Every year at Kaufman Kamp they give away instruments as door prizes. This year Deering Banjos donated one of their Boston banjos to be a prize. On the last night of camp, Steve Kaufman picks the winners by drawing numbers out of a jar. He rummages around for a while, pulls out the one that feels right, and slowly, suspensefully, reads the number. This year, who jumped up with the winning ticket but one of my very own students: Ginny Foard.
Now, Ginny already has a really good banjo and didn't really have a use for the Deering. As I watched her carry it from the stage I had the germ of an idea for what she could do with the banjo, but I kept it to myself.
I met Ginny last year at Kamp and she started taking lessons shortly thereafter. This year we both met a camper who had come over from Ireland, Mark McCluney. He's a beginning player but has lots of guts. He was determined to make the most of his camp experience, having scrimped and saved to cover his airfare plus camp tuition. He would gamely take a break on any song, rolling along in the chords, and never missed an opportunity to jam.
Back at home after camp, I saw Ginny for her weekly lesson and she said she'd had the idea of sending the Deering to Mark in Ireland. I told I thought that was exactly the right thing to do with it and that I'd had that very idea about thirty seconds after she won it. His banjo was a beginner's model---just fine to start on, but his abilities were about to out-strip it.
The next week she brought me the banjo and I took it up to Robin Smith in Hendersonville, who builds my Casey Henry signature model banjos, and got him to pack it properly. A broken banjo would be a very bad gift. I took it to the post office and received a dour look from the clerk when I said I wanted to ship this huge package to Northern Ireland. Filling out the customs form gave me pause. If you want it to be a surprise, you can't write what is actually in the package because that would spoil it. Yet you don't want to get caught in a lie. I figured that when he saw the box the jig would be up anyway, so I wrote "banjo in case" in the "contents" field. And away the banjo went, across the wide blue Atlantic.
Two weeks later, which happened to be the day after Mark's birthday, Ginny gets an email from a very stunned and ecstatic Mark, thanking her for the incredible surprise. He said, "Well good gravy! I'm just absolutely staggered!" The tale of him picking up the package is best told in his own words:
I don’t work Fridays so we were pottering about the house and I’d settled down to a bit of practice when the post man arrived shortly after lunchtime. One of the letters says ‘come down to the depot to collect a big parcel.’ My immediate thought was ‘I don’t remember ordering anything – could I have clicked on something while doing a bit of Windows shopping and ordered something by accident? Oh blimey, what have I done?’ Kath [his wife] says ‘Call them up and ask what it is. Or if there’s a return address.’ That didn’t seem likely because the Royal Mail doesn’t require return addresses. When they told me the sender was Casey Henry I was baffled…
I thought ‘this can’t be right, she’s got my address jumbled up with someone else’ like a little mistake with Excel or something, highlighted the wrong address, printed out the wrong address label and hasn’t noticed. I better get down to the depot and sort this out.’ [Note: it would be impossible to send something to Ireland and not notice!] It’s kind of exciting now because we have to go down to some industrial estate where this depot is, and it’s a bit like swapping spies at Checkpoint Charlie and I’d never been down through this part of Belfast before, which turned out to be surprisingly picturesque.
Kath’s driving and by now I reckon I have it all figured out: it’s a promotional gift that Casey is sending out as part of a mail shot or something and I’ve gotten one by mistake, and my name has gotten onto the wrong list. ‘That’ll be it’ I muse to myself with a smug grin. At least it’ll be fun making a trans-Atlantic phone call to Casey to see if she wants the mailing back or what. But Kath then says ‘why has Casey addressed it to both of us - M and K McCluney?’ ‘Ah.’ I hadn’t thought of that. She finds the Post Office depot and we go in.
The post office guy brings out this enormous parcel with a big grin on his face and says ‘d’ye play the banjo, at all?’ and I saw the address label was hand-written and I thought I recognized your hand-writing. The customs declaration label says ‘banjo in case’ and it hits me in an instant – The Deering. A dream-like state came over me.
Mark McCluney looking very dream-like indeed.
I got my pocket knife out to open it right there in the post office but Kath was being a bit more sensible. ‘We need to get to your folks anyway, we’ll open it there,’ which we did. While we opening the box up my brother and his wife arrived to pick up their daughters – everyone was amazed and excited, ‘get it out, get it out!!’ And when I got it out the dang thing didn’t even need tuning up! My picks were still in my pocket from practicing earlier so needless to say I bashed out "Cripple Creek". My family had never heard me play and there was a kind of shocked hush that I could actually make music come out of something!
That night he got up at 2:30 a.m. just to go look at the banjo to make sure it wasn't all a dream!
Ginny and I and Leonard Roberts (who contributed a strap) are all tickled to death that the banjo is in the hands of someone who can use and appreciate it. Nothing brings quite the same sense of joy as giving the perfect gift, and I don't think we could have come up with a better one for Mark, who has a pay-it-forward spirit: "Be sure that I shall try to sustain the spirit of this generous act by making a gift to someone else very soon."