Jon’s right-hand cattle man is a good old country boy who wears worn work boots and works hard and works hard to teach his kids to work hard. As a result, he’s raised two teenage boys who have the kind of still dignity that makes cowboys in general so damn romantic.
But he’s hard on them. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: he’s hard on those boys. He’s had to be, is what he’ll say. No one else’s place to say otherwise. But he’s hard on them. He’s made them work days just as long as his own–checking cows, birthing cows, tending horses, shoveling shit, wrapping hay, castrating calves, administering medicine, putting up and tearing down barns and training cattle dogs to work the stock. What are their dreams for their lives? It honestly didn’t much occur to me to even wonder because farm life seemed so deeply ingrained into who they are, who they were raised to be.
Sometimes Jon, my Jon, pulls out the helicopter to check the property, so he says, counting cows or looking at new purchase boundaries or felled trees. I don’t know how it came up, but somehow Jon, I’ll call him Little Jon for clarity’s sake, wiggled his way out of Sunday morning church last weekend so that he could take Jon up on an offer to go for a helicopter ride.
When we woke up that next morning, the ceilings slung low, but it doesn’t matter much because the landscape is so flat and limitless. Little Jon arrived with his shy hands buried in his pockets, climbed into the right seat, and off we went.
I sat in the back with my headset unplugged, admiring the view. Well, not ‘admiring,’ exactly, but observing.
Our destination was the Hangar Kafe, whose name explains itself. The fare is ordinary–eggs any style (except poached), bacon or ham or steak, hash browns, biscuits and gravy. Little Jon ate with the haste of someone with work to get back to, and I was so caught off guard that I eventually offered my pancake, which he happily took. He’s a quiet boy, and I suppose when he’s in his twenties and thirties and forties he’ll be the “strong, silent type,” but right now he’s so shy that just getting him to say anything at all requires mental gymnastics beyond my conversational abilities. Yes, he was excited for Christmas break, he had a final tomorrow, they’d read John Steinbeck this term. That was all. I couldn’t even tell whether or not he’d enjoyed the helicopter ride.
But then on the way back, when I was just day-dreaming and watching the country pass below us, I felt the helicopter lurch upwards suddenly and realized very quickly that my Jon had handed the controls over to Little Jon and was teaching him to fly.
I grinned and watched from the backseat, peering over my Jon’s shoulder. Little Jon seemed relaxed, unafraid. I thought of the first few times another pilot had handed the controls over to me and how both extraordinary and completely unextraordinary it was. How it felt like something I couldn’t ever imagine doing but that I was doing it and it hadn’t been impossible at all.
When we returned to the airport my Jon gave Little Jon instruction on how to hover. He did a pretty good job, I thought. My efforts to hover a helicopter are nothing to brag about. As a passenger, it feels as though the entire machine is trying to find its center on top of a balancing ball, and you keep slipping forwards or backwards or left and then right and then the entire helicopter itself will twirl around itself. It’s fun, but frustrating.
Eventually we landed. The Jons put the helicopter away and I went back into the house. His mother texted me a few minutes later to thank me, to say that Little Jon had had a great time, which struck me, because his face is so unreadable. A few days later, we sat in her living room and ate Gooey Butter Christmas Cookies and she told me that immediately after landing that day, Little Jon had called his father, the cattleman. The conversation, she said, was the longest they’d talked in five years.