Uncle Wilbert

On the boat to Isle Royale, heading out of the canal towards Lake Superior, I spotted a bulldozer moving earth up on the highest bluff. I said to my boys, "That guy is sitting on top of the world." Turns out it was my Uncle Wilbert up there.

Back when I was a kid, Wilbert worked for the railroad. Sometimes he'd take me and my cousins down the tracks on a handcar, let us swing pickaxes and help replace ties, and then we'd go over the high trestles that spanned the Firesteel River, to pick the blueberries before the black bears got there.

Wilbert Leppanen was a hard working man in the hot summers and harsh winters of northernmost Michigan, homesteading and raising a family in the storied copper mining town of Winona. He was also a polished jazz guitarist - a working musician who performed in the clubs and taverns throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula. He could play a polka or cover a rock tune too, but he rendered the old standards with the best of them. He even traveled to Finland and played for dignitaries.

I'm obsessed with the guitar and its music and have often said my life is a G-minor-seventh chord. It was Uncle Wilbert who taught me about major, minor, augmented and diminished chords - how to play them, where and when. I loved to hear him pick a tune on his Gibson through that old amp with a steer painted on the speaker grill, sometimes accompanied by friends and family. He wrapped a piece of twine around the knuckles of one finger to hold it in place due to an old injury. I have a record album of a live jam session that I attended when I was 8 or 10. He was an inspiration: a man with a big heart and hands to match, a real pair of mitts, with which he played sophisticated music with a masterful touch.

I spent many happy summers up north with Uncle Wilbert and Aunt Joyce and all of my cousins. But fifty-odd years later, just days ago, I was in Arizona - driving down Scottsdale Boulevard, back towards the hotel from a restaurant called Cantina something or other - when I got the sad news, a phone message, that Wilbert had passed away. Among the thoughts that flooded my brain, was one of him once telling me that he liked Mexican food. Such a trivial recollection, but that's what happens when I'm ambushed by time and circumstance. Suddenly, I felt a long way from home. He had called me just before the trip, seemed fine.

I last saw Wilbert at his eightieth birthday party in the park at the lake - the very same place he used to drive me to in his '53 Mercury when I was five. But now, in my mind, I hear the final cadence of a jazzy guitar vamp that was his signature style at the end of many a tune he played and it makes me smile.

Levštš rauhassa, Wilbert.

. . .

1928 - 2010


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