MEQUON - "When was the last time you strummed, David? When was the last time you held a guitar in your arms?" "When was the last time you went to the bathroom?" David snapped back sarcastically, a honey-colored Yamaha acoustic resting on his thigh. It had been 40 years since David McMahon, a 92-year-old Navy veteran, last played guitar. But to him, the music never really went away. On Friday, he was given the new Yamaha guitar from Patrick Nettesheim, founder of Guitars for Vets. Normally, veterans in the program have to sign up for lessons before getting their own guitar. But McMahon's case was different — he was never a pro, but could play like one in his prime. His friend Judy Schwerm knew it had been decades since he last played. So when McMahon excitedly showed her a story about Guitars for Vets in the Tuesday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Schwerm knew she had to do something.
She contacted Nettesheim and said they needed a guitar. "(It was) one of the best ideas I've ever had," said Schwerm, a former president of Make a Wish Foundation of Wisconsin. "I guess I just never stopped granting wishes." During World War II, when McMahon was stationed in the Philippines, he used to play music with his comrades during downtime. When McMahon moved back to Milwaukee, he played in a few jazz bands. He wasn't sure why he ever stopped playing. A few of his friends at Newcastle Place, his retirement community in Mequon, play guitar so he won't be alone as he learns to pick up where he left off. When McMahon held the instrument in his hands, the music flowed right back. "I know that it's going to take a while ... with the music," he said. "But it's gonna work, I think." Veteran status is a commonality among many folks living at Newcastle. It is an identity, a link to each other and their memories of the past.
Schwerm's husband, Gerald, a former Milwaukee Public Works official, is also a veteran. She said he and McMahon joke about "outranking" each other, reflecting back to their status in their military days.
After meeting the folks at Newcastle, Nettesheim wants to start a chapter in the retirement community. Guitars for Vets has a goal of expanding to 200 chapters in all 50 states, and it is well on its way, with a projected 100 established chapters by the end of the year.
"It's the theory that if you just do it, the community will come," Nettesheim said. "People just need to know about it."
Nettesheim said he would have never considered Newcastle as a place to start a chapter if he hadn't met McMahon. But seeing how important music is to many members of the community, it seemed like the perfect outlet. A chance to bring vets together, many who were already musically inclined.
Though his family couldn't be present when McMahon got the guitar Friday, that didn't stop him from drawing a small crowd of friends, caretakers and curious onlookers.
He strummed several chords, sliding his fingers up and down the fret board. When he stopped — applause. McMahon looked shocked, but let it pass, uttering a quiet "thank you" to his listeners.
"You know what's cool?" Nettesheim asked him. "While you're sitting here, playing that, everyone in the room has a smile on their face."