In loving memory of R.A.S.
I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, across the state line in Kansas in Johnson County. Growing up in the suburbs is like growing up in the slow lane. You lack that hipster vibe that you get when you grow up in a more urban, big city environment. I used to think, “At least I’m cooler than those farm kids…” And then I met the coolest farm kid ever, the Rock Chick. I was surprised to learn such a dazzling, stylish woman had grown up in more rustic surroundings on a farm. It was then that I realized that my upbringing in the suburbs not only lacked that big city hipness but also a certain “country” self reliant vibe. People who grow up on a farm just know how to do stuff… change the spark plugs, check. Of course, when I went to college, at Kansas State University, I met a lot of people who grew up out in the country and those guys were insane. I’d never met people who partied with such gusto. Work hard, play hard, indeed. Growing up in the suburbs, you hung out at the mall. It was like Fast Times At Ridgemont High… Growing up in a rural environment was more like Beyond Thunderdome with beer and tractors. As far as I was concerned I didn’t know the difference between a John Deere riding mower and a combine. What does it mean to slice the milo?
As I see the calendar rolling towards the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, and I lay in bed at night listening to various neighborhood miscreants lighting off midnight fireworks, I can’t help but think of my father-in-law. I was quite fond of my father-in-law, who I’ll call Billy. Billy sadly passed away about 11 years ago. I still miss the guy. He was a paraplegic. He was hurt in a farm accident when the Rock Chick’s mother was pregnant with her. She only saw her father standing in photos. Billy was an imposing figure, one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. He had a way with the ladies, despite the wheelchair. When I went to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he made me sweat a little and then gave me his blessing. Then we drank a ton of beer and shot rifles at targets all afternoon. Like I said, he was cool. If you want cement a good relationship with your future father-in-law, take the time to honor the man and ask his blessing when you go to marry his daughter, but I’m off topic… Every 4th of July, the Rock Chick, her daughter and I would drive down to the Rock Chick’s sister’s farm. We’d meet Billy there and well, do what everyone in the Midwest does: drink beer, grille BBQ chicken, play a lot of loud country music and prime Bob Seger and blow shit up. By nightfall Billy would slip off back home and the rest of us would climb up on the roof to watch the panoramic sky full of small town fireworks displays.
Billy was a gun enthusiast, to say the least. He was also a collector of older, vintage trucks. When he retired from ranching, he was always on the internet seeking out parts for these dinosaur trucks he was building. The man almost always had a hidden agenda. We had a hot dog roast on his farm one time and when he lit the bonfire, I discovered he’d hidden a tire in the burning pile. He needed to get rid of it and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was most decidedly not a good idea…the entire family was engulfed in poisonous, black smoke…at least Billy was amused. Even though I knew all of that about Billy, I was still surprised one 4th of July, when he pulled up to my sister-in-law’s farm and rather than get out of his van, he said to me in his cryptic, terse way, “Get in the truck.” It was more of a command really, he was used to telling people what to do. As I recall I was slightly hungover and was ready for cold beer and firecrackers and knew this “errand” likely involved trouble, at least for me…I could tell by his tone of voice. But then, I was generally wary when Billy asked me to do something. Billy had a way of getting people to do things for him even when they didn’t want to. I once strung Christmas lights on his roof during a downpour. He was bitching at me from the ground and I remember saying, “Do you wanna come up here and do it?” He just looked up from his wheelchair and laughed. I didn’t know quite how to respond to him that 4th, so I just said, only half-joking, “I knew this day would come… do we have to hide a body?” He finally smiled at me, but only with his eyes and said, “I need you to do something for me,” which was his usual way to ask for a favor. It’s like that scene in The Godfather when Brando as Vito Corleone says, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”
Reluctantly, I climbed into the passenger’s seat. I won’t lie, as I climbed into the vehicle, I did cast a sideways glance to the back of the van, just to make sure there wasn’t a human shaped tarp back there. I’m an outlaw, not a criminal… I mean, I couldn’t survive hard time, I’m from the suburbs. We drove down my sister-in-law’s gravel driveway and headed off down the two-lane black top highway. Billy wasn’t a big talker so we just rolled along in silence, the only sound was the wind blowing in the open windows of the van. I stared out the window, wishing I was blowing stuff up with my daughter and drinking the cold beer I’d expertly iced in the cooler… I trailed my hand along through the wind and became absorbed in the rural landscape slipping past me. We drove through a small town, twisting and turning through the narrow streets like we were trying to lose somebody. We drove past fields of wheat and corn turning brown in the hot summer sun. We drove past decrepit barns and stately farm houses just off the road shaded by copses of trees. We passed a couple of giant oil storage facilities. There was barely a word exchanged between Billy and I. It was no use asking questions now, I was in the van… I’d bought the ticket, so I had to just enjoy the ride.
