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Johnny Jake–short story

October 29, 2010

Johnny Jake




Remembering a small, small town in central Montana, in the 50´s, it is like nectar from the past.. I heard other kids teasing each other: Mary loves Bobby, Mary loves Bobby, Evie loves Dale, Evie loves Dale, and everyone laughing about it. Every week it was a new romance, and a new person to be teased. They never had anyone to tease me about because they all knew I didn’t have a boyfriend. All the boys were my friends, not boyfriends. So some of the older boys decided to taunt me with Donna loves Johnny Jake, Donna loves Johnny Jake. I didn’t mind because I really did love Johnny Jake. He was my boy friend, my baby-sitter, my good friend. He was also a man of what-ever age a grandpa would be. He was always the same age, too me, never younger nor older all my life. I never knew his age, it just didn’t matter to me.

Johnny Jake worked for my dad, on our ranch, but to me, he was just part of my family. So I was very surprised the first time I saw my dad pay him. I asked them, “Why Johnny Jake got paid for bring in the cows, and I didn’t.” My father said, “Johnny Jake worked hard for his money, and that I lived there free.”

So I decided to move down to the bunkhouse and work with Johnny Jake. I guess this was ok with everyone. Johnny Jake did suggest that I not bring any more than I could carry. He always treated everyone with great respect and made you feel like you were his equal no matter who or what age.

When I got to the bunkhouse, he was waiting and gently suggested I might like the bed by the stove, as it was getting rather cold at night. He also said he liked to leave the light on at night and hoped that was ok with me. The old bugger knew I was afraid of the dark. He had this magic way to make you feel like his equal never telling you what you should do or shouldn’t do, but he could always steer you in the right direction. He just didn’t have a bossy bone in his body.

In the morning, he woke me and said, “Its time to go get the cows in.” It wasn’t even light out and he was right it was cold out. I knew if this was our job, I had to get in gear and do my end of the work. So off we went to get the cows in, when we finally got them into the barn, he gave me a milk stool and a bucket and walked off to milk his cows. I’d milked with him before, but this was for real, my very own cow and my very own bucket to fill. When he finished milking his three cows he came to see if I had finished mine. I was so proud there was at least an inch of milk in my bucket. He didn’t finish milking for me, he just pulled up another stool, and we finished that cow together. We walked up to the house with our milk buckets; I did notice that my bucket wasn’t quite as big as his, but it was still full and it was mine.

I was hungry and ready for breakfast. He laughed when I said, “Let’s go see what the cook has for breakfast” the cook, being my mom, didn’t think it was that funny. She wanted to know if I was ready to sleep in my own bed. I told her, “No, I need to work with Johnny Jake and earn some money.”

I spent a couple of nights with him. We cleaned the bunk-house, played cards ( it was usually 21 and that was the way I learned to count, later in life he also taught me to play cribbage) we talked a lot, well not a lot cause he was a quiet man, and we sharpened his knives. He always had a knife for me to work on. He would check every now and then to see how sharp it was, and he said, “A sharp knife was safer than a dull knife, maybe you need a little more work on that one, but it’s getting there”.

Some nights he would take out his violin, or fiddle, and he could played classic or folk songs and I loved it. I loved the way the violin fit under his chin and the way it looked, more than the sound but I knew he was really good at it cause I´d tried it out a few times and it was really a terrible noise that I made. Kids were not supposed to mess with his violin, but I´m sure he knew we did, and I think he told us not to in hopes that one of us would like to learn. He asked me if I´d like to try it every time he got it out, but it just hurt my ears when I played it and I really liked to watch him play.

I don´t know why but he always cut my brother and my hair. I don´t think that he was a real barber, but he had a cape and barber scissors, he even had electric clippers. I guess he was close enough to a real barber. It was the only time I didn´t like being with Johnny Jake, I hated to get my haircut, and it took so long for him to be happy with how it looked. I had really ratty hair, and yet he made me think it was just perfect. The best part was he had this little brush that he used when he was finished. He would put powder on your neck and brush all the hair away so you weren’t itchy any longer, and he made you feel like you were special, and just beautiful.

When my brother got to go to school, I thought I’d die. I wanted to go with him so badly. Every day when the school bus came to pick him up I´d start to cry. I was so lonesome for him, but not for long. Johnny Jake said, “He needed me to help feed the cows every day, cause he was just getting too old to do it by himself.” We went out to the old jeep, I sat on his lap, and he taught me how to drive. When I got good at steering, he built wooden blocks for the pedals so that I could reach them. Then we went out in the open field, and I would practice shifting. I helped him all that winter. I would drive, and he would throw the hay off for the cows. Sometimes we would switch and I would feed the cows, and he would drive, so that I would know how to do it all, if he wasn´t there.

I was only five years old then, but I remember how he’d laugh when someone would ask him if I should really be driving alone. He said that I might be the first woman to drive in the Indy 500. I didn´t know what that was, but it sounded good to me, cause I loved to drive that old jeep, and I loved to hear him laugh. He had this great laugh and his eyes would crinkle up, it just made you want to laugh too, and we laughed a lot.

Johnny Jake loved sheep, fishing, hunting, laughing, and kids. He was a deadeye shot and liked others to be also. My brothers owned a pellet-gun, but I was the one that loved it. Johnny Jake would spend hours pumping that pellet gun up for me. I could only pump it a few pumps before it became to hard for me to do, so he would sit and patiently do this for me, for hours. When I got older, we would go to target shoot with a .22 and later he would let me use his gun, or we would use one of my uncle’s guns. The first time I used his gun it had a scope on it, and I was leaning across the back of his pick up when I quickly pulled the trigger and shot a hole through the back-end of his new pick-up. I was so up-set and embarrassed, he just said, “He was sorry he’d forgotten to explain about that part of using a scope, I think we’ll have to do a little more practicing.” He turned around and walked away, and I heard him and my uncle laughing about his new truck already looked more like his old truck.

Yes, he loved sheep. Many people will tell you how dumb sheep are, not Johnny Jake. He thought that they just needed a good dog and a good herder, and then they were like his family. He had this great instinct as to when a ewe needed help lambing, I helped pull many lambs from its mama because he said, “Kids have just the right strength to pull the lamb and not hurt the mama.” Maybe that was true or maybe he just wanted us kids to be a part of the birth process.

The last time I spoke with Johnny Jake, I had been fishing in Alaska, we had tipped our boat over in icy water, and I had come close to drowning. That same week Johnny Jake and two old friends had been fishing in the icy water of the Missouri river (I believe these men were all at least eighty years old). They hit a logjam and their boat capsized. One of these old men died and John and his friend almost died trying to rescue their partner. We both talked briefly about how our boats had failed us and what had happened. Then John said, “But Donna how was the fishing?” My Dad was listening and told John, “You are too damned old to be doing that crazy stuff and Donna you have a child you have to be thinking about now.” Johnny Jake just smiled and told him, “If you can’t fish any longer you might as well be dead.” We both agreed that next time we hoped the fishing would be as good as it was that day.

This was one tough little old Norwegian, but also the gentlest, kindest man I have ever known. I’m so proud that he was the boy they teased me about back in grade school. I think I was very lucky to have had him in my life as a grand-pa, a friend, a teacher, and yes, a boy friend.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 1:49 pm

    You make me wish I was an agent, that is such a beautiful story. I literally have tears in my eyes. I hope this is the beginning of your memoir. (Just found you on She Writes.)

  2. March 6, 2011 2:55 am


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