Johnny Cleveland. What a name, huh? It sounds like a stage name. Or, the name of a ruggedly handsome, endlessly charming, outrageously famous country singer. But, as it turns out, that’s just his name. And, he’s a good ol’ boy living right here in our neck of the woods. Maybe he’s famous in his own right.
I probably “met” Johnny about a year and a half ago. But, even then, I didn’t actually meet him. I didn’t know his name until I sat down with him last week. I’d never had a conversation with him until last week. I put Johnny on my short list of folks I wanted to write about because of that first time I “met” him, though.
About a year and a half ago, I watched people “work cows” for the first time in my life. Honestly, I had no idea what all was involved in having cattle. I still have no clue. BUT, I have figured out that cows require a ton of work. I mean, vaccinations, castrations, de-horning, branding… that’s some serious business. I don’t know how I thought all of these things came to be, but I certainly didn’t envision it happening the way it actually happens. I’m a naïve thing.
So, it’s day two of working cattle. I’ve witnessed some things I can never unwitness. I’ve been around more horses, blood, and stinky, spittin’, testosterone filled cowboys than I care to be around. I mean, I love ‘em, but by day two, I’ve definitely had my fill. I’ve unsuccessfully dodged a billion cow patties. Frankly, I’m not dressed for this. And, by day two, it’s not because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. On day two, I’m not dressed for this because I don’t own anything appropriate for this sort of work day. Sigh.
Why am I even here? I know that’s the billion dollar question. I’m here to photograph the whole… experience. That’s what I’m being paid to do on this particular day. So, here I am, completely out of my element. Let’s get real… I’m scared of horses. Yeah, yeah… laugh. Roll your eyes. But, it’s a legit fear. Have you seen their hind legs? Those things are S-T-O-U-T!
Anyway, here I am on this fine crisp morning… dew on the ground, a bite in the air. I’m looking down at my feet; my mind wandering. I’ve worn my brown converse today. Why? Because they’re pretty beat up anyway. Plus, they’re brown. They’re the color of… well… cow patties. It’s the best I could do. Again… go ahead and laugh. Roll your eyes.
“Hey! Take a picture of this!”
I’m startled out of my daydream. I look up, and there before me is another cowboy clad head to toe in denim. (What’s with that, by the way? Is that the cowboy dress code or what?!?) He’s horseback (thankfully there’s a fence between us). And, he’s got blood running down his face. I think to myself, “Horse? Check. Blood? Check. Stinky, spittin’, testosterone filled cowboy? Check.” Boy oh boy I have a glamorous job.
I start to laugh but stifle it when I realize that might be a tad rude. I snap a couple pictures of the cowboy perched atop his horse proudly wearing his battle scars. “What happened?” I ask. Obviously. Because I’m too curious not to ask.
“I got in a fight with some briars, and the briars won.”
I instantly fall to pieces with laughter. I’ve remembered that fella for a year and a half because of that. As a somewhat timid photographer completely out of my element on those two days, I appreciated that he put himself in front of my camera. And, that is why I put him on my short list of cowboys.
If I’m being honest, though, he wasn’t on my shortest list. My shortest list was reserved for folks that I already somewhat knew. Why? Because I’m not an interviewer. I’ve never interviewed anyone. And, like I said before… I’m a tad timid. So, I kept saying I wanted to get a few more interviews with friends under my belt before I have to interview a stranger. But, as is honestly becoming my somewhat strange, creepy trend, he came strolling into Gore Bros. the other afternoon.
So, here I am with Johnny Cleveland. I shake his hand… introduce myself. He agrees to talk to me. He’s on board. He doesn’t have internet. He’s never read any of the bios. But, heck… why not?!? I’m quite sure he doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into.
We go to sit down. “Well, I have to tell you, I’m super nervous about this. I’ve never interviewed a stranger,” I tell him before my hiney hits the chair. He smiles. He insists I don’t need to worry. I appreciate that sentiment but it does nothing to subside my nervousness.
We get to it. I start asking him some basic questions.
“Are you married?”
He fumbles a second. I’ve immediately caught him off guard. “I have two kids. Well.. I just have one.”
