June 1, 1949 – a young man named Robert Fernandez left the Hawaiian islands for the first time, on his way to New York to accept his appointment at the United States Military Academy West Point. Not yet 19, Robert left with big dreams in his head, love for Hawaii in his heart and a Kamaka ukulele in his hand. Throughout his 30-year military career, Robert carried that little soprano ukulele with him. Upon his retirement in May 1978, Colonel Fernandez could focus on other endeavors, including pursuing a master’s degree, performing in the theater and spending time with his family. Parties, “kanikapila” (impromptu jam sessions) and smiles seemed to follow Robert wherever he went. All the while, his ukulele by his side.
On June 9, 2018, Col. Robert Nolasco Fernandez passed away surrounded by his loving family, including four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The precious ukulele was passed down to Col. Fernandez’s son, Robbie, who happens to be my best friend. That’s where I come in.
Knowing that I’m a luthier, Robbie asked me if I could refurbish his dad’s ukulele, and maybe upgrade it with some inlays as a tribute to his dad. I was honored to be asked to work on this very special instrument. Up until then, I had only seen it in pictures, Robert smiling brightly as he strummed it at a party. As I held the instrument in my hand, I was surprised by just how small this thing actually was. I’m used to making jumbo-bodied acoustic guitars, so a ukulele that tops out at 18” (46cm) long is a bit of a novelty. I also noticed that this instrument was well loved. The years of playing had worn the koa top thin, the constant warmth and sweat had started to separate the top from the sides and the wood was dry and brittle. I could tell I had my work cut out for me.
I started off with a full disassembly, every part came off. I steamed the top and back to separate it from the sides (the bridge had fallen off some time ago), the neck was removed, all the internal bracing was removed and the tuners and hardware was stripped. For the first time since it was assembled in Hawaii in the ’40s, this ukulele was back to its basic elements. As I carefully removed and catalogued the pieces, I noticed the Kamaka tag was in very bad shape, pieces flaking off at the slightest movement. This was concerning, as I wanted the instrument to remain original. Once I had the uke apart, it was time to clean up and condition the wood. Years of travel and several vastly different climates had taken their toll on every piece.
As I worked on restoring the core of this instrument, I met with the family to design the tribute aspects of the piece. It was clear that the family wanted to focus on Robert’s distinguished military career. Several meetings later, it was decided: a mother-of-pearl Colonel insignia was to adorn the fretboard, a tribute to his Hawaiian roots on the headstock and a large inlay of the West Point crest on the back. Knowing what this would take, and knowing I was to present this to the family at the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in a few short months, it was time to dive in and get to it.
Having already cleaned up and sanded every wooden part, I now had a beautiful hardwood canvas from which to work. I drew up what I wanted to inlay and cut out the pieces, 53 in all. I smiled at that because Col. Fernandez graduated from West Point in 1953. With all my inlay cut, it was time to route and glue the pieces in to the body. Then came the sanding and final detailing, which was the most time consuming and tedious part. I don’t use CNC machines or laser engravers in my shop, all my work is by hand. As I detailed the crest on the back, I began to see what I envisioned from the start: a beautifully restored instrument and inlay tributes that are worthy of the man they honor.
Through the process, I encountered issues with one part or another. The butt joint, where the sides meet, was separating and was a bit unsightly. Also, the top was badly worn away from constant play. If a particular area didn’t meet my standards, I had to come up with a solution, one that not only fixed the problem, but also kept with the original look of the instrument. I was able to inlay some beautiful pāua abalone to fill in where needed. As I previously mentioned, the Kamaka label was in bad shape and I was heartbroken I couldn’t save it. I did, however, come up with an acceptable alternative. I contacted the Kamaka ukulele company in Honolulu, Hawaii and told them about my project and the man it was honoring. I was overwhelmed by their willingness to help, providing me with an original ’40s “gold label”, inscribed with “Col. Robert N. Fernandez” and signed by both Samuel Kamaka and his brother Fred Kamaka, the latter a retired Lt. Col. who also wrote an amazing letter recounting fond memories spent with Robert and his family, playing ukulele on the beach and “sharing aloha”.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I don’t do anything halfway. I tend to jump into anything I do with both feet and this was no exception. I already had an authentic 1940s Kamaka label and a wonderful letter from the Kamakas themselves. I wanted to do more. Having obtained permission to use the West Point crest from the Licensing and Trademark office, the ukulele’s story made its way to the office of Hawaii’s governor, David Ige. I was honored by a call from his office and offered a beautifully written memoriam from his office. Add to that a special Congressional Recognition from US Senator Mazie Hirono’s office and I had the makings of a pretty special presentation come October.
I flew out to Washington DC with the family. I made a special walnut presentation box fashioned after a military ammunition crate and carried it on the flight the whole way. The family hadn’t seen any progress on the instrument, a standard practice for my shop. Nobody sees the instrument until it’s meant to be unveiled. The morning of the memorial, I secured the ukulele in Patton Hall, where we were to gather after the service. It was then that I let my buddy Robbie see the restored ukulele for the first time. I’ve done a few memorable reveals, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. The sheer awe and emotion that Robbie expressed was all I needed to assure me that expectations were exceeded.
We gathered in the Old Post Chapel for the service, after which we all walked behind the caisson, slowly, making our way to the gravesite. All the while, the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own” played out strong. After the beautiful ceremony, we made our way to Patton Hall, where I was pleased to unveil and present the ukulele to the family, all of whom know the instrument well. I was humbled to hear all the compliments and praise for my work and was proud to know I accomplished what I set out to do – honor a great Hawaiian man, a soldier, a family man and a musician. It is my hope that the aloha spirit Robert spread throughout this world will forever live on through this instrument.
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