As I walked on a path through the mangroves, I could hear a guitar being played in the distance. I thought it a bit odd, but I continued on my hike. The music would stop and then resume without any sense of rhythm. There were more birds on the key than previously seen in the past. Perhaps, they were there for the private concert. As I finished the final steps through the salt marsh, I came across a man with a guitar. He was just admiring its shape in his lap while he sat on a wooden bench.
“I knew I heard music,” I said to the stranger.
His quick response, without missing a beat, “At least you’re not hearing voices.”
I chuckled and he smiled. There was a minute of silence as he continued to stare at the guitar and I was anxious to see if he’d pick it up and strum a few notes.
The park bench was full of what I presumed were all of his worldly possessions – a guitar, carrying case, an Army-green canvas satchel and a jacket. He had an overgrown, unkempt beard, yet his hair was combed to perfection and not a single gray for a man I was guesstimating to be in his fifties.
My eyes kept wandering back to this acoustic guitar in pristine condition. I know the music I heard in the mangroves had to com from this guitar.
“My name is Joe,” said the man as he extended his calloused hand in my direction, ending the awkward silence.
Without hesitation, I replied, “My name is Brett.” And, we shook hands.
“Do you play?” I asked with wide eyes and a glimmer of enthusiasm.
“I’ve never learned how,” replied Joe as he looked again at the guitar.
At this point, I’m thoroughly confused. Here was a guitar and I knew for a fact that I heard the guitar from the mangroves section of the trail.
“You’re pulling my leg, right Joe?”
“Brett, this guitar was my best friend’s. He’d play the most beautiful music you ever did hear.”
“What was your friend’s name, Joe?"
“Pete,” replied Joe.
“Did Pete give you the guitar,” I asked.
There was suddenly another awkward silence between us as Joe dropped his head and closed his eyes. After a couple of minutes, I broke the tension and offered an apology.
“Joe, I’m sorry if I’ve struck a chord.”
Joe lifted his head very slowly with his eyes still closed, but I could see the trace of moisture across his chaffed cheek. I was starting to realize that Joe was probably homeless as I started to put the pieces together from his possessions, to his hands, and now his cheeks.
When Joe opened his eyes, I could see that they were full of tears from heartbreak.
“Pete was my best friend and this morning he didn’t wake up,” expressed Joe.
“He went to sleep last night after playing this guitar, like he did every night, under the stars and with the sound of the waves filling in the background. He loved this guitar. It was his way of sharing his story with me,” continued Joe.
As Joe was sharing his and Pete’s story, I couldn’t manage to speak. He was captivating.
Joe told me that he and Pete served together in the Army. They had seen battle and great loss of human life on foreign soil. No matter what gut-wrenching experience they experienced in war, it was Pete’s guitar playing that always brought them peace until the next day.
Now Joe’s heartache was the loss of his best friend, the man that played a therapeutic tune for Joe since their first day in the military.
Bouncing around in my head while Joe told me about Pete’s quiet demeanor was the burning question, “Who was playing the guitar?” as I walked in the mangroves.
I finally broke my silence and asked Joe this very question.
“Brett, I know we’ve just met,” said Joe. “But, can I ask if you are a spiritual man?”
“Yes, I believe in a higher power,” I replied.
“Well, I pulled back on the zippers of this guitar case to open it. Then I pulled out the guitar and embraced it as if I were giving Pete a hug. As I held it tight, I heard Pete playing music.”
Joe continued with his story as more tears flowed from his weary eyes.
“I could feel the strings vibrating against my body as the song played. Pete was here. Pete was playing this guitar. I know it without a doubt.”
This didn’t explain why I could hear the music.
“Brett, you heard Pete today. Maybe he thought we were alone or perhaps maybe the music was meant for both of us.”
As I thought about what Joe said to me, perhaps he was right. This particular trail has always brought me peace. Maybe the peace I found was also found by Joe with the help of Pete’s spirit and I just happen to be in the right place at the right time to hear the story of two lifetime friends that always shared a song.
Writer and photographer.