Life With Johnny
Johnny was an unusual man. It is hard to believe that such a man
existed in America in the latter part of the 20th Century. But Johnny
existed. He was as real as any man I ever came across. When I say that
Johnny was "unusual," I don't mean that he was necessarily "outstanding."
I only mean that, if you never met Johnny, you will never on this earth
encounter any other man remotely resembling him. Which is about as
unusual as a man can get. Johnny was one of a kind.
Johnny lived out in the brush country in an old school bus. Nobody
knew where the old school bus had come from. It was a very old school
bus. It had always been there. Nobody knew who owned the land. But
somebody owned it. Whoever owned it must have known. They must have
known that Johnny was living on their land. They must have known that.
But maybe they didn't. It was way out in the brush country and the land
was poor and dry. Maybe whoever owned the land hadn't seen in it years.
Maybe they had never seen it.
But Johnny lived there, just the same. He had lived there for many
years. He had lived there for as long as anybody could remember. He was
just part of the brush country, like the deer, and the snakes, and the
coyotes. Nobody ever thought much about it.
Johnny had never in his lifetime mailed a letter. That is, not until The
Corpus Christi Kid taught him how to do it.
Johnny had never in his lifetime owned a piece of paper. He had no
interest in paper. Anytime a piece of paper infringed upon his tight little
world, he destroyed it.
Johnny had never owned a driver's license. He had never owned a
social security card. He had never owned a draft card. He had never
owned a diploma of any kind. He had never owned a voter registration
card. It is unlikely that a birth certificate existed for Johnny. It is unlikely
that a piece of paper existed anywhere recording the circumstances of his
Perhaps Johnny really didn't have a name. Just as the cattle, and
roadrunners, and red-tailed hawks of the brush country didn't have
Johnny had never owned a piece of paper. He had never owned a key.
He had never owned a car, or a house, or a suit of clothes. Never.
I guess the only thing that Johnny ever really "owned" was a dog. Not
that I ever knew him to have a pet dog, but on those occasions when I
drove out to his residence in the brush country, I noted that there were
numerous dogs residing around and about and beneath his school bus.
Every time I arrived at Johnny's place, this pack of miss-matched
mange-encrusted curs would erupt in a great howl and to-do. This event
was always followed by the appearance of Johnny, followed by a great din
of curses, grins, rock-throwing, strutting, and assorted howls.
Johnny seemed to converse with his dogs in much the same way that
he conversed with men, only with far better effect.
But there was never any question as to my welcome at Johnny's place.
I was received with all the pomp and dignity of an international celebrity,
and always felt obligated to accept his offer of a cold beer.
Only Johnny's beer was never cold. There was no electrical power line
running to that old school bus, and I would find myself standing in the
sparse shade of a raggedy little mesquite tree in 100 degree heat and
popping the cap off a bottle of warm beer that promptly foamed down over
my wrist and left big splotches on the dirt at my feet. Standing there with
my hot foamy beer, with several scabby half-starved hounds sniffing at my
boots, I would be overcome with the absolutely unexplainable conviction
that my life was proceeding just about as it should be.
I always felt as welcome at Johnny's place as I have ever felt welcome
any place in my life, and when I would explain that I needed him to work
on an unexpected Sunday afternoon, he would immediately march/limp
out to my truck, climb aboard, and grin like the mad-man he was.
Johnny had never filled out a form. Never in his lifetime. He had never
applied for anything. Anything. He had never received a government
check. For anything.
Johnny followed a fixed path in life. Others had grown accustomed to
him. Without knowing it, they had made room for him in their world. As
Johnny limped along life's way the community through which he passed
eased aside and made way for his passage. And he was allowed for, as
were the varmints in the wild. He was simply the crazy old cripple who had
lived in a school bus out in the brush country for as long as anybody could
Johnny came to town on Saturday night, and got drunk. Every Saturday
night he slept in the jail house. If one of the deputies didn't get around to
arresting Johnny on a Saturday night, he would dutifully report to the jail
house just the same.
I often wondered if Johnny was a citizen of America, or a citizen of
Mexico. Once I asked Santos, who only shrugged. He seemed to be
puzzled that I had asked such a question. Evidently it had never crossed
I had better sense than to ask Johnny about his origins. He probably
didn't have any clear idea about what a "country" was, much less an
understanding of the term "citizenship." I finally decided that Johnny was
simply "A citizen of the Brush Country".
Johnny was a good flagman, but he wasn't worth a damn at doing
anything else. He never learned how to operate the six valves that
controlled my mixing rig. He couldn't start a simple little three H.P. pump
motor. He couldn't tell the difference between a 3/8 inch ratchet drive and
a Phillips-head screw driver. He could usually be counted on to fetch a
hammer, but just barely.
I might as well have tried to explain to him how to sing opera, as to try
to explain the importance of distinguishing between the positive and
negative battery posts when jump-starting a pickup truck.
Jump-starting trucks was a common occurrence in my operation.
Johnny had his own way of accomplishing this routine chore. He would
clamp the battery cables to the terminals of the operating truck with
absolutely no concern for polarity. He would then take hold of the free
ends, and with much strutting, grinning, and jubilant anticipation, strike
the two cable clamps together. When the fire would go cracking out he
would howl in approval, break into a hornpipe jig, and grin at everybody in
sight. Then he would repeat the stunt two or three more times.
This exercise was usually accomplished to the rage of Santos, who
would be bellowing out from the other side of the air-strip with assurances
of eternal damnation and immediate termination.
Johnny would then stab the free clamps onto the battery posts of the
stalled vehicle, again without any consideration of proper polarity. Since
he usually got it wrong, the immediate result would be great electrical
arcs, smoke, yelping, and the arrival of a homicidal Santos on the verge of
a cardiac arrest.
