Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Forces of Nature

I can't remember the first time I met Johnny. That's strange because I'm usually good about that sort of thing. Johnny Walkup was my mother's second husband and the father of my twin half sisters. His people were from Mississippi and for those of you who are strangers to the south, there is a world of difference between there and Kentucky.

Johnny raised cattle and farmed but I think his true vocation was fun. He was one of the most spirited and mischievous people I ever met. When he wasn't hunting, trapping, partying or drinking he was usually holding court to a room full of old timers at the stockyards, just telling jokes and outrageous stories. Johnny was the best kind of storyteller, he was never one to let a fact get in the way of a good laugh.

It's odd looking at old photographs of him because they don't look a thing like how I remember him. It's as if two dimensions aren't enough to capture Johnny Walkup. When I knew him I was only about ten years old and from my perspective he seemed larger than life. He was very tall, to be sure, and lean. He reminded me of pictures of Civil War calvary officers: red hair, hatchet faced with a hawk like nose, the bridge of which was covered in freckles... And then there was the beard, an auburn beard, framing a Cheshire Cat grin. I think that face would've seemed predatory without the grin; maybe Johnny knew this about himself because he was never stingy about flashing a smile.

I doubt I ever saw him without a beer in his hand, even when driving. As shocking as that sounds I suppose it's more surprising to hear that I never saw him drunk. I can remember us being pulled over by the county Sheriff. Not for the purpose of ticketing, just because the Sheriff wanted to chat and see what was new with Johnny. It was a different time.

I loved riding in the truck with him. His pickup was filthy. The foot well of the passenger side was usually so filled with empty beer cans that a few would tumble out when you climbed in. In winter, the the truck had mud inside and out, come summer it would dry to dirt. A gun rack in the rear window held a 30.06 rifle with scope and many times I saw blood on the upholstery from something freshly killed and dressed. If all this strikes you as horrifying it's because you're a grown up. If you're a ten year old boy...It's just about the best Goddamn thing you can imagine.

Riding in the truck one autumn afternoon Johnny said, "Hey, stand up and look over my shoulder." Standing up in the passenger seat I saw a deer leaping along beside us in a corn field. It was a doe, the picture of grace and agility; she had no trouble keeping pace with the truck. I had never seen one before, at least, not in the wild. It was one of those moments that upon reflection seemed to happen in slow motion. She would leap up above the corn, then disappear momentarily and spring up again a few yards further, like some land locked porpoise jumping through amber waves.

I didn't know I was yelling WOW at the top of my voice. I was so taken with what I was seeing. The doe bolted in front of the truck and easily avoided being hit. She cleared the fence on the other side of Craintown Road and crashed into the obscurity of dense foliage. I was still saying wow over and over as I turned and saw Johnny laughing, vicariously enjoying the reaction of a little boy thrilled to pieces. "How 'bout that?" he said. and threw his head back for another laugh.

He had a great sense of the absurd. On time, after harvesting some unusually small peas from his garden, he spent the the better part of a couple of days hulling them into a large bowl. I remember him just sitting on the front porch for hours picking those little peas from the pods. Finally one afternoon he got up and took the bowl to the kitchen. With great ceremony he placed the bowl in the center of the kitchen table and said to Mom, "Judy, I'm off to town. But before I go, I want you to understand, if anyone breaks into this house, they can have any Goddamn thing they want...anything...but this here bowl of peas!"

Every fall I would go Dove hunting with Johnny. A dove hunt is a fairly laid back affair. The hunters take up positions around a partially harvested corn field and wait for quarry. When the birds fly over shotguns roar and if hands are steady, several birds will fall. I was too young to hunt but I enjoyed being out on fall days making myself useful retrieving birds.

Growing up southern means you get to know about firearms at an early age. By my tenth year my own father had already introduced me to the .22 caliber rifle. Understand, this was done under strict supervision and taken very seriously. I believe this is a good thing to do for boys as education tends to demystify the thing in question. I knew for a fact that firearms were deadly and I wouldn't have dreamed of touching one without an adults supervision. This was because I'd held them in my own hands, fired them, and seen the potential for catastrophe. For me, direct experience shattered the romantic notions of violence seen in comic books and movies.

