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Dreams, guitars, and North Korea

Dreams, guitars, and North Korea
Leon Ritter picks out a tune on his guitar Dec. 9 in his home in La Vernia.

LA VERNIA It’s never too late to fulfill your dreams. Just ask Leon Ritter, who, at 79 years old, recently began taking guitar lessons a skill he has always wanted to develop.

Leon has a long history with guitars. He first became interested in playing when he was a prisoner of war in North Korea in 1953.

“The last few months of captivity, the captors gave us cigarettes and toothpaste, and they would bring by a guitar once a week and we would pass it around,” Leon said.

He would watch the other prisoners play and tried to pick up as much as he could. He learned a few chords and was able to entertain himself.

“I got to picking at the individual strings, and I could pick out [Red Foley’s] ’Smoke on the Water,’” Leon said.

When Leon got out of the camp in August 1953, he went home and began looking for a job.

“When we got out and we got back home, I needed to buy me a guitar,” Leon said. “But guitars are pretty expensive, and my pay of $75 a month didn’t go very far.”

After a lot of traveling, Leon finally found work in television and radio repair and started making more money.

Leon said he bought a secondhand guitar, but without help he couldn’t improve his guitar skills.

“So it slipped on by me.” he said.

As time went on, Leon found a better job, made more money, and had more time on his hands. He decided that this time he was going to stick with learning music.

“So I bought another guitar electric steele I love the way that sounds,” Leon said. “But I still didn’t know how to play; that was still my problem!”

There were no music schools around, nor anyone that knew how to play and could teach him.

“So it faded by,” he said with a wry smile.

He retired to La Vernia in the 1980s and began to reconnect with some of his military friends.

Then, Leon attended a POW reunion, and one of his buddies from the war was playing the guitar. Leon asked his friend when he learned to play. He said when he returned home from the war, he had already learned a little and decided to just keep on going and it finally fell in place.

“So I figured if I kept messing with it long enough, it would fall in place for me, too,” Leon said.

A few months ago, Leon decided that he wanted to start taking lessons. He was in La Vernia and drove by the Music Loft.

“The door was open, so I went in,” Leon said.

Since then, he has been taking lessons at the Music Loft with his instructor, Wes Ashburn.

“Hopefully, next June when I go back to Kentucky for a family reunion, I can play the guitar,” Leon said.

He also said that one day he would like to learn how to play “some Johnny Cash songs, just for me.”

“It’s never too late,” Leon said.

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