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Clarksville, TN – This is the true story about a man who loved his music, and wasn’t going to let anything stop him from playing it. Even after a life-changing accident that could have killed him and cost him the fingers of his left hand.
This is the story of a simple country preacher who taught himself to play the guitar so he could play in church.
The story of a man who, through tragedy, would never play his beloved guitar again, but looked at the piano, and said, “I can do this.”
With only six fingers.
Meet Gene Belt.Gene Belt is a sixty-four-year-old preacher at the Pleasant View Non-Denominational Church in Cunningham TN. He moved here from Illinois to manage a mobile home company 26 years ago. He now owns an exterminating company in Cunningham, and he loves his guitar.
Belt started playing when he was 17 years old. His father played guitar when he was growing up, and he just picked it up from there. He never learned to read music, but that didn’t stop him from playing. He played “by ear.” He loved George Jones, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr.
Belt played in gospel groups for 7 years, including “The Happy Pilgrims” and “Gospel Light Guiders,” playing for churches, revivals, and just about anywhere they could play.
Gene Belt loved that guitar.
But on one fateful day in May of last year, Belt was almost killed, and his ability to play his beloved guitar would come to an end.
Gene and Kathy Belt live “out in the country” in Cunningham, with a few acres and “some hills and trees,” away from the congestion of the city–God’s country. A place where neighbors are special, and everybody helps everybody else.
On a sunny day in May of last year, Belt was on his backhoe digging up a stump on his property. The stump was from an old tree on a big hill. Off to the side was a huge ravine. As Gene was operating his machine, the backhoe slipped out of gear and lunged. To try to keep the backhoe from plunging down the ravine, Belt turned it away from the ravine, and that’s when the backhoe flipped over.
Instinctively, Belt reached up with his left hand and took hold of the cage that protects the driver. As the huge machine rolled, and flipped over on it’s side, it crushed his left hand, tearing the flesh off of the back of his hand and severing his middle finger. The rest of his hand was a crushed and mangled mess. He could have been killed.
Gene was alone, needing help, facing certain death if he didn’t get to a hospital. He was bleeding horribly, blood spurting everywhere, and he needed to do something, and do it quickly or he knew he would pass out and die.
He walked to the top of the hill so he could get cell phone service to call 911. As he walked up the hill, he grabbed his left wrist with his other hand to “stop the bleeding.” When he reached the top of the hill, he realized that he had no cell service.
Panic? What to do?
Brian then called 911.
Kathy Belt has been married to Gene for 12 years. She is a Human Resources Director for Loomis Armored Car Company in Nashville. Kathy was at work when she got the call–it was her sister, Darlene Morgan.
“Where are you?” asked Darlene.
Brian Lee was now joined by his father, Everett Lee, tending to Gene while they waited for paramedics. Trying to keep Gene calm, they laid him down when the ambulance arrived. Paramedics assessed the situation and called for Life Flight.
Gene needed help fast or he was going to die.
Gene doesn’t remember too much about the helicopter ride. “The pain was too intense,” he said.
Kathy Belt worked just a short distance from the Vanderbilt Medical Center Emergency room and got there before Gene.
“The wait was unbearable,” Kathy said.
Once Gene arrived at the emergency room, doctors took over. They assessed the damage, started treating Gene for pain, and began prepping him for surgery.
Kathy was notified that Gene was being treated, and nurses brought her back to see him. Doctors asked Kathy if she wanted to see his damaged hand; she said yes.
“Well, you need to sit down,” was the doctor’s instruction.
“What I saw was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” Kathy said. “He was missing a finger, and the rest of his hand was crushed. The skin had been ripped off of the back of his hand, and there was blood everywhere. My thoughts were, he’s going to be ok, but he will never play the guitar again.”
That was the very first thought Gene had when the backhoe stopped rolling.
The doctors said they would try to save the other fingers, but couldn’t guarantee it. They were going to try to save his hand first.
Over the next seven days, Gene would undergo two surgeries. Doctors removed the bones of his left hand at the knuckles. The second surgery was to graft skin from his thigh to the back of his hand.
All that was left was his thumb. Playing the guitar was over for Gene.
“He spent the next several weeks trying to figure out some way he would still keep playing his music,” said Kathy. “He loves music so much.”
“I tried laying it in my lap, and playing it like a steel guitar, but I couldn’t hold down the strings like you’re supposed to,” said Gene. “I even bought a dobro, and couldn’t play that.”
“He was depressed about not playing the guitar,” Kathy said. “He just loves playing in church.”
One day while visiting Mary’s Music in Clarksville, Gene was looking around the store, when Kim Edmondson was just finishing a piano lesson with one of her students. Gene thought, “Maybe I could learn to play the piano.”
So he approached Edmondson and asked, “Do you think you could teach me to play the piano?” Kim Edmondson is an accomplished singer and musician. She manages the teaching program at Mary’s Music, personally teaching voice and piano. She looked at Gene and not just his missing fingers, and said “Absolutely.”
“It never entered my mind that Gene couldn’t play the piano,” Kim said. “This opportunity was not something I was going to walk away from. I considered this an honor. These lessons were more than just teaching Gene to play the piano, they were also about what we learn in life. I wanted to experience that.”
His wife Kathy added, “Gene’s always talked about playing the piano and learning to read music. Kim Edmondson convinced him to learn to read music, and he would enjoy his music more. If Gene thinks about something long enough, he’ll figure it out. I call him my one handed Liberace.”
So after nearly being crushed to death, and losing most of his left hand, Gene Belt began taking piano lessons last November. He’s been fitted with a new prosthetic hand, and is convinced that it will help him to play the piano better.
A man and his music.
So the next time you think you’ve got problems, remember the story of a simple country preacher,who was nearly killed, and lost most of his hand, but said, “I will not be outdone.”
Hank Bonecutter is a retired broadcaster and media consultant based in Clarksville, Tennessee.
His career includes stints at WKDA/WKDF and WKQB Rock 106FM, WLAC-AM in Nashville.
He concluded his career as owner/talk show host at WJZM-AM in Clarksville.
Currently the President of Bonehead Promotions, he’s an advertising consultant and media strategist.
An avid motorcyclist, Hank blogs about his travels exclusively at Clarksvillemotorcycle.com and Clarksvilleonline.com.
TopicsBackhoe, Brian Lee, Clarksville TN, Cunningham TN, Darlene Morgan, Everette Lee, Gene Belt, George Jones, Gospel Light Guiders, Guitar, Hank Williams Sr, Human Resources Director, Johnny Cash, Kathy Belt, Kim Edmondson, Loomis Armored Car Company, Mary's Music, Nashville TN, Pleasant View Non Denominational Church, The Happy Pilgrims, Tourniquet, Vanderbilt Llife Fllight, Vanderbilt Medical Center, Vanderbilt Medical Center Emergency Room
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