A biographical digression into Northern Arkansas
I am no good at ball sports, and this failing has marked me for life. I read books. I drew pictures. Footballs, baseballs, basketballs — when thrown, all seemed to be magnetically attracted to my face generally and my glasses specifically. I saw sports as a study in potential head injury. What option then is left for an American male who cannot get a touchdown or make a basket? It is obvious: you must become a cowboy.
This is harder to do than one might imagine. It is easy to buy the clothes, but to work as a cowboy requires cattle, horses and land. While these items are not so rare in the middle of the continent, getting hired on at a ranch is not necessarily that easy since many people around the world have the exact same cowboy dream. If you are a bespectactled dude like Theodore Roosevelt, luckily you can also be New York rich and buy your own ranch. For the rest of us, you have to find another way. Owning a real ranch seems statistically as likely as making it in Hollywood or pitching major league baseball. In fact, one of the best ways to get a ranch is to first make it in Hollywood, or to pitch major league baseball. An acre is expensive. A cow is expensive. A horse is expensive. Multiply by a hundred, or five hundred, or one thousand, or…the old XIT Ranch in Texas got its name from an abbreviation: Ten Counties in Texas. Think about the size of a county. Think about the size of a Texas county. Think about a landmass composed of ten Texas counties; if it had been in the northeast, they could have named the ranch “Most of New England.” Ranches are big and expensive, and they have little need for individuals who want to work on them who are seeking additional life experience. This does not mean getting ranch work is impossible, but there are networks and approaches, with guarded rules that must be followed. It is cheaper and easier just to go buy a hat.
I wanted to be a cowboy, but I didn’t know any ranchers. Then I met a former bull rider who had worked on a ranch, except this ranch was in Arkansas. Arkansas. I wanted Wyoming. Montana. New Mexico. I didn’t want Arkansas, but Arkansas was what I got. I am thankful now for many reasons, but if I had not gone to Johnson Brothers Youth Ranch, I would never have known why Daniel Woodrell was true.
Johnson Brothers was a working cattle ranch, but that was not all it was. It was a home for strays. Strays of many different kinds, but the specialty was teenage boys. Troubled boys. Boys who needed hard agricultural labor as a means of injecting character into their otherwise morally flagging interiors. The project had originally been centered on wards of the county, etc. but it changed into a place where the wealthy from Arkansas and neighboring states sent their bad sons. I met a guy who had been the wild child of an Arkansas doctor. He had a subtle, but visible reaction when the name Johnson Brothers was mentioned. It was the place he almost got sent but then received a reprieve.
My problem was that I went to Johnson Brothers willingly in order to learn the cowboy arts. I was called “The Button,” which meant that I was worth a button on a real cowboy’s shirt. It was the beginning of a real and profound slide in self-esteem from which I am still recovering. I was an anomaly. I had no addictions of any kind. I had never been arrested. I had just graduated from high school. I didn’t fit, but my lack of fitting was part of my learning. When the rest of the addicts and alcoholics left for town to go to 12 Step meetings, I was left behind throwing a rope around a post pretending it was a cow. They would come back bragging about pretty girls seen at McDonald’s with cartons of Sam’s Cola bought at Wal-Mart. I was just a Button with no diagnosis and hence always stuck at the ranch while the joys of recovery were available to others.
I have many narratives from Johnson Brothers, and many of them will not be believed. I saw a man pray away a tornado in the name of Jesus. I saw it. You don’t have to believe me.
Tom Johnson was the patriarch of the operation. The other Johnson Brother, I believe called “Tabby,” died many years before, but the title “Brothers” always remained just like the Stanley Brothers remained so in name long after Carter was dead and Ralph continued in longevity. Tom and his brother had come from a big family ranch in Arizona in the 1950s. Tom had a form of dust asthma that required an escape from the desert, and the Brothers brought their cowboy knowledge and love of God with them. Tom said that when they first went to town in Arkansas everyone came out and stared at Tom and Tabby in their blue jeans because at that point in the Ozarks of Arkansas all males were wearing bib overalls. While this may sound unlikely, please read “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks” by Donald Harington to get a sense of the territory’s cultural flavor. Though some of the incidents described in Harington’s novel are of a fantastic nature, the surprise at blue jeans almost sounds like one of Harington’s creations.
