They went everywhere he did for years. They were as ever present as one of our dogs in the truck beside him. So much a part of him, you didn’t even notice them any more despite the fact that no one else in this area carries saddlebags. Not much use for them these days. Horses are ridden for pleasure not as a means of transportation. So the storage devices associated with them fell out of favor too. So why did John carry saddlebags instead of a knapsack or even just throw what he needed in the cab of his pickup? Because he saw life through the eyes of a cowboy.
“Be prepared.” Every good Boy Scout lives this motto as did every horseman. John’s saddlebags carried duct tape, a spare pocketknife, a length of rope, waterproof matches, a flashlight, a deck of cards, a book, a flare, and an extra set of clothes, including socks and underwear. Moreover, there is a flashlight in every room of our house in case of a power outage, payroll deductions go directly into our savings account, there was never less than half a tank of gas in his truck, and a generous supply of grain was always laid in to ward off storms. “Plan for the worst and hope for the best. That way you’ll never be disappointed,” he would often say.
Made of leather, saddlebags are incredibly dependable. In cowboy lore, your word was your bond. Whether visiting our elderly former neighbor on Sunday mornings after we’d moved away, dropping by to change the hard drive on Bobby’s computer, bringing one of our goats into After the Bell, or working with physically challenged kids at equine therapy Thursday evenings, if he said he would be there, he was – no matter the cost. He was such a good friend that there’s no absence of those ready to lend a hand now that he’s gone. But that dependability didn’t just apply to those he knew. He would stop to help a stranger change a flat in the pouring rain simply because he could. When hearing of a family that lost everything in a fire, he wanted to know where to send a check. Empathy was so central to his personality that upon his death, the KMS faculty started a scholarship in his name to honor eighth graders who demonstrate this quality at school.
Like many cowboys, John was fiercely independent. While he was the first to offer help, he was reluctant to ask for it. If he didn’t know how to do something, like how to install lights above the water trough in our barn, he’d read up on the task in question. Only after he knew the basic procedure, would he ask specific questions of others as he didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He didn’t like to be told what to do either. Once when an employer commented on the length of his hair, he replied, “Look. My hair and I have a deal. I don’t bother it, and it doesn’t bother me.” Though he could be stubborn, he was usually the model employee, arriving to work an hour early and staying until the job was done to his satisfaction. John didn’t believe in doing things halfway at the house either. He’d rather take his time to do something right or not do it at all.
Fun too was something to strive for. It was not something to leave to chance. If you’ve ever seen a rodeo, you know that cowboys believe in playing just as hard as they work. John loved horses and worked hard to keep them. He cleaned twenty-seven stalls a day to pay board for Jack, then CJ, and finally for Ziggy. When we moved to our farm, he cut back his hours at work to find time to implement what Doc had taught him about fixing fence, using his new manure spreader, etc. He bought Charlie, our one-eyed horse, and Danny, our pony, to join Ziggy and two of Doc’s retired foxhounds, Cricket and Blaze, to keep him company while doing chores. John also tracked down a Fainting Goat breeder to purchase Laverne and Shirley. About six months before he died, our goats gave birth to four kids. Our petting zoo was now complete. He loved bringing young friends over to play with our menagerie.
Overall, this particular cowboy made me want to be a better person. When I tired of grading papers, I’d look across the table and see him mapping out a plan for some new wiring he wanted to install, the sparkles from the many greeting card boxes he made for me, embedded in the table beneath his paperwork. I kept grading. When I was feeling put upon by others, I’d see him making stromboli for the students I tutored Sunday afternoons. This after visiting Herb and his parents in the morning. I didn’t feel so put upon. When I felt like I could never get done all that I needed to do, I’d hear him on the phone, looking up websites on miniature babydoll sheep with Erin. I wasn’t so pressed for time any more. When John died, I worried that the young people in our life – nieces and nephews and the children of friends who let us borrow them from time to time – wouldn’t have him as a role model any more. Then I realized I was the one who needed to pay attention to his legacy. There’s always time for what’s really important.
About fifteen years ago, we bought our first house. We were very lucky to have wonderful neighbors on both sides. One of them was Danielle, a redheaded three-year-old. When we asked her one day what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied immediately, “John.” Though everyone laughed at the contrast between this sweet freckle-faced toddler and the six-foot tall cowboy towering over her, no one doubted the wisdom of her choice. Maybe someday, she’ll even carry saddlebags.