Somewhere in Kansas

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.

“Yesterday.”

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.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

More silence.

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.

38 comments

  1. Kristine Bair - June 18, 2021 6:11 am

    He’s from Kansas, all right. Western Kansas. Sigh.

    Reply
    • Larry - June 18, 2021 7:50 am

      Dietrich is not too uncommon around Ottawa, KS

      Reply
  2. Lee - June 18, 2021 6:16 am

    Wowza

    Reply
  3. Christina - June 18, 2021 7:23 am

    Yeah uncle is right. We are all real proud of you too

    Reply
  4. Sandi. - June 18, 2021 7:40 am

    I really enjoyed this story, Sean. Every sentence is so descriptive. I hope the funeral was not too sad of an occasion for you and your uncle.

    Reply
  5. Larry D. - June 18, 2021 7:49 am

    Dietrichs are plentiful around Ottawa.

    Reply
  6. gatorpe - June 18, 2021 9:23 am

    Best one yet, Sean. We are all proud of you. You bring so much joy to folks.

    Reply
  7. Amy - June 18, 2021 10:24 am

    We are all proud Sean.

    Reply
  8. Harold - June 18, 2021 10:53 am

    KEEP ON TELLIN YOUR STORIES MAN! KEEP ON TELLIN YOUR STORIES 👌

    Reply
  9. joan moore - June 18, 2021 10:57 am

    There aren’t many men like your uncle left, they’re a dying breed. And not very many like his nephew, but we’re proud to have you both.

    Reply
  10. Leigh R Amiot - June 18, 2021 11:02 am

    Smiling through tears, too.
    Thank you for taking us there.

    Reply
  11. Betty Lowery - June 18, 2021 11:16 am

    Beautiful. Thank you for another great start to my day.

    Reply
  12. Bar - June 18, 2021 11:16 am

    “Laughter through my tears is my favorite emotion.” Mine, too, Sean. Going through a tough patch right now and need your writing to do just that for me.

    Reply
  13. Tom - June 18, 2021 12:01 pm

    You know Sean, there’s a right smart number of folks that are proud of you.

    Reply
  14. Jan - June 18, 2021 12:12 pm

    Feels so good to have someone you respect so much to appreciate your path in life and your accomplishments. Well deserved comments, Sean. Your insight and your writing mean so much to many people but it warms you heart coming from someone who is special in your life.

    Reply
    • SARAH - June 18, 2021 2:05 pm

      I look forward to your writing every morning. You are so gifted with your words and generous to share them with us.

      Reply
  15. Vic - June 18, 2021 12:16 pm

    I like your touchy feely stuff too.

    Reply
  16. Debbie g - June 18, 2021 12:22 pm

    Sean you are absolutely amazing love your stories. And Bar Sending hugs and prayers that tomorrow might be better for you Matter of fact I bet all of Sean’s readers are behind you now 🙂

    Reply
  17. elizabethroosje - June 18, 2021 12:29 pm

    Man. Love this. Thank you. ❤🙏

    Reply
  18. Peggy Thompson - June 18, 2021 12:51 pm

    Love this ….thank you…are all or most of your stories true….if so what a special life & wow what a memory you have…lucky. ♥️

    Reply
  19. Suellen - June 18, 2021 12:59 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes too. I know how rare it is for those tough men to say “I’m proud of you.” I’m glad you got to hear it.

    Reply
  20. Dean - June 18, 2021 1:02 pm

    I look forward to reading your column every day. You are a great writer

    Reply
  21. oldandblessed - June 18, 2021 1:06 pm

    Tough as nails, soft as cotton. Dichotomous.

    Reply
  22. Anne - June 18, 2021 1:10 pm

    I hope you can hear your Father’s pride in your Uncle’s words. You do “handle sentences for a living”. But it’s the touchy feely part that is what’s different about your writing. I’ve watched your writing turn from being almost obsessed about your Dad’s demise to that of a man observant of human nature, with a wicked sense of humor. You’re one of my most admired writers. My Dad also left this world when I was eight, by his own choice. He left a young widow with five children and one on the way. Moms faith got us all through those tough years. Thanks for sharing your life with us. You’re a blessing!

    Reply
  23. Susan Parker - June 18, 2021 1:28 pm

    Your uncle is right. We are all really proud of you.
    I’m sorry for your and your uncle’s loss.

    Reply
  24. Sue - June 18, 2021 1:31 pm

    Short and sweet, like your uncle’s compliment. Straight from his heart to yours, and now to many others.

    Reply
  25. Eddy - June 18, 2021 2:07 pm

    Wow, perfect!

    Reply
  26. Susan Wold - June 18, 2021 2:25 pm

    My dad was one of those tough guys, until he was in my mother’s presence, then he turned to mush. He would throw her kisses everytime she walked past him, hoping no one but her saw. He only told me once that he loved me but I always knew he did. He was pushing me in a wheel chair after I had a baby, cause I was too weak to walk. We were going to the nursery to see the baby and I heard, very softly, “I’m proud of you and love you very much.” I froze and didn’t respond, I wanted to stay in that moment, wrapped in his words. Then we got to the nursery and I pointed to my daughter, who looked nothing like our Scandinavian family and more like her dark Irish father. My dad barked “looks like a God damn Eskimo.” Then he held her and turned to mush. Sean, your stories bring back memories. Thank you for that.

    Reply
  27. Helen - June 18, 2021 2:48 pm

    Mine, too!

    Reply
  28. Renee Sedillo - June 18, 2021 3:45 pm

    I absolutely love this! Talk about a beautiful memory. I read your writing every single day and I’m grateful for it. Thank you for all that you do.

    Reply
  29. Harriet - June 18, 2021 5:36 pm

    Just looked up Louis L’Amour and wow they are Grizzly.
    Your writing sounds confident even if you don’t feel it.

    Harriet from Atlanta

    Reply
  30. Lisa Marie - June 18, 2021 6:14 pm

    The best validation a guy can get! We’re all proud of you sir and grateful for the touchy feely stuff.

    Reply
  31. Linda Moon - June 18, 2021 8:54 pm

    I’m reading and wondering when you were in the Kansas town packed with old men. You see, I’ve missed being packed with people because of COVID restrictions. So, I’m just wondering and longing for a bar or breakfast joint filled with tough guys or Magnolia Women. Your wife is one of the latter, and I love her. I can’t wait to hug her (and you) somewhere soon!

    Reply
  32. MAM - June 18, 2021 9:45 pm

    Laughter through tears is THE best emotion. And your word stories are THE best. I read them every day and appreciate your skill and talent every time. So glad your uncle voiced his “I’m real proud a’you.” That’s hard for old tough guys! Keep those words a’comin’. Sean! We’re proud of you, too!

    Reply
  33. Gregg Gleason - June 18, 2021 11:31 pm

    I grew up in Kansas and go back about once a year to see friends and family. I had an uncle who was about 5 feet 7 inches tall, a farmer for his entire life, and had hands that felt like blocks of wood when you shook his hand. Farmer tough and farmer strong, a man of few words, and a great guy. I’m sorry he’s gone.

    Reply
  34. Marilyn Mason - June 19, 2021 4:26 am

    Nice!

    Reply
  35. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - June 19, 2021 10:46 pm

    Your uncle should be proud of you. You touch so many lives with your insights into our lives.

    Reply
  36. Karen Snyder - June 19, 2021 11:53 pm

    ❤️ Sorry for the loss that took you to Kansas. As far as I can remember, I have only known one person who hailed from there, a female every bit as gruff as your Uncle, and with an equally loving heart. I hadn’t thought of her for years. Thank you.

    Reply

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