How the ranch became a home for the wayward is not entirely known to me. Something about Tom having a bunch of angora goats and cattle, and then some kind of loss, and then some kind of vision: I can’t actually remember, and I don’t know who is alive who would. By the time I got there, the ranch was on its decline. Tom was getting older; his role was more managerial than hands-on. If he was ever riding, it was generally on a fourwheeler instead of horseback. He had a coffee cup that read “I’m Older Than Dirt” and whether it was true or not, he did seem to be carved out of the ground. His facial profile could have appeared on a buffalo head nickel. He had the classical old cowboy frame: a belly that might need both a belt and suspenders, bowlegs, no backside at all. He was cast as a stuntman for Slim Pickens when a film was being made down there, but Pickens figured he was enough of a man to fall off his own horse so Tom wasn’t needed. Regardless, Tom would have been a good body double for Pickens, though Tom had the handsomer face. All of this was way in the past, but story was a fundamental part of the ranch. Times had changed, but Tom himself and his aggregate wisdom were still intact. I have never known anyone else quite like him.
I called him Tom. Most others called him “Dad.” He called just about everybody male, “Son.” Tom was the one who prayed away the tornado. We were in Flippin, Arkansas working a fireworks stand. It may be strange to some that an outfit concerned with Christian mission work to broken young men would raise extra funds through Chinese gunpowder, but I’ve seen other para-church type organizations use fireworks for fundraising. The stands combined an almsgiving along with almost sinful potential danger: “God loves you. Try not to blow off a finger,” and the business seemed to be brisk.
Though a native Kansan, I’d never seen a funnel cloud, but we were up on a ridge, and there it was. I had been told in the past what to look for and sure enough, one low-hanging piece of a dark cloud began to descend, start to rotate and narrow to a point. I was eighteen. All I could think to say was “Cool” because it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my entire life. As I was watching, Tom casually looked at the horizon, cried out: “I call it back in the name of Jesus!” and he ambled into the canvas fireworks tent. I watched. The funnel dissipated before my eyes.
This happened to me. Call it the law of averages or coincidence or whatever, but I saw it. When Tom came back out, he saw it was gone but said nothing. Later that night on the news it was reported that there was a funnel near Flippin. It wasn’t imaginary. Tom asked me about what I saw, and I had no real answer. His answer may not satisfy everyone, but it seems truthful: “Well, son, sometimes it happens that way, and sometimes it doesn’t, but you always got to pray.” He didn’t offer any personal power. He didn’t offer any guarantees. He just demonstrated that faith could really be a way of life and that there was potentially something real in belief.
Tom is the only person in my whole life who offered me an unequivocal and unqualified validation. It took me a long time to become even basically competent on the ranch though I had been riding to some degree since I was a child, but I had ridden an English saddle, and I was in a whole different world. Besides, riding is one thing; moving cattle is something else. That’s generally what cowboys do: they move cattle on horseback. Challenges begin to arrive when the cattle do not want to move, or the horse does not want to move them. The variables are endless.
Despite my slow education, Tom said something to me at some point that never left. He told me: “Son, when you’re a Top Hand, you’ll see that there is a place for everybody, even the dummies.” To translate, a Top Hand is a cowboy who is at the top of the game. One of the best. One cowboy writer says that to make a Hand at all takes ten years of straight cowboying. I was a button, but Tom saying to me that being a Top Hand was inevitable was profound. He may also have been implying I’d be a Top Hand in something else, but I took the acceptance regardless. I also think I understand. As you progress in anything, you see that you know so little even as your knowledge grows. You see hopefully that everybody has a place and a purpose somewhere if they can find it and if they are told that improvement is a possibility. I believed Tom Johnson, but I’m still waiting. Even if I never make it to be a Top Hand at anything, it was still nice for somebody to offer the pronouncement. I have had a lot of recriminations given to me in the course of my life; I have been told that I missed the mark, arrived too late, etc. Tom Johnson was the only one in my entire life who told me I was a sure thing. He may have been wrong, but it was nice to get an unambiguous endorsement. Tom’s been dead for years now, but I still seem to carry his twenty-year-old approval around like a rabbit’s foot.