All this hyper activity and pyrotechnics thrilled Johnny immensely, and
he would whoop and holler, and grin and cuss, and hop about with great
As for me, when this sort of thing took place, I learned to move off as
far away as possible, and hope that the damage to my trucks could be kept
to a minimum. I also hoped that if bloodshed did occur, it would not be so
severe as to result in my having to pay a hospital emergency room bill.
I never really got along with Johnny. He was too dumb to do just about
anything, or maybe he was too smart, or maybe he really was crazy. I
mean crazy like in really crazy, like the kind of crazy they put people in
the nut-house for.
Johnny never seemed to understand that I was the boss. Half the time I
told him to do something, he wouldn't do it. He just wouldn't do it! "Hey,
Johnny," I might say. "Unload those four bags of Manzate and stack them
over by the mixing rig."
There was about a fifty-fifty chance that Johnny would do the job as I
had instructed, then again, he might wander off somewhere and roll a
cigarette. But even when Johnny refused to respond to orders, he was
always pleasant about it. All his actions were accompanied with happy
grins, rolling eyeballs, spontaneous noises, and funny little dance steps.
Johnny wouldn't mind Santos either. I threatened to fire Johnny about
once a day, and Santos threatened to fire him every time he spoke to him
all day long.
But for some reason, Johnny never got fired. He just got threatened a
lot. Not that that made any difference. Threatening Johnny was like
writing letters to the President. There was simply no correlation between
your action, and his.
In the end, we just did our best to keep Johnny away from the air strip.
All he did was cause problems and make everybody mad. But we could put
him out flagging fields and he would do a perfect job, all day long, 12
hours at a stretch. He would count off the required 15 rows and wave that
flag like a true believer. And he never took his eye off that airplane. One
thing I was absolutely sure of, Johnny could count to fifteen, and he could
do it accurately all day long. He was a real hero at that job.
As a flagman, Johnny earned every penny I ever paid him. He was the
most dependable flagman I ever had, and in a business where a lazy or
confused flagman could cost me hundreds of dollars for a false move,
Johnny could be relied on to do the job exactly right day, after day, after
I think that Johnny remained on the payroll for yet another reason. I
think I liked having Johnny around for the same reason some people like
keeping unlikely pets. There was something so unusual about him,
something so mysterious, something so unfathomable, that I was
fascinated by him. I was fascinated not so much by his behavior, as by his
Johnny liked my airplane. There was no doubt about that. Others
informed me that whenever I took off his eyes would follow the aircraft
until it slid over the horizon. He would then faithfully scan the sky until
finally the airplane would reappear as a speck above the skyline. This
would always be occasion for celebration and he would grin and march
about, and vigorously point out to anyone present that the airplane was
coming back and would soon be landing.
I never caught one of my hands sleeping in the shade of a water tank
anytime Johnny was on the airstrip. That was fine with me. I didn't like to
catch people sleeping on my time. Not that I minded people sleeping on
my time. In fact, it was something I wished they would do more often.
They were all doing a good job, and we were all starved for rest and sleep.
For my part, I would never hesitate to take a little nap anytime I had
15, or even 10, minutes to waste. I could sleep in the cockpit without even
un-strapping my harness or killing the engine. Given the chance, I could
almost instantly fall off into a well of oblivion and ten minutes later awake
rested and restored.
But how do you tell employees that it is okay to sleep on company
time? You don't. Or at least, I didn't. I never talked about it one way or
another, and just let nature take its course. Consequently, we all picked
up a little much needed sleep anytime we got the chance.
That is, everybody except Johnny. He didn't have time to sleep.
Anytime the aircraft was in view he was busy admiring it, and anytime it
was not in view, he was busy worrying about it. When the aircraft would
finally return for landing, Johnny would fly his own airplane and faithfully
mirror its flight.
When the aircraft made its final turn to line up for landing, Johnny's
airplane would also make the same little turn and line up for landing.
When a sudden blast of wind would slam one wing down on short
approach, the wings of Johnny's airplane would also slam down, then
abruptly correct to level flight. When the aircraft would reduce power and
flare out for landing, Johnny's aircraft would also reduce power and flare
out for landing. And when the aircraft would actually touch down, Johnny's
aircraft would also touch down.
When my landings were smooth, Johnny's landings were smooth. When
I would have to cross-control the aircraft and paste one tire on the runway
to counter a stiff, gusting, quartering tail wind, Johnny would have to work
just as hard as I did in order to get his own airplane safely back on the
ground without tearing it to flinders.
And, I was told, all through this approach and landing, Johnny gave
running commentary. As well as I was made to understand, his
commentary was made up mostly of squeals, gasps, laughs, snorts, curses,
assorted cheers, and other oddball, mixed up noises and explanations.
When I made a good landing, Johnny made a good landing. When I
made a bad landing, Johnny made a bad landing. If, after 10 exhausting
hours strapped inside that cockpit, I subconsciously slammed her back on
the ground for my 30th landing of the day, Johnny would groan and cuss
through an identical sloppy landing, and shake his head in disapproval. He
was a tough grader.
Sometimes I would taxi in and swing around to pump on a fresh load,
only to be confronted with Johnny's accusing stare. I would know then that
my landing had been entirely unacceptable. Sometimes he would climb up
on my wing and hand me a jug of water, and while carefully cleaning the
windshield shake his head in disgust. He was totally unforgiving of my
carelessness, and would walk away still shaking his head and making his
clucking "disapproving schoolteacher" type noises.
After getting one of Johnny's bad grades I would always feel a little
guilty, and make an extra effort to kiss-on my next landing.
That guy should have gotten a job with the FAA. He would have made a
hell of a flight examiner.