I loved him. Not in the husband way, but if he were younger, I couldn't have resisted him. He knew it too. I told him one day with tears streaming down my cheeks. He had that effect on me. He touched me in a way few can, and I'm glad he knew I cherished him, even if I slobbered. I wasn't the only one that loved this unique human being who, without knowing it, could change people for the better.
Meeting him was the first time I knew I wanted to be there. In Mackay, Idaho that is. He gave me hope and a reason to hang around somehow. Not sure why though. I think it was the raw, unadulterated truth of who he was.
Looking at this picture of him lights me up inside. Meeting him as a newcomer to this remote mountain town taught me the world looked different than I thought it did - and it would continue to change right before my urban eyes.
There's so much more beneath the surface - especially beneath an old red beanie and a faded flannel shirt covered in sheep shit.
He was shrewd - and a crazy, ol' geezer too. In a good way. You could talk to him about anything - any world event, literature and music, the history of everything. You'd discuss the brilliance of a concert violinist playing Lincoln Center, while simultaneously wondering if all his money was stashed under his mattress, or when he'd last taken a bath. One of a kind, Johnny was.
He was my friend. He was everyone's friend, with the same gift my dad had. When my dad died, all three of us kids thought we'd been his favorite - and felt guilty about it. That's how Johnny was - you felt a connection with him - but you weren't alone. He was honest too; not afraid to stir things up. If he was pissed off at you - or you at him, you'd swear each other off for life but you knew it was only a breather, which basically meant you'd ignore each other at Sammy's, the local convenience store, for awhile. After a couple of weeks, you'd give each other a nod at the coffee counter.
When you put a quarter in the styrofoam cup to cover his coffee, you were kissing and making up.
Before long you were back to insulting one another or telling each other the latest dirty joke at the table in the corner.
In the years I lived there, Johnny would drive through the streets on his ATV, stopping to talk to anyone who would take the time. I hope he was grandfathered in when they enacted that new law requiring a registration and license to drive a 4-wheeler in town.
This honest, funny, smart, handsome, ancient, pain in the ass of a man had my full respect. But there were days I could only take him in doses depending how busy it was at work. Locals know what I'm talking about...it was never because we didn't like him. It was strictly because he'd hang around your office all day if he was in the mood to gab. :)
Rumor had it he was cheap. I'm not sure it was true though. Let's just say he held it close to the vest, and counted his pennies. Every one of them. And he had more mail than the mailman. It was always scattered across his pick-up dash. I often wondered how he could stand the glare.
He loved stopping by with news, or a joke - whatever lit him up that day. March was lambing season, and he inadvertently walked around with sheep shit on him. He wore a pair of moon boots that kept his feet warm and dry when he was midwife to the sheep in the middle of the night. (There's got to be an Idaho redneck joke in there somewhere) This was such a day, and he didn't want to drag shit all over my office floor so stopped to remove them before entering. The sign of a gentleman.
I heard a scream. A loud, scream.
Then a whimper, kind of like a girl.
I ran outside. A loose thread inside his boot had made it's way around his sockless toes and wrapped itself so tight that it hurt. A lot. His view was obstructed from the down coat and Carhart overalls that protruded from him like the Michelen Man. He asked for my help.
I wasn't out there lambing. I was at the office. I got down on my knees in my professional clothes, my clean hands navigated down his boots, bumping into sheep shit along the way, until my fingers felt his trapped toes. The string was tight and thin, and difficult to negotiate. I also wasn't sure when he'd last washed his feet. Suddenly, I saw this entire scene in my mind as traffic flowed past us on Highway 93. I was on my knees in front of him, with my hand groping down his boots; he had his back to the street and was groaning. I looked up at him, and said, "Well, this is a fine mess we're in." We busted out laughing so hard we cried.
This moment had asked an unexplainable and profound humility from us both. The kind we feel when we see the imagery of someone washing another person's feet. It's likely this won't make sense to another soul, but that's really what it was like. One of life's most humbling moments was experienced with my hands down Johnny Powers sheep shit covered boots trying to undo that damn thread from cutting the blood supply off his sweaty, smelly, wrinkled toes.