Pretty soon we’d turned off the main, county roads. We were on roads that were more narrow. Pretty soon even the asphalt fell away and we found ourselves driving down gravel roads. People often reference the middle of nowhere… I’ve been there. If someone wanted to live off the grid, I suspect this is where they’d go. The gravel roads continued to narrow until it was really just one lane… Luckily there was nobody else on this deserted “road.”
Billy muttered, a couple of times, “I think we’re headed in the right direction,” which wasn’t comforting. Being from the suburbs I’ve never been terribly comfortable out in the country. I mean, I’ve seen Deliverance. I suspected Billy was packing but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. Finally we found ourselves creeping along the narrow gravel road up to a rather large farm house. Without warning, Billy swung the van into the driveway of potholes and stones. We had apparently reached our destination… although his comment, “I think this is it,” was not a confidence builder. If people live out in an isolated place like this, I’m guessing they’re not big on visitors, especially tall, goofy looking guys from the suburbs. I had mistakenly worn a Stones t-shirt and was worried I’d be considered a subversive out in this rustic setting. This was Billy’s world… I was an interloper, at best.
Billy turned in his driver’s seat toward me and squinted… “I think this man has a truck I wanna buy. I need you to go up and knock on the front door.” The big farm house was all in darkness. I wasn’t exactly dressed like an encyclopedia salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness so I hesitated. “Does he know we’re coming? This doesn’t look like a very friendly house?” That was true enough. The house was large and somewhat forbidding. It didn’t look like a place with a doormat that read, “C’mon In Y’all.” To my query about the guy knowing we were coming Billy chuckled and said, “Not exactly.” Not exactly comforting. I slid out of the passenger side of the van slowly, like I was leaving the scene of an accident. I went crunching up the driveway like it was the Bataan Death March. It was like when I was a kid, my feet got heavy and I was walking very slowly, eyes furtively looking around, but always coming back to the front door. I was not happy.
It was then, from behind the house, I spotted the biggest German Shepherd I’d ever seen… and it was loping around the house, straight at me. I froze. So this was how I was going to die, killed by a German Shepherd miles away from any hospital or emergency care. I’d bleed out before the ambulance got here, I’m from the suburbs…if Billy even knew to call an ambulance. Thinking of Billy I turned slowly toward the van and realized I was half way up the driveway, too far to run from the giant beast who was looking at me like I was lunch and he missed breakfast. I glanced at Billy and my eyes were as big as Frisbees. He threw his hands up, gave an exaggerated shrug and I noticed… he was laughing uproariously. I wondered if he’d have to shoot the dog. I turned toward the dog and it was bearing down on me. I flinched, put my hands up… because… I have no idea why, I wasn’t going to fend him off. The German Shepherd launched himself up toward my throat and I knew it was over… His two big, dusty paws landed on my chest and I thought… that’ll look crazy in the autopsy photo, two paw prints on my shirt and my head missing. I was looking the feral beast in the eyes as his face came even with mine… His giant jaw dropped, his mouth opened and… he licked my face. Yes, the dog was harmless.
Billy was now laughing so hard, I thought he’d fall out of the van. “That looked tense there, man.” No shit. After a quick spot-check to make sure I didn’t piss myself, I petted the dog and in a seriously high sounding voice muttered, “Good doggy.” I rang the doorbell, wondering if this could go any worse. What was next, a shotgun blast? No one was home. We’d gone through all of this for naught. I was pissed at Billy at the time… but now I just look back on it as a funny story we could share. We drove slowly back to my sister-in-law’s farm where I grabbed two beers to calm my still shaky nerves.
To all of you out there this 4th of July, I hope you have a happy, safe time. We want all 10 fingers on Monday. I hope you all make some happy, danger-less weekends. Please remember its a celebration for most people but to your dogs and cats it’s Armageddon, take of your pets. Maybe get ’em some CBD. And to Billy, where ever you are… I miss ya buddy.