My official cowboy professor was named B.K., and she was a woman in a generally masculine environment, though you would not call B.K. the princess type. She also was a Texan, and the story of her entrance to the ranch is hazy in my mind. She had been friends with Tom’s daughter Joni, and there had been some narrative about drugs being smuggled in the wheel wells of horse trailers at an outfit where they were working, and Joni didn’t know about it, and then B.K. got her out of there, but I can’t remember the rest. I believe there was some story of B.K. detoxing off of something and ripping the sheetrock off the walls of a locked room, or it could have been someone else. Then she found Tom and Jesus, and I believe Tom became “Dad” to her from then on. Her real dad was named Pete, and he was a cowboy but also Italian and part of the southern mafia. I didn’t know there was a southern mafia, but B.K. asked me: “What do you think New Orleans is?” Her dad Pete apparently ran nightclubs and strip clubs in Dallas, and B.K. got an education early. She told a story of being with her father as someone was shooting at them, and she started running away when he grabbed her by the arm. “They’re shooting at us, Pete!” To which he replied, “Don’t show ‘em that you’re scared.” His line supposedly when a gun was pulled on him: “You better kill me when you shoot that thing” and apparently that comment was enough. She said the only time he was ever frightened was when he was jailed in Mexico, and he promptly got a significant bribe to get him out.
She said that Pete would take off his shirt when riding when the mosquitoes came out in the spring. He let them bite him all day, and his torso would be covered with welts, but supposedly no mosquito would bother him for the rest of the season. Pete’s torso was covered with scars in general apparently. B.K. was a kid in Dallas when JFK was shot, and she saw it happen. I asked her if she had seen or heard a second gunman, and she said there’s no way that anybody would have been able to tell. I asked her if she had seen the movie JFK, and she said no because she knew they would get it wrong. What was right I asked? “It was a conspiracy by LBJ, the CIA and the mafia.” I told her that was basically what Oliver Stone thought, and I asked why she thought so. “Well, I’m from Texas, and in Texas we knew before the rest of the country did that LBJ was a real son of a bitch.”
She said that when Pete was buried they put his cowboy hat in the coffin with his hands grasping the brim. She thought they had done that right. Why the cowboy/gangster movie has not been made yet still intrigues me, but remember Jack Ruby and the Bay of Pigs and indeed there was an organized crime element in the south and in Texas. The New York/Chicago version gets more press, but I am waiting for a Scorcese version of this particular underworld. B.K. had a lot of stories, but most of them are now lost to me as are all my contacts with the ranch’s remnants. I looked her up on the internet, and as far as I can tell, she is now a retired police officer.
There was an entire cast down there. There were the boys — likeable villains who ran the Bruno-Pyatt high school like it was their own kingdom. They couldn’t smoke on the ranch, but Tom let them chew tobacco. Only Christian rock or Country music allowed though there were heavy metal enclaves in the mobile homes that served as additional lodging, and there was smoking that took place in certain trailers on the ranch that operated like speakeasies. I listened to a lot of Ozzy in Arkansas. It was 1992 after all.
Besides Tom, the one who stands out at the ranch is someone who will be called “Buck” for the purposes of this narrative. It was determined even then, that if I ever wrote on Johnson Brothers later in life that this individual would have a pseudonym. I decided on the name Buck at the time. Buck was 24. I believe he had already had two wives. He had been incarcerated for assault and battery and other issues. He had had problems with drugs and alcohol but was presently sober. He was also a Johnson Brothers graduate. He was one of the old boys back when the ranch took in real juvenile delinquents and rural orphans before the rich suburban bad kids were imported.
Buck was also a cowboy. A real one and he looked like it. He had left Johnson Brothers and had gone to Montana, Arizona and Texas. He had a sincere mustache, and he was shockingly strong. He was also terrifying. At that point in time, he was my best friend in the world.
Buck figured out that the ranch wasn’t much of a ranch anymore. There were still cattle and horses, but there were a lot of games being played by individuals who liked to dress up in their outfits. The ranch wasn’t what it used to be, but Buck figured if I was coming to learn how to be a cowboy, somebody should show me how, and the truth was, he was the most qualified. He was the best horseman. He had been west. He had lived it.
But Buck had struggles with anger, and violence was palpably present. A lot of people on the ranch had their tough strut, but it was clear that people were afraid of Buck, and they should have been. There was nobody on that ranch that Buck couldn’t take, and probably not many in a 20 mile radius. Buck called me “Pard” in the same way that Tom called me “Son.” One time he said: “Listen here Pard. I don’t believe in a fair fight. When I fight, I fight to win. I’ll bite you. Kick you in the balls. Poke you in the eye. No such thing as a fair fight.” As one might imagine, I never sought out a fight with Buck of any kind. I was pretty obedient. Once in reference to my English saddle posture he remarked: “Stop sticking your tits out like you was in some horse show! Move down in your saddle.” My backbone became more fluid.
I once saw Buck hit a horse repeatedly with a horseshoe hammer, raising welts. Then he hit with the claw end leaving bloody dots behind. He said the horse couldn’t feel it like we could. Maybe not, but it seemed excessive to me even as a Button. Recalcitrance was not something Buck tolerated much.
