more visitors to my show, I had a sign saying, “Free guitar lessons.” Several people came in. Some knew how to play a guitar or ukulele and others had never tried. Most of those who took a free lesson, bought a lottery ticket.

There was this one kid. He had introduced himself, but I'd forgotten his name. He knew how to play a normal six stringed guitar but mine were tuned differently and only had three strings. Most cigar box guitars are tuned in open G tuning meaning that just strumming all the strings, it's a G chord. That way you can use a slide and going up two frets you get an A, and so on. They are easy to play the blues on and since rock and roll uses a lot of power chords, most rock songs are a snap on these guitars.

We played for maybe twenty minutes and his mom bought 6 raffle tickets. A few minutes later he came back and had $4 so he bought four more. He asked when I was going to pick the ticket.

“Tuesday is the last day of the show. Christmas Eve. I'm leaving at 4. So I'll draw the raffle at 3:30.”

People came and went. I sold two guitars but had to come in early as the buyer was going to check out of the hotel before I'd show up at my usual time. And then he didn't answer my text until I'd driven halfway home. Since I live an hour from the show, that made for five hours driving that day in heavy traffic.

My favorite student came by Tuesday for another lesson. We played Elton John's “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting,” Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Give Me Three Steps,” Dick Dale's “Pipeline,” and the Spanish classic “Maleguena.” We had fun. I'm sure those at the bar listening to the background music must have rolled their eyes at us playing a bit too loud as one woman came over and shook her head. Kids these days!

At this writing, I'm 61 and I keep wondering when I'm going to grow up and what I'm going to do for a living. Feeling like a bad ass playing songs that you love on a electric guitar with the sound turned up is amazing. Try it sometime. You might feel a few decades fall away.

He left and others came and I demonstrated playing a guitar made from a shovel and another made from a broken oar. The guitar made from a Desperate Housewives game called, “Dirty Laundry” was a popular one folks wanted to hear.

Christmas Eve, and I'd only sold two guitars the day before. It was sobering to realize that it actually took me longer to sell my guitars than it took to build them. If I added up my hours building and selling, my rate just went below minimum wage. Sadly, I would make more money starting out at McDonald's. But I don't think it would be this much fun.

3:30 came and I noticed the boy and his mom sitting by the bar. I called him over and said I was going to pull the ticket. I shook the jar all up. “Do you want to pull the ticket?” I asked him.

“No. I don't think that's a good idea. You should do it,” he said.

There is something sweet, and also sad about pulling a lottery ticket with a hopeful kid standing by. Especially sad, where he's the only one there. It would be very different if all who bought tickets were there. But was just him and his mom was a bit further off.

This is going to be bad, I thought. I had counted the tickets. 32 were in the jar. I'd forgotten his name. Good looking kid with black wild hair that stuck up and out, and 14 or 15 years old.

I mixed the tickets around for a bit, closed my eyes and picked one. I looked at it and was sad. I knew it wasn't him. "Daniel" was written on the ticket and I would have remembered if that was his name since it's my brother's too.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “It says Daniel.”

“Daniel? That's me!” He said with a start.

I handed him the ticket.

“That's me!”

I couldn't believe it. But looking back, one in three odds are pretty good. But they're still against you. I plugged the guitar in and he asked me to show him, George Thorogood's “Bad To The Bone.”

I asked his mom if she minded taking a picture of us with my phone. I let them know the guitar comes with free lessons, for life and to keep in touch.

The money I got from the lottery paid for the lottery tickets I bought at Walmart, and the materials to build the guitar. The concept of the guitar started as an example for a free workshop with one mental health patient at the VA hospital. The building connected me and Tristan. And now Daniel a kid with crazy hair from around Chicago won it. Whether Daniel goes on to make that Flying Pig guitar fly is up to him. But for me that pig that looks like a dragon will always fly.



23 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All