Somewhere in Kansas. I’m in town for a funeral. The ceremony is in a few hours. I stopped by this breakfast joint to meet someone. The place is packed with old men.
A gaggle of old guys sit at the bar, wearing cowboy hats. One wears an oxygen cannula and a John Deere cap. Another Stetson man is sawing his chicken-fried steak with a forty-inch stag handled pocketknife.
I’m immediately struck with the fact that this place is crawling with tough guys. Really tough ones.
I can’t help but marvel at what a wimp I am compared to the grizzled men of yesteryear. I am nothing like these old birds. They have sawdust and 10W-30 running through their vascular systems. Me? I handle sentences for a living, and I watch “Steel Magnolias” twice per year whether I need it or not.
I hold the door open for more weathered cattlemen who enter. The bell over the door dings. I wish I could take a picture of them all because they look like illustrations from a Louis L’Amour novel.
When it’s my turn the waitress approaches and asks where I’d like to sit. I tell her that I’m meeting somebody and that I’d love a booth.
“Sure thing, hon,” she says. “Got plenty’a booths.”
The waitress puts me in a seat facing the parking lot and keeps me full of caffeine while I wait, sip, and think about the solemn ceremony ahead. I will be a pallbearer today.
After a few minutes I hear a rumbling noise. I look through the plate glass window to see a monster Ford dually charging through the parking lot. The herculean F-450 nearly takes out six Nissans, two Mazdas, and one Prius, chugging like a nuclear locomotive through a Steinway factory.
All the cowboys have paused eating to watch this giant truck make its matinee entrance.
The truck parks. The door opens. Out from the cab steps a five-foot-eight man with a size-nine shoe. He has cropped white hair. Glasses. Bad knees. And even though he is not a tall man, he walks through the parking lot like he’s a good sixteen inches taller than John Wayne. Chest out. This is a man who never merely walks anywhere, he struts. I know this because he’s my uncle.
This is a man who wrote the book on tough.
I can hear him enter the joint before I see him. It’s his voice. He already sounds like he’s ticked off about something. That’s just how he is.
When we meet, I stand to shake his 80-some-year-old hand and he almost breaks my fingers.
“I’m surprised you found this place,” he says. “I didn’t think you knew how to drive.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” I say, releasing his hand, massaging fresh blood back into my puny, pathetic digits.
He sits. Before he addresses me, he does what many hard-of-hearing elderly men do. He speaks loudly in the direction of nobody in particular, waiting for a nearby waitress to experience the epiphany of his request.
“Can an old man get a cup of coffee in this joint, or am I just supposed to sit here with my thumb shoved up my—”
“Sir?” the waitress interupts. “Would you like some coffee?”
His eyes soften when he is greeted by the gentler sex. He sheds about sixty years and smooths his hair. “Why thank you,” says the tough guy.
At first our conversation is nothing but the banal pleasantries of catching up. Years have passed since the last time I’ve seen the tough guy.
“When did you get in?” I ask.
I nod. “How’s your hotel look?”
“Like a dang hotel, what else?”
The waitress refills my mug and we both fall silent. I’m still thinking about the service we will be attending today. Eventually we will both leave here to lay another tough guy in the ground.
I’m looking at my toughened uncle in the booth across from me and I’m thinking that we couldn’t be more different if I had been born a cocker spaniel. He’s a decorated career soldier who speaks Russian and hauls tractors for kicks. I like movies starring Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton.
But the conversation turns in a direction I don’t expect. Eventually, the tough guy clears his throat loudly and says, “You know I read your touchy-feely stuff sometimes.”
He shrugs. “Yeah, people send your stuff to me sometimes.”
I look into my coffee.
The tough guy is really trying here. I can see him reaching for the higher octaves of human emotion. He is attempting to express feelings. Tough guys rarely do such things. When they do, you do not interrupt.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m real proud’a you.”
He keeps his eyes out the window, watching the parking lot. “We’re all real proud of you.”
His words are so quiet and sincere and so totally uncharacteristic that it makes me start to laugh.
And well, to quote one of my favorite movies: Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.