Another gift he so beautifully modeled for me was how to laugh at myself. He'd gladly offer himself up as the butt of a joke, or make us one, and we were always better for having laughed with him. It doesn't matter whose expense it's at if genuine love is present. He didn't want to hurt anyone ever, he only wanted to laugh with us.
Johnny Powers lived a life that reflected simplicity in the purest sense, yet, he had the intelligence and depth of a scholar, a massive heart for people - and the perfect eccentric twist. But something else set him apart.
I remember the first time I learned about it. We were laughing really hard about something and, he suddenly dozed off - but I didn't know that. I feared I was boring the crap out of him, or he was dropping dead before my eyes.
Then, as fast as he'd begun passing out, he came to.
He sloughed it off as nothing, and kept on talking. He seemed a little embarrassed.
A few days later he pulled me aside to tell me he had narcolepsy. He didn't want everyone to know he said. He confessed that he fell asleep when he got excited. From that day on, if he started nodding when we were together, I took it as a compliment. If he went into a deep sleep, it made my day.
It was comforting, at forty-something, to know I could still excite someone.
Even if he didn't mean it that way.
One morning I showed him a book that belonged to my dad. My father died suddenly when I was a teenager. The book was an old compilation of his family geneology in Norway. I'm not sure why I showed it to him. Some random notes were scribbled inside I'd never paid any attention to. Johnny picked up on them immediately. It turns out my dad had testified in Norway's high court against Nazi sympathizers when the war ended, and took off on a freight boat for America immediately after. His notes referred to Quisling, the famed Norwegian traitor. This was the first I heard about this. Johnny taught me something about my own ancestry, and made it come alive by putting it in a larger context for me. He helped me fill in the blanks of my own story along the way.
It's not much of a stretch to imagine him as a young man. I don't visualize him tame, and my mind conjures up an image of his feet gracefully gliding across a dance floor, swinging the woman he's leading in perfect time. It wasn't long ago he still stopped in at the local bar, even though his drinking days were long behind him. I think he'd used up his quota. He invited me to join him in a dance when I was in town one evening. Afterward, he asked, "Was it good for you, my dear?" My diet Coke almost shot out my nose. "The all-time best ever," I replied, with a wink.
On St. Patrick's Day, he'd make the rounds at local haunts and sing a tune or two. I remember he belted out "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" for dinner patrons at the Bear Bottom Inn one year. I couldn't fight the tears. But I was laughing as hard as I was crying. My heart filled with that feeling you only get when you're around someone who's spirit is so full, so genuine, so alive that you pray some will spill over on to you.
Anytime I started dating anyone, I went to Johnny for his opinion. He gave me the straight scoop, as far as he knew. And he was never slanderous or cruel. I remember asking him about the man I eventually married. He said, "For all I know, he could be a God-awful husband, but from what I can tell over the years, he's a good man and the hardest working son-of-a-bitch I've ever seen." He had it right all around.
Johnny and I talked about everything from grazing rights and old loves, to classical composers and the future of mankind. Somewhat in awe of his depth, I once asked him if he was happy in life, and if he had the chance to do it all over again, what he would do.
He didn't hesitate for a second.
"I'd go to conservatory.
Julliard, if they'd have me," he said.
Goosebumps covered me in a wave as I typed those words. It happens every time I relive that moment. His words struck me deep down. His truth so poignant and honest, so tragic and beautiful. This man had a passion, a love for music that had forever pulsed in his veins - and, instead, he'd remained in this majestic, but somewhat sleepy cowtown, raising sheep. (I came to understand this choice in my own life as time went on)
There was a longing in his voice. His vast depth and breadth, for the most part, had gone undeveloped. Yet, he'd found a way to use this inherent sensitivity to inspire and touch people's lives in extraordinary ordinary ways. Those of us who could really 'see' him, were reminded through him, of who we were too. Some of us came to this little town from 'big town' with dreams of a simpler life, while a little fearful that country life might dumb us down. Johnny showed us different.
First, he welcomed us like we'd just married into the family, instead of reminding us our afterbirth wasn't on the hill. Which it wasn't. He honored who we were and what we brought to contribute, instead of calling us 'dudes,' or ridiculing us for not knowing a cow is always a girl. His honesty and raw humanity showed us how much more we'd discover in this sleepy mountain town if we opened our eyes, or looked beneath the surface. Or what wisdom might surface from behind a pair of dirty overalls and a head of long, white hair.