Once the two of us were riding alone and he started telling a story about West Texas. We were riding up in the hills, and it was about as a beautiful as it could be. He got in trouble down there in Texas. I can’t remember what happened, but he was in jail for assaulting the county commissioner’s son, and he was doing pullups and pushups since he thought he was going to the penitentiary for sure. Somehow he got out, and he was some place later at a party. Some guy, maybe the same one, was talking to Buck’s wife. Buck was drunk and believed something was proceeding in an untoward way. Buck went up to the guy and said: “Right now, I’m drunk on tequila, but some day, I’m going to kill you.” The other guy replied: “Hey man, now…” Buck returned: “It won’t be today. It won’t be tomorrow. But someday, I’m going to kill you.” Buck then turned to me and looked me straight in the eye and said: “And I will too.” Nervously I replied: “It’s pretty easy to kill somebody around here, huh, Buck?” “Ah sure,” he answered. “Look at all these rivers, creeks, woods and hills. You could hide a body anywhere up here. People are so stupid, hiding a whole body. Man, I’d cut ‘em up in little pieces and use ‘em on my trot line for bait.” He laughed. It was a different kind of laugh. Dark humor, sure, but the dark humor from a man I had seen beat a horse with a hammer. And he liked that horse. It just had moved around too much while Buck tried to shoe him. I would not want to be disliked by Buck.
In the Echo of Neighborly Bones, Daniel Woodrell writes about an Ozarker who kills his neighbor but still remains dissatisfied. “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor, he couldn’t seem to quit killing him. He killed him again whenever he felt unloved or blue or simply had empty hours facing him.” In six pages, the protagonist shoots his neighbor and covers him with stones. Later he removes the stones from the head and chest and beats the corpse with a stick. More time passes and he thumps a hachet into the corpse’s chest, leaves it, then dumps the body down a well after a bumpy truck ride. After life’s next disappointment, he decides to go to the corpse again with a frog gig and the story ends.
The key detail behind Boshell’s activity in the Echo of Neighborly Bones may be lost to some readers. It is a little line about the neighbor planning to shoot Boshell’s dog over the dog’s assault on some guinea fowl. Boshell believes that the punishment must fit the crime, and the neighbor’s unneighborly behavior demonstrates the need for murder. Abusing the corpse is just the emotional excess derived from the initial disappointment in the neighbor failing to recognize his own bad manners which necessitated his murder and the repeated defiling of his corpse. If the neighbor could have just acted right the first time, none of it would have happened.
When I read this story it stopped me because I felt like I was back riding on that hill in Arkansas. It wasn’t that Daniel Woodrell had been there, floating over recording the conversation, but it felt like he truly knew the people he was describing, individuals imbued with a violent sense of personal justice that seems endemic to the Ozarks. Buck himself was born in the Missouri Ozarks, as were his people. He told me that he knew his father had killed men while he had been in prison. The ranch was filled with many of the most blatantly racist people I have ever encountered, only the worst terms used, still Buck said his Dad was worse. Racists often believe that there are the good and the bad representatives of a race, the inferior of the inferior then being the more racistly pejorative term. But Buck said of his Dad: “He don’t even think that they’re human beings. He thinks they’re the same as monkeys.”
It’s hard to write it, but they are out there. Woodrell knows them. He is not creating them. He gets that Faulknerian character, a character in some ways even beyond Faulkner, potentially more unhinged, but Woodrell delivers often in a clean Hemingway prose that makes the portraiture sharper. Woodrell has gotten the essence of both Faulkner and Hemingway in ways that Cormac McCarthy sometimes misses because Woodrell jumps over the modernist artifice that provides the bones in Faulkner and Hemingway and casts a shadow over McCarthy. It is Woodrell’s knowledge of his subject that makes him great, and though he knows he will not be used as a representative for Missouri’s Tourism board, his execution can be subtle and exquisite. He may not always be a perfect writer, but he does something that makes his characters weighty, and he understands that rural America is only romantic if you can afford to make it so. Most in rural America are disregarded as a population. Woodrell makes them human even if they behave in inhumane ways. He understands his characters, their thinking and their actions. The last time I saw Buck, he had a girlfriend who was in prison. I asked him what she was in for, and he said, “For not doing right.” He then also remarked that she was presently in solitary confinement. Again, I asked why and he said, “For doing the wrong thing.” Woodrell wasn’t there for the conversation, but he didn’t need to be. He’s been there before.