By Lee Pitts
As a youngster I dreamed of making my living as a musician, and I certainly had Van Gogh’s ear for it. I showed early signs of musical promise when, as a seven-year-old, I could play our National Anthem by placing my palm in my sweaty armpit and jerking it up and down. In fact, that’s how I became known in the musical community by my nickname – Pittsy.
My family was very musical. My grandmother was the soloist for two different denominations on Sunday and sang for over half the funerals and marriages in town. She was also a great piano player and took organ lessons until the day she died from her cousin Byron, who I wrote a true story about early in my career.
Byron was not what you would call “outdoorsy” or “swarthy” by any means. My grandpa called him a “sissy.” He got married later in life to a rancher’s widow who could rope and ride with the best of them.
Naturally, she introduced Byron to the ranch life by inviting him to his first branding, and when he saw his first calf being castrated, he passed out cold. I think he’d have died if he saw a Basque sheepherder castrating a lamb with his teeth.
As for myself, I flunked out of piano school because my version of Yankee Doodle Dandy sounded more like Achy Breaky Heart performed by steel drums and a band of bagpipes. Whenever I played the piano, the number of lost dogs at the dog pound tripled and even tomcats covered their ears.
I gave up the piano and tried to teach myself to play the guitar, but my first love was the saxophone, all three variations – tenor, alto and bass. I started in the sixth grade, and in high school I was first chair saxophone in the school’s marching, concert and jazz bands.
I was so serious about the saxophone I considered making a life for myself by becoming the sax man for a rock band, but I just didn’t have the hair for it. I also realized I wanted to eat.
Anyway, back to Byron. He led two church choirs and made his living teaching piano and organ lessons. His playing provided the soundtrack for my grandma’s life.
One reason grandpa called Byron a sissy was because as a bachelor, Byron sewed his own clothes. That’s why I hesitated when grandpa asked me, “Lee, what’s your favorite part about leatherwork? Is it the tooling? The construction?”
“Grandpa I know you’re gonna think less of me,” I replied. “But, I enjoy the sewing best.”
Grandpa looked at me in disgust, with a look usually reserved for Byron. Now that I’ve admitted it to the world, I know many will also think less of me.
The fact of the matter is, I love to hand sew leather, and I have two sewing machines – an old treadle Singer I completely refurbished and a Tippman machine that will sew through three-fourths of an inch of leather. I really want a Cobra, which many of the top saddlemakers now use.
I come by my sewing skills honestly because my mother was an unbelievable professional seamstress, and for many years it was her sewing that paid the bills and put food on our table. Still, I was not proud of admitting to grandpa that I enjoyed the needle arts.
When grandpa went into the rest home, my aunt had an estate sale. As I was going through the debris of Grandpa’s life I found a small quilt composed of one-inch squares of material perfectly sewn together with tiny stitches, about eight to the inch.
I asked my aunt, “Who made this beautiful quilt? Such workmanship!”
“That’s your grandpa’s.”
“Wow, I’ve never seen it before. But do you know who made it?”
“I just told you. Your grandpa made it!”
“Whoa! Wait just one darn minute! Stop the presses. You’re saying my grandpa sewed?”
Without waiting for an answer, I gathered up the quilt and immediately took it down to the geezer prison where grandpa was now encamped. He took one look at it and immediately knew that I knew our family’s deepest and darkest secret – grandpa sewed!
My 94-year-old father figure pulled me aside and said, “Lee, I won’t tell if you don’t.”