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Fencelines: People want a chance, not pity

by Marie Johnson

Jon was a cowboy living in the bunkhouse. He arrived unknown to us. He must have been feeding his horse under the pole barn, walking back to the bunkhouse when I first met him. He startled me. Except for my family and the family living in the foreman’s house, nobody else was working on our place. In the twilight, I could see his clothes were dirty and his face drawn and tired. It is not unusual for cowboys to be dirty and tired at the end of the day, but his face was beyond tired. Jon’s stories explained why.

Jon’s family was from Santa Barbara, Calif. He didn’t communicate with them much. As a young boy, Jon admitted to being afraid of going into a room where his mother was if his father wasn’t home. He would stand in the doorway of the dark room, listening as she talked, smelling her alcohol. In his 20s, Jon got started cowboying in central Nevada because not many people knew him there, he said, and then he moved around a bit. He didn’t have a driver’s license and didn’t register to vote because, as he put it, there might be some trouble with the law if they found him. I asked what this trouble might be and should I expect any. No, no trouble now. He had found the Bible and let the drugs go. Now, he just cowboyed – or did until the rancher he worked for in California was killed in a vehicle wreck. The widow was selling the place.

So, Jon loaded up his possessions, his horse, a saddle, a bedroll, a kerosene lamp, a rifle, a Bible and came over the mountains. The man living in the foreman’s house on our place offered Jon the bunkhouse. The little building had no heat, but it kept the wind out and the snow off. Jon traded sporadic day work for the opportunity to stay in the bunkhouse.

Occasionally, if Jon saw me saddling my horse in the morning, he’d ask to ride along. He didn’t like fence work because he had to get off his horse, but he helped me with that, too. In exchange for his company, horse and rope, I would take Jon to the library or the stores.

At the grocers, with what little money he had, Jon would buy coffee, oranges, potatoes and a one-pound bag of M&Ms. If he got coins back after paying with paper money, he would offer it to my boys. At first, I wouldn’t let them take it, so in the parking lot he threw the coins into the air. Angry, I asked why he wasted money that way when he barely had enough to feed himself.

“Can’t afford to keep coins,” he said. “They rub holes in my jeans and I can’t always be buying new ones, so I get rid of the coins.”

Jon eventually joined a crew breaking wild ponies for polo players in Argentina. He sent a Christmas card with pictures of the animals and the gauchos he worked with. He got paid some and had a place to stay he described as “just as nice as the bunkhouse.”

Every Christmas, I think of offering help at a soup kitchen/shelter and taking my children along so they’d realize not all people have a warm, safe place to live, hoping mine would truly appreciate what they have. But I don’t want to parade people in front of my children as “unfortunates.” That diminishes the people you set out to help.

People don’t want pity, just opportunity. Some get chances, some make poor choices.

Until I get it figured out, I’ll keep giving the “how fortunate we are” lecture, even if my kids don’t like listening. I’ll encourage them to offer honest help, do useful work and love with understanding. As Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone.”

n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 11, and Bradley, 8. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.