Posted On April 5, 2016
The summer I was sixteen, I alternated with my Dad driving my little sister to Fargo, North Dakota. She had qualified for the High School National Finals Rodeo. Our 1969 Chevy half-ton was loaded with the full sized camper that housed not only the three of us, but also our Mother and Little Brother. We also pulled a horse trailer.
Once we got to the fairgrounds, we looked for people we might know using license plates. Idaho was best, but Utah would do just fine. After some searching, we found a place to park and set up camp.
Beside us was a family from Snowville, Utah, if I remember correctly, and the boy was a bull rider. The father was a slight man, not very tall, and he stood and walked with a gate that made me wonder if he had broken his back at some time. His skin was past tanned, and had the texture of jerky. I knew when I watched him he was tough. He was a man who did not know the definition of quit.
Because he stooped to one side, he always looked at me out of the corner of his eyes, and he wore an expression that said, “Whatever happens next, will be bad.” In spite of this, he always greeted me with, “Mornin’ neighbor,” or “Afternoon, neighbor.”
There’s a couple of requirements if you want to stay clean in such a gathering, be willing to get up early, and if you’re running late, be willing to stand in line. Mister Snowville and I were some of the first in the men’s side of the public washrooms every morning.
I’d get one sink, and he’d claim the one next to me, we’d strip off our shirts and go to scrubbing. He had a way of opening his shirt that I looked forward too. He’d grab the shirt, just below the collar and pull in opposite directions. The sounds of the snaps giving way was a rhythmic “tat-tat-tat-tat,” as the closure opened.
By the fourth morning, we had our routine and all was on track until he opened his shirt. There was no “tat-tat-tat-tat,” instead popping was heard and the bouncing of plastic buttons on cement indicated which way the little drops of pearl went.
He’d torn every button off the front of his shirt. One of them went down the drain in the sink. We looked at each other, somewhat blank. It was funny, but I was afraid to laugh.
He said, “Damned woman knows I hate buttons, damned woman.”
I dropped to the floor and hunted buttons. I chased them under the sinks, under the stall doors and behind the commodes. Every time I’d declare victory with, “I got one,” he’d reply, “Damned woman knows I hate buttons, damned woman.” I did the searching and he did the cursing. Things worked out and within a few minutes, I dropped all the buttons, except the one who went in the drain, into his outstretched hand. He glared at me, from the corner of his eyes and nodded a “Thanks,” as he once again muttered, “Damned woman knows I hate buttons, damned woman.”
He turned away from me and dropped them in the trash can.
“Wait a minute,” I blurted, “Aren’t you going to have them sown back on?”
Then it hit me, “Never mind,” I said, “You don’t like buttons.”
We never became friends, we were just guys who stood at adjacent sinks, but I saw him one evening standing out and away from his truck, looking toward the west and Utah. I think he was homesick. I stepped over beside him and he greeted me with, “Evenin’ neighbor.” I nodded in return and we stood there, just watching the sun go down.
He sighed, “Damned country, like living on a pool table. Only place I know where a man has to watch the sun set over a Joh Deere tractor, damned country.”
He turned and walked back to his campsite.
Those few images of that old rancher stayed with me over the years, and I never knew why until in 2014, he became the genesis for Francis “Pickles” Knudson, who is in the books, A Higher Calling and Vengeance Is Mine.
I’m sure he’s past on. I’m older now than he was at the time. Wherever he is, I hope they put snaps on his robes and gave him at least one mountain over watch the sun set.
I’d like to cross paths with him someday. I’d like to thank him for being so unique and carving such a strong image in an adolescent mind. I’d like to thank him for his help in creating Pickles.
I smile, because I know if I do, he’ll say, “Damned writers can’t leave things be, damned writers.”