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Feb 1, 2023 - 12:58:27 PM
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2492 posts since 9/25/2006

The banjo that went to war

My father enlisted in the Navy in 1955.  By the time the Viet Nam war was in full swing I’m convinced his superiors had recognized his courage, leadership, and physical strength.  At this time, he could bench press nearly 400 lbs and his peers had nicknamed him “Hercules.”  

My father was chosen to be a part of the elite VAL-4 unit, the only one like it in the Navy.  The “Black Ponies” as they were named maintained the OV-10 A “Bronco” which provided close air to ground support along the Mekong Delta for the River Boat Patrol Forces.  My father was a Plankowner in this group and was promoted to AMHC 1 (Chief) before being reassigned.  

Initially shipping out from San Diego in March of 1969, the action was so hot in the middle of the Tet Offensive that he could not reach his base for several months.  

He had been playing the banjo since the early 1960s and initially purchased an early 60s Gibson RB-250 but shortly thereafter traded it along with $350 for pre-war Gibson style 3 tenor banjo conversion (#271-16) from famed West Virginia luthier, Andy Boarman.  Not wanting to risk transporting such a nice banjo to the jungle in the middle of a war that he didn’t know if he was coming home from, he decided to purchase another to take with him.  

About this same time, the Kay musical instrument company was experiencing difficult times.  Sold in 1965 and again in 1967, the company finally dissolved in 1968 sending their remaining inventory anywhere that would sell it.  It has been well noted that many Kay banjos showed up both new and used in pawn and jewelry shops up and down the west coast in the late 1960s through the early 70s.  

It was in one of these shops in San Diego in March of 1969 that my father purchased this 1967-68 Kay Artist K-90 banjo.  This is banjo that went to war with my father.  He noted its purchase in a letter to my grandfather dated June 1969.  He also noted that “other than having our aircraft shot to hell we’ve been pretty lucky as we’ve only lost one pilot.” 

Outside of the oddball “Silva” models of the 1950s this banjo is a top of the line American made Kay featuring a hand polished neck and rim.  The rock maple neck feels electric guitar-ish in the hands.  It features hand cut block pearl inlays and sports a really cool set of vintage D-tuners.  The heavy polished one piece flange almost provides the “ping” of a tone ring.  It retains its original case, as well as some picks and other memorabilia.  

The sound, you ask?  This banjo backs down to nobody, it survived a war.  In all seriousness, it is a formidable banjo and suited for stage, jam, or studio.  

Dad kept this banjo until he sold it hastily one evening when a persistent friend interrupted an intimate evening with his new bride, my mother, in 1977.  

This is the banjo that I should have learned on as a child but alas for the sum of $30 the slogan became reality, “every kiss begins with Kay!”

After being out of the family for 45 years I acquired this banjo in January 2023 from the gentleman’s son who bought it that evening.

Edited by - revellfa on 02/01/2023 12:59:02

Feb 1, 2023 - 1:07:02 PM
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15639 posts since 12/2/2005

Great story!

Feb 1, 2023 - 1:07:46 PM
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863 posts since 8/13/2015

…cool provenance!
That one is your keeper.

Feb 1, 2023 - 1:10:45 PM

1039 posts since 10/31/2007

That is a great story. Kudos to you for getting it back.

Feb 1, 2023 - 1:21:31 PM
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13991 posts since 1/15/2005

Great story Frankie .... and very similar to mine. I left for Viet Nam on Christmas Day 1969 and the last thing I thought about was taking my relatively new (1967) RB-250. But after arriving in country I had my mother send me my old Kay banjo, so that when I was back in my compound I could play. It arrived in one piece and then in December of 1970 I mailed it back to the states and it made it home safely. I still have the neck to the banjo. I used it to practice my inlay skills using old mother of pearl buttons. It looks pretty crappy, but at the time I thought it was beautiful.

Feb 1, 2023 - 1:51:18 PM

2122 posts since 5/19/2018

Excellent story.

Glad for the return.

Feb 1, 2023 - 2:07:12 PM
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3976 posts since 7/12/2006

I love happy endings! I recently reunited with an old Washburn guitar that i played when first getting into bluegrass after a 20 year separation. It had sat in a closet for almost the whole time and it even looked like the strings hadnt been changed.. and the guy sold it back to me for what he bought it for.

Feb 1, 2023 - 4:59:39 PM
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611 posts since 3/5/2009

Wonderful story. I'm sure you will enjoy the banjo.

Feb 1, 2023 - 5:30:43 PM
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3026 posts since 5/2/2012

I think this page has another picture of your dad.  Being from Minnesota, I thought the only PBR was Pabst Blue Ribbon, but in-country I learned about the other PBR, Patrol Boat River.   Great story...thanks for sharing.

Edited by - thisoldman on 02/01/2023 17:39:52

Feb 1, 2023 - 8:16:33 PM

2492 posts since 9/25/2006

Originally posted by thisoldman

I think this page has another picture of your dad.  Being from Minnesota, I thought the only PBR was Pabst Blue Ribbon, but in-country I learned about the other PBR, Patrol Boat River.   Great story...thanks for sharing.

Yes sir. That's him!  Amd what an extraordinary group of individuals. That's his dog tee-tee

Feb 2, 2023 - 3:13 AM

1748 posts since 9/6/2019

Great story and I'm glad that you got that piece of your father, and family history, back where it belongs. I'm working on the same kind of thing right now. My dad was a guitar player in a bluegrass band back in the late 60's and they cut an album. When he died in 1988 that record disappeared and I couldn't find it anywhere. Recently, at my mom's funeral, I was talking with an old neighbor who said that when dad died mom gave her husband the album because he was also a bluegrass musician. He died a few years later and they're looking to see if they can find it so they can get it back to me.

I was never really interested in playing bluegrass guitar, even then I wanted to play banjo but never got the chance, when I was a kid but now I think it would be nice if I could play along with my dad with his record.

Edited by - Banjonewguy on 02/02/2023 03:18:45

Feb 2, 2023 - 4:04:17 PM
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51 posts since 9/2/2021

Truly a family heirloom!! Congratulations.

Feb 2, 2023 - 8:26:37 PM
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244 posts since 3/25/2016

Great story! And congratulations on recovery of your dad's banjo!

It might have been a Kay I played nightly in the Officer's Club at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in 1973 as we drilled the first bedrock hole on the continent ... but nobody was shooting at me!

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