God's Grace—and a Banjo—Made This Marine Veteran Whole Again

Tormented by memories of the Vietnam War, he turned to alcohol. Music was his path to sobriety and salvation.

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- Posted on Oct 26, 2020

Don Embrey in his woodworking shed and banjo studio; photo by Heather Rousseau

I pulled a piece of curly maple from a stack at the specialty wood shop. I checked its color, its grain, its sturdiness. This would be the neck of the banjo I was building. It needed to be exactly right. To feel right in my hands, right from the start.

I’d built dozens of banjos over the years, but this one was different. You could say my life’s story would be in this banjo. A lifetime of mistakes, self-destruction and redemption. I wanted this banjo to tell that story, to share my truth, every time it was played.

At last I found the perfect piece. I loaded it into my truck and headed for my workshop at home.

* * *

I grew up outside Washington, D.C., not far from where I now live in Virginia. It wasn’t a happy childhood. My dad was a quiet man, a hard worker. But when he drank, he became mean.

I was terrified of ending up like him. As soon as I was old enough, I joined the Marines. The Vietnam War was on, and I landed in the middle of it.

My tour lasted 13 months. I came home haunted by what I’d seen over there. Haunted too by a question: Why did I make it back when so many of my friends didn’t?

 

I hadn’t realized how strongly public opinion had turned against the war. The first time I went out wearing my uniform, I was taunted and spat on. In the eyes of some people, I was a monster, a killer.

 

I didn’t know what to think. I had served my country. But I’d also witnessed horrific suffering. Death and destruction. I put my Marine uniform away. I would try to forget all about Vietnam and just move on with my life.

* * *

I unloaded the piece of curly maple from my truck and took it to the workshop I’d built behind my house. I set it on a band saw and cut it into the right shape, inhaling the sweet scent of the wood. I sanded it smooth and added a tinted finish, bringing out the rippled pattern in the grain.

* * *

I worked odd jobs after the war—gas station attendant, electric company technician. I’d gotten married just before the war, and we had two daughters. I wanted a quiet, normal life.

Then my wife got in a car accident; the man I’d become after Vietnam was no good at caregiving. We eventually divorced. I left my family and barely stayed in touch with my daughters.

I found work as an auto mechanic in Annandale, Virginia. One day at lunch, the shop foreman pulled a fiddle from a case and another worker got out a guitar.

“Do you play anything?” the foreman asked me.

“No,” I said. I loved music but had never learned an instrument.

“We could use a banjo,” said the foreman.

The two of them struck up a tune, and something happened inside me. The anguish I’d carried from Vietnam eased. The music was like a salve. I watched and listened, hypnotized by their finger work. Everything went away except the music.

I bought a cheap banjo and taught myself to play. To my delight, music seemed to come naturally. Soon I was playing with the guys at the shop and any chance I got at home.

Our little group got some gigs at bars. We’d play, then stay to drink. Music and booze—what a combination! It blotted out my war memories and my guilt, how I’d treated my family, feelings that boiled right up when the music stopped.

I looked forward to those gigs. In between, I drank alone at home. I’d become just like my dad.

* * *

Once the neck of the banjo was complete, I ordered the metal parts from a supplier I trusted in Europe—the tone ring, tension hoop, brackets, tail pieces and tuners. I affixed them to an intact banjo head I’d found online. The only thing left to do was to put everything together, attaching the strings and adding decorative insignia to the head and neck.

* * *

For years, my life zigzagged between drunkenness and fitful attempts to start over. I drifted away from the auto shop and the band and stowed my banjo in a closet. I worked construction, remarried, bought some land in Maryland and built a house.

My second wife, Sandi, urged me to join the VFW. She thought talking with other veterans might help. I went to a couple meetings, but hearing other guys talk just brought up the painful memories I’d tried to bury. I came home wanting to get drunk.

Sandi was patient and loving, but she grew dismayed when I relapsed after a rehab program. We separated, and I cursed myself for having ruined another marriage.

I lost my job during the 2008 recession. I drank even more and developed liver disease.

“You have to stop drinking, Don,” my doctor said. “You have Stage III cirrhosis. You’re going to die.”

I drank anyway.