I can see the pain in his pale blue eyes. I can also see the tears forming. “Oh,” I whisper as I drop my head. “Dammit,” I think as my heart breaks for this stranger sitting in front of me. And, suddenly, here I find myself fighting tears as well. I don’t know what to do at this point. Last week, I mentioned that vulnerability and raw emotion is beautiful to me. I want to ask him about this child. I want to, as a stranger, acknowledge this child’s life and this father’s pain. But, I’m timid. And, I want to respect him. If he wants to talk, he will.
I nod at him to let him know I understand what he’s saying and to give him as much reassurance as possible. “I’m so sorry.” We sit silent for a minute.
“Okay, Amy… get it together,” I tell myself. “So, Johnny, tell me what you do.”
“Well, I do day work.”
Ol’ blondie here… I don’t have a clue what that means. Thankfully, he continues by telling me it’s the type of work he was doing that day when he lost the fight with the briars. Working cows. He tells me he used to run a bulldozer in the winter and bale hay in the summers. But, he just sold his dozer. “Now my living is day work.”
I want to dive further into this. These cowboys that work like this… they all love it. LOVE it. I want someone to tell me just what they love about it exactly.
“Outdoors, a challenge. When you’re horseback, you work with your horse and the horse works with you. Being kinda out wherever, being with the livestock.”
I ask him, “what if you couldn’t do that anymore?” His answer? “Nothing else is suitable. It is my passion. It is my hobby.”
There’s got to be more to this. There has to be. And, then, it comes. “I love the camaraderie with all the other guys. It’s kinda like not having to work, but you get paid. A lot of the young guys come to me for my opinion. I give it to ‘em and tell them to sort out what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear.”
While he talked, I sensed that he has a genuine interest in people. While it’s obvious that he loves the work that he does, I sensed that he loves the interaction with folks… building relationships… enjoying that camaraderie. There is something satisfying about those things, I think.
And, all the while, with every word he spoke, I kept feeling like there were just as many words left unspoken. I felt like there was something more to Johnny that was hiding just under the surface. That’s what I want to pull out of him, but I don’t know how to do that. I’m not an interviewer.
So, I tell him we’re gonna shift gears; I tell him I have some random questions that I ask everyone. He’s game.
“Do you have any fears? What are you afraid of?”
“Spiders. It don’t matter how big they are, they’re still a dern spider.” He laughs. He tells me snakes don’t bother him, stinging scorpions don’t bother him… just spiders. I’m thinking to myself, “Hmmm… maybe being afraid of horses isn’t so ridiculous after all.” And, then, I’m also thinking there’s something just under the surface. I’ve got a nagging feeling that there’s something more. I press. “What else?”
“I have a fear of my wife dying before me,” he says as his crystal blue eyes again fill with tears. He told me they’d been married for 38 years in June. I love that kind of love. This time, one of those tears rolls down his cheek. “She keeps me straight. She day works with me, too, sometimes. She does the books. She writes better than I do. She multitasks.” He laughs, but that tear is still present. His emotion for his family has swelled up within him, and it’s not dissipating any time soon. But, I take his attempt at pushing the emotion back down as my opportunity to laugh, as well, and transition into something that will hopefully make him feel more comfortable.
“What about the happiest moment of your life?”
He answers without hesitation, “When my kids were born.” And, instantly, the swell is back. He tells me Jennifer is 33 and has two sons… Slim and Curly. He tells me Curly has a blonde fro and a “personality outta this world.” He’s 5. Slim is 9. And, much quieter. I can tell he adores them.
Then he tells me Colby was 22 when he died. “Last Friday was the 7 year anniversary of his funeral. I don’t talk much about him.” And, I can tell that it’s because it’s too painful. I want to talk more about him. And, I couldn’t tell if he wanted to talk more about him or not. So, we didn’t.
Instead, we talked about people. “I love people. I don’t love crowds.” He tells me he enjoys a beer with friends. But, you’d never catch him at a club. He’s more of a campfire kinda guy. And, I love that about this stranger. The stranger with no internet. The stranger that’s got an ancient cell phone. The stranger who sent his first text message six months ago which consisted of one word: “yes”. This stranger values family and relationships and hard work and loyalty. And, this stranger let me see a bit of who he is beneath the surface. And, I walked away from that “interview” with a deep appreciation for my job, as well. My job allows me to meet, talk to, and get to know folks like Johnny Cleveland. And, somehow, I’m willing to bet he is absolutely famous in his own right in the eyes of his wife & family.