Aloe Vera is the plant that soothes everything from baby bottoms to great grandmum’s psoriasis. It seems to be in every over-the-counter (read patent) medicine currently on drug store shelves. And there is a good reason for that. Aloe actually works for soothing burns, sunburns, some insect stings or bites, skin conditions, and… well, I could go on and on. I will say that just about everyone in the first and second world has access to many products containing Aloe.
In the third world, at least in the tropical third world however, they have direct access to the plant Aloe comes from – The Aloe Vera (for which I do not yet have the scientific name). It is a folk remedy probably very well known since the Stone Age. After a day out pyramid building in ancient Egypt, worker's wives no doubt rubbed a sticky concoction made from aloe and other folk pain relievers on their husband's sore backs, hands and feet.
So what does all this have to do with banjo? Everything! I grew up in a house with many potted plants including an aloe. I had no idea how useful the plant was in those days, so when I took up the guitar my hands were frequently too sore to practice as much as I wanted. When I decided to get serious about the guitar I knew the first thing to do was toughen up my fingers or find easier strings to depress. So I started playing chromatic sales to acquire better “calluses”.
Needless to say this was not particularly easy with my guitar (the otherwise plain interior was stamped with “Factory Second” in magenta ink, but it was essentially the 15 dollar Stella that was the only guitars that shop sold, save for the Martins which were kept behind glass. My brother had bought the guitar for $8.98. I quickly figured out why it was a sold as a second, as the neck was attached a mite crooked. In fact the first string was no longer over the fingerboard but hanging over thin air by the 11th fret!
Furthermore, my brother was at a loss to tune it, so he asked Pops (his grandfather) to do it for him. Pops knew what he was doing as he was a retired piano tuner, but he was almost blind and had nothing to go on save for the little blow pipe tuner that the store had thrown in with the guitar. He couldn't read the book they had also thrown in – “The Modern Method for the Spanish Guitar” copyright 1927 by Nick Manoloff, a gentleman who used so much pomade that his head must have been covered in dying insects at the end of a brisk walk. George Clooney in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou had absolutely nothing on Nick Manoloff
Pops tuned the guitar to the tuner – one full octave too high. Consequently, my brother gave up on the guitar the next day when his fingers started to bleed. So the guitar sat in a corner for several years until he volunteered to give it to me. I could see and I even could read most of the Manoloff book (although it was difficult, the book had been through several generation of photo-reproduction. Some words were simply black smudges on the page and most of the photographs were filled with black on black figures. If you held it so the light skimmed across the page just right, you could make out illustrations of things like the 4 fingers of the left hand lined up along the first four frets. A bit of careful squinting determined that the guitar had to come down in pitch. My own knowledge of an octave was a bit shaky at the time and I re-tuned it until the pitch pipe matched the eighth fret.
Even tuned four frets (two whole tones) high, my fingers did not “toughen up” enough to allow me to play very comfortably. But I worked at it until I saw Andreas Segovia perform on the Steve Allen show or the Tonight show – back when Steve was in the position that made Johnny Carson much more famous a decade later when every household had a TV.
It was easy to see why he was having such an easy time of it. The man had plastic ukulele strings on a guitar. On a guitar fer cripes sakes! I didn't know that was even legal. So the next day I rushed down to the music shop and bought some of these strings – which turned out to be “Nylon” a much classier name than plastic. Who woulda thunk you could string a guitar with nylon.
Segovia had also played a piece of music I actually knew. It was the Concerto de Orangejulius that Miles Davis played in Sketches Of Spain. I not only wanted my guitar to function better, I wanted to play That tune. I made a good living back then, with 150 daily paper customers on three blocks of two family houses. I picked up my papers at 3 am and had them delivered by 5, Monday through Saturday, winter and summer. A quick couple hours of sleep and it was off to school. I collected out better than 15 dollars a week when no one screwed me.
And that is how I became a classical guitar student at the age of twelve. But what about the Aloe? You didn't think you were really going to find out about Aloe without getting another “old man story” did you?
Skip ahead about ten years and one Sunday night I burned three left hand finger tips while trying to light a cigarette. I needed my fingers in teaching condition all week and in playing condition by Thursday evening for my band’s regular weekend gig.
My wife kept even more potted house plants than my mother (In England they are still called pot plants – 50 years after the term has become a double entendre to us in the States) but she was also more knowledgeable about the plants than my mother. She sacrificed about a third of a leaf each night that week so I could rub the sticky goo from the aloe directly onto my skin. The burns not only healed fast, but the skin was actually toughened by the aloe. With a little care I was able to teach my full schedule that week, and my hand was fine for playing that weekend. So far as I know you can only get this affect with brand new goo squeezed from a freshly cut Aloe leaf.
That was 45 years ago. Now in my 60s, I can't keep calluses, and with the arthritis I get little if any practice. I have to save my playing time for when I actually am playing – I usually get to a jam at least once a week. Most of the time I will either take a bit of aloe with me (a leaf tip in a plastic bag) or cut off a piece when we get home. It really does toughen up the skin and sooth the pain.
I have used Aloe Vera ever since for burns, rashes and all sorts of similar damage to my fingers (to say nothing of other bodily bits and bobs). It is 100% safe and very effective.
You might say “All very well for you my fine talking lad, but I have no pot plants (I'm assuming you are English – or at very least an Anglophile) So how am I to take advantage of this plant of which I cannot see nary a single one in my house or for that matter, entire neighbourhood, Aiee?”
Well you are in luck friend, for the aloe is legion and available most any place where pot plants are sold. Just ask for it by name “Aloe Vera” (I will try to find the scientific name for this real soon. I promise).
Water it once a week and keep it on a sunny windowsill. If it dies go get another. The plant thrives in south facing windows (in the northern hemisphere. In the land down-under put it in a north facing window. If you live in the tropics you can leave it outside. In most of the moderate zones you can leave it out in the summer, but it is best to leave it in open shade as it can actually sunburn – fatally! Yet this plant makes a terrific salve for your own sunburn. Talk about irony!
Aloe is in fact a plant you should always have around. I was badly burned in 1970. Mostly only second degree but over enough of my body that I spent nine days in a private hospital room being treated by masked aliens – burn victims are very susceptible to infections. When my skin finally returned to a normal (pinko-grey) hue most people could not see the scars and I credit that to the amount of aloe my wife snuck past the guards to rub directly onto my skin, with further credit going to the amount of vitamin “E” she rubbed on or had me swallow while in the hospital and during the remainder of that winter.
Aloe – it's good for you, and for your banjo playing and for your family. Aloe is also a big help when your children get burns, scrapes, etc. Bring home a big Aloe Vera tonight! You will never regret it.