One day, I stumbled out of my stupor long enough to discover a notice of imminent foreclosure in the mail. I was practically broke and had stopped making house payments.

Desperate, I called my older daughter, Dawn. She was grown now, working in real estate. She wasn’t happy to hear from me—we barely talked. But she agreed to help me out of daughterly duty.

“We’ll sell your house before it forecloses and use the money to buy something smaller,” she said. I felt ashamed.

We went together to look at one of those smaller houses. Dawn walked inside, but I stopped on the porch.

“You go on in without me,” I said. “I need a minute.”

I was so sick, just getting out of the car had exhausted me. I stood there feeling utterly defeated. No money. Twice divorced. Estranged from my kids. About to lose the house I’d built myself. Dawn had been buying me food. Even now, all I could think about was my next drink.

There was only one word to describe me: failure.

“God,” I whispered, “please help me.”

Why did I say that? I wasn’t a praying man. Yet at that moment, those words felt like my only lifeline, a crease of light in a door that was about to close forever.

I can’t explain what happened next. It was like that moment when the guys played in the auto shop except on a whole different scale. All of the hatred and disgust I’d felt with myself just melted away. It was quite literally a physical sensation of release, a collapse of all my defenses. I felt vulnerable yet protected.

God didn’t excuse what I’d done. He let me know he loved me nonetheless, maybe even more for my brokenness, and forgave me. Unconditionally, so I could forgive myself. I had no choice but to accept that love, that grace. It filled up all the painful places I used to try to drown with alcohol. I felt staggered by a sense of relief. I wept.

“Dad?” Dawn said. “Are you okay? Do you need a drink?”

I was startled to hear myself say, “No.”

* * *

The banjo head arrived. I used my lathe to cut a wooden rim for it, then attached it to the neck. All that remained was the pearl inlay insignia. I’d sent a design to a man I knew in Kentucky. This design was special. It would set this banjo apart from every other one I’d made.

* * *

After that day on the porch, my life unfolded in what I can only describe as a series of miracles. No longer poisoned by alcohol, my liver healed. I bought a small house in Virginia and found work in construction. For the first time since Vietnam, I allowed myself to ask why I’d survived.

In other words, what should I do with this life God had given to me?

The answer came in the form of a memory. My old banjo. I found it in the closet. I tuned it but hesitated before picking and strumming. Would I remember? I tried a few chords. I could still play!

But where? Not bars. I needed a different kind of place.

Just a few days later, I was on the phone with a friend when he mentioned a church gospel group that needed a banjo player.

“Well, I’m a banjo player who’s been praying for a gospel group,” I said.

I started playing at the church every Sunday. Standing in front of that congregation, making beautiful music for God, I felt as if I’d come home.

It wasn’t long before I was making my own banjos. I wanted a life filled with music.

* * *

The pearl inlay design arrived. I pulled it out of the box.

The inlay consisted of four words, United States Marine Corps, alongside the eagle, globe and anchor of the Marine emblem, which I layered onto the head of the banjo, and a few smaller pieces representing Marine ranks that I used to decorate the neck. This banjo was a tribute to the Marines. A symbol of my intention to embrace my time in the service. I planned to play it at an upcoming  Veterans Day: A Time for Gratitude picnic. I was pretty nervous about this particular debut.

I arrived at the picnic and made my way through a crowd of vets and their families to a stage where I would join a volunteer band. I knew what would happen next. People would want to see the banjo. They’d want to talk, to share their memories.

The banjo would make it impossible for me to duck out.

We played a set, and the audience applauded. Afterward people came up to get a closer look at the banjo.

“It’s beautiful,” said one of the folks standing near me. “Where’d you get it?”

“Made it myself.”

Soon I was surrounded. The banjo opened up conversations, honest talk about war. My conflicted feelings about Vietnam turned out to be not so uncommon. War leaves no one unscarred. We are broken by war but made whole by grace.

“Can I take a photo of your banjo?” a woman asked. “It’s for my husband. He’s a Marine in Afghanistan. It will make him so happy to see this.”

Him and me both.

After the picnic, I climbed into my truck and headed home. The banjo lay on the seat beside me. It was the truth teller I had hoped it would be. And at last, so was I.

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