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5:58 a.m. - 2003-09-13

BYE JOHN

I didn't mention Johnny Cash and John Ritter yesterday because I had already finished my diary entry before hearing about their deaths.

I think John Ritter's death was a big shock for everyone.

Johnny's?

Not so much. The man had been sick for years and when his wife died this summer, you just kind of felt he was empty inside and wanted to be with her.

Anyway ... I've got a Johnny Cash story for you.

When I was 10, my family moved from a small farm town in Illinois to the big city of Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Which, coincidentally, was where Johnny Cash lived. As well as Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, and a bunch of those Grand Ole Opry stars whose names you wouldn't know unless you were a diehard Opry fan.

Anyway, it seems when we first moved to Hendersonville, people from our old hometown were constantly coming down to visit. Relatives, friends, neighbors...it was a never ending cavalcade of familiar faces making the eight hour drive to our new home.

Maybe my parents were swingers.

I dunno. Never asked.

"Dad? Do you let Mom blow your friend Mr. Stevens while you watch from the corner of the bed when they come to visit?"

Sorry. Never uttered that sentence in my life.

Anyway, in 1973...30 years ago this month actually ... my grandfather came down to visit.

He was sick at this point. As a kid, I really didn't want to be around him much. He shook all the time and didn't say much to us kids.

Like all the other guests that we hosted, we took him to see Johnny Cash's house which was just a mile or two away from our house.

Johnny had this huge mansion on the lake. And in 1973, it looked like a house of the future. I can't really describe it except to say I remember it being beautiful. I haven't seen the house in over 20 years.

He had this big fence around it and Roy Orbison lived right across the street from him. I remember Roy always left his curtains open...he lived in a much more modest home, no huge fence and you could look straight in his front window and see his gold records hanging on the wall.

Anyway, we get there and my grandfather gets out and is taking pictures of the house and is all excited because he was a big Johnny Cash fan. He kept saying he couldn't believe his daughter (my Mom) lived so close to Johnny Cash.

So he's walking around and taking pictures of the house from various angles as a big black Cadillac pulls up.

Yep.

Johnny Cash was driving and had his young son John Carter Cash with him in the front seat.

He stopped the car at the gate right where my grandfather was taking pictures and got out of the car.

Naturally, I think he's going to pummel my sick grandfather to the ground for trespassing.

Instead, he smiled and shook my grandfather's hand.

My grandfather...we will all never forget this in my family ... greeted him with "Hi John!"

John.

Like he had known him all his life and was on first syllable basis with him.

They talked for a few minutes and I remember my grandfather told him he had seen him in concert and watched his TV show and had a lot of his records and Johnny Cash was just the nicest man to him.

Johnny said he had some groceries and had to get his son in the house so he opened the gate and drove in, giving us a final wave which my grandfather returned.

We went back to our house and all had a laugh at my grandfather's expense for saying "Hi John!" I'm not sure why it struck us all as being so funny, it was just the way he said it. Kinda half-startled, half-really bold.

It didn't matter to my grandpa. He was ecstatic that he had met one of his heroes and couldn't believe his good fortunes.

My grandfather returned to Peoria Illinois a few days later and died of Parkinson's Disease a few days after his return.

What really struck me yesterday upon hearing of his death was the math I did in my head.

This incident took place 30 years ago.

Johnny Cash died at the age of 71.

He would have been 41 when the meeting with my grandfather took place.

I'm 41 years old now.

But I'm no Johnny Cash.

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