When I first met him, he was old enough to know that life cycles, and everything old becomes new again. I wondered if this kindness that shone through this eccentric, wild west sheepman exterior came from the suffering that accompanies a life, or if he was just born that way. When people get old, they seem to get either cranky or kind, and sometimes neither - which might be the worst of all. It might mean life didn't reach deep enough, or they went numb along the way.
My guess is his compassionate, kind streak was the result of keeping his heart open, living passionately, making some painful mistakes, and having stayed in one place long enough to care deeply about the people around him.
Johnny had a deep understanding about what it meant to have a sense of place. His place was Mackay, Idaho. He even wrote a book of the town's history. His mind and memory were his computer.
The concept of place is more than it's history and geography, however. The relationships build the foundation. You can't help but feel love for someone when their child, whose baptism you witnessed, is paralyzed getting bucked off their horse. Or when the guy you drink coffee with each morning, even though you've never met his family, loses his life in a hunting accident. Or when your barber's grandchildren are killed by loose rocks falling off a mountain when the only earthquake ever hits. Or when ol' man Biggs loses the entire year's uninsured hay crop to fire because he put it up too wet.
When we see the world change, and experience real suffering first-hand, or in the lives around us, it changes us.
If your heart's open and you live long enough, love creeps in and gentles you.
The morning news in Mackay, Idaho is reported at Sammy's Convenience Store, and it's about people you know, not strangers on a television screen.
This small town Johnny traded conservatory for is a family. Like a family, they don't always like each other, but they're always there for each other. Not something most know much about in this transient, online, and global culture. Continuity is a powerful ally to a life well lived.
Continuity doesn't get the credit it deserves.
I'm traveling to Mackay soon - the first time since he's gone. It won't feel the same. Others who have bid farewell since my last visit. People like Mike and Sandy Marinac, Judy Malkiewicz, Gordon Seefried, Carole at the Western Store, Vic Johnson, and others. All of them, fixtures in that beautiful, old mountain town. I wonder what lies ahead now that ...
Mike's twinkling eyes won't smile at me as we pass on Main Street in our pick-ups, and Judy won't be knocking on the door to share her latest picture of the Mine Hill. Carol won't be there to chat when I stop in the Western Store, and I'll miss Gordon's sweet spirit lumbering across the pasture to change water as I drive along Houston Road, or heading to town with his entourage of friends. Instead, my heart will break for them, and the others they all left behind.
I'll miss Vic Johnson's 4-wheeler with the flag that bopped along behind him on his morning ride. My prayer for him was he'd get senile just enough to think it was a horse, because that's where his spirit soared. He was the quintessential cowboy in these parts, and another icon that will live on forever here.
I'm not sure how I'll look Linda and Gary Kimball in the eye without falling apart. They lost their son, Colton, in a car accident recently. I'd always hoped to be real friends with Linda someday - and never took the plunge. I hate when I do that. My heart aches for her. If I'd followed my heart, I could've been a friend in a way that meant something.
These are the regrets only seen in hindsight, and if we live long enough, can be another lesson learned.
I guess it's a lesson learned either way. Even when we don't get a do-over.
Every life in this high mountain Idaho town is intricately woven into its fabric. When one leaves, it asks the weaver to adjust the stitch, changing its pattern forever. Each thread vital to this finely spun tapestry.
I'm profoundly grateful to have been part of this fabric when Johnny was here. His vibrancy and kindness inspired me to hang in when the dark side of small town life almost ate me alive. I'd always believed life would be full of joy and kindness, passion and love, friends and laughter. And good conversation. Johnny lived that, and even when the world was upside down, or my heart was breaking in ways I never thought it could, his unique goodness gave me hope, and helped light the way.
Thank you, Johnny Powers. For shining your light in my direction.
You are missed in ways you can't imagine. You'll always be on those streets, in that place. Your memory is etched so deeply there, forever embedded in its DNA. It's my guess everyone in Mackay, Idaho would agree.
These words by Kate Wolfe have always reminded me of three dear friends, of whom you are one, dear Johnny:
"You’re a man with the power of rattlesnake lightning
Hard like the mountains, but soft like the sun"