So it was with real trepidation that on one of those fall days, at the end of a successful hunt, I asked Johnny if I could fire the shotgun. Johnny considered and said, " Let me think about it." Upon arriving back at the trucks Johnny told the rest of the hunters what I wanted to do. There were a couple of chuckles here and there and a few eye rolls. One old fellow said, "Well, yer never too young to get knocked on your ass."

Johnny laughed too and squatted down beside me, both hands on the barrel with the butt of the weapon on the ground. He leaned into me and said softly, "They aren't kidding Rob, These shotguns really kick, you could hurt your shoulder, or get a broken nose if you don't hold it right." I swallowed hard, "I really think I'm big enough Johnny, that is, if you show me how to do it."

Turning to one of the guys at the pickups he said, "Ray, throw me an empty Coors can." Johnny caught the can and held it in front of us. "Ok," he said, "I'm gonna show you how to hold a shotgun. Then I'm gonna throw this can up in the air over the field yonder and you're gonna blow it out of the sky...Ok?" I nodded and Johnny began showing me how to hold the shotgun so I wouldn't get knocked down.

"Plant your feet like this... See? Then the stock goes here, that's real important. You're gonna lean in just a bit, so when it kicks you got your shoulder into it... See? Absorbs the shock... Now, I'm just gonna rack it (an unnerving sound) and then you hold it, placing your hands here and here...Now, feel the weight as I let go."

It was nothing like the .22 rifle. Shotguns are heavy and I thought, "Oh Shit, this may not have been a good idea." I'm sure Johnny knew I was scared because he looked down and gave me a wink. Then, very serious..."Get ready." I nodded that I was, and Johnny threw the can out in front of me. I closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger. If you've never fired a scattergun before, I don't think anything I write can convey the experience...

I just remember thinking I'd embraced God's own thunder.

The ringing in my ears was slowly replaced by the amazed voices of all the hunters. The can was struck dead center by the shot. The force of the shot launched the can high in the air and it literally took a count of several seconds for it to fall back to earth. As Johnny secured the 12 gauge several of the hunters ran out to retrieve the can. Upon their return we saw that the bird shot had not even had time to disperse from the barrel. In the center of the can was an almost perfectly round hole. The kind of "one in a million shot" that could never be duplicated. I would have been happy with just staying on my feet and here, with my first shot, I had pulled a Buffalo Bill. I kept that can for years.

Sadly, my mother and Johnny divorced a few years later. I remember what proved to be our last truck ride together. He told me that even though things hadn't worked out with he and my mother he hoped I understood that I would always have a friend in him. I knew he meant it, but I was just a boy, and I couldn't do much more than look out the window and sulk. I sometimes think adolescents get a bad wrap for being inarticulate, it's not that they lack words, they just know words fail when life is unfair.

Over the years I saw very little of Johnny. He remarried and life marched on. I went off to College, then New York and the West Coast. I would get updates from my sisters of course, and I would always tell them to say I said hi. Then, in the late nineties, word came that Johnny had cancer. I could not believe it.

He had always struck me as something of a force of nature, like the sun or the moon. Such things don't get cancer and they damn sure don't die. They just are. While home on vacation from L.A. I called his house trying to reach my sisters, hoping we could meet in Danville for a visit. To my surprise Johnny answered.

"Well, hey Rob, how are ya? No, the girls aren't here just yet...Oh I'll tell 'em ya called, I know they'd love to see you...

Heard about that did ya? Yeah, it's a tough bit of news...Why, hell yes I aim to fight it, you know me."

It was about this point in the conversation that I thought, Maybe I should drive out there and see Johnny. Like a shadow it crossed my mind that the cancer could kill him and I would never see him again. As soon as I thought it, I almost laughed. It seemed absurd. Johnny Walkup will be just fine. He spent years riding in the rodeo. If the bulls didn't get him cancer sure as hell won't.

I was wrong.

Johnny Walkup succumbed to his illness in the summer of 2000, leaving behind a host of friends and family who loved him very much.

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