Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Lori Stratton has won our essay writing contest on the theme of A Universe of Stories with "Johnny Cash".
Lori Stratton is an English teacher at Gardner Edgerton High School. Her husband is a middle school guidance counselor, and they have three young adult children and one grandchild. Lori also works for the National Education Association as a trustee for the Leaders for Just Schools initiative. Her writing can be found at Grown&Flown.com, at her personal blog, lorijstratton.com, and on her Medium account, @ljstratton50.
I first fell in love with music by listening to my dad’s old Johnny Cash albums. I’d put his scratched vinyl records on the ancient turntable my parents kept in our upstairs storeroom and crank the volume. Then my eight-year-old self would croon along with Johnny as I danced around the room on boring Saturday afternoons, oblivious to any life in the rest of the house.
I don’t know when I became aware of my dad’s admiration for Johnny Cash. I only know that my parents, trying to raise three children on my father’s meager teaching salary, owned only a few records, and four of them were made by Johnny Cash.
My dad was the first person in his family to graduate from college. In fact, he and his sister were the first in their family to graduate from high school. Born during the poverty-stricken 1930s, my father grew up during a time when music of any kind represented a luxury most Kansas dirt farmers could not afford. Still, his parents managed to buy a spindly little second-hand piano that I still own, and of course, there were always church hymns.
My dad’s family went to a country church. When I think of the times I attended this church with my grandparents, I have vivid memories of lusty singing. No polite lip synching at Salem Lutheran. No trying to spare your pew-mates from your lack of talent. It didn’t really matter whether you could carry a tune or not. If you were present, you belted it out.
But my dad could sing. Despite his six-foot frame, he had a sweet tenor voice, and my grandmother used to reminisce about the time he was 10, and he sang a solo at the county fair. Maybe that’s why, coupled with his ice-blue eyes and greased back, black hair, I always thought photos of my dad taken during his teens and early twenties could easily pass for pictures of a young Elvis Presley.
Dad saw Elvis perform once, in downtown Topeka, right as the singer teetered on the verge of becoming famous. Dad said the girls swooned in front of the outdoor, makeshift stage while Elvis wiggled his hips. My father had never seen anything like it before. When he told the story twenty-five years later, my mom blushed.
But dad never saw Johnny Cash in concert, although he got the chance once. During one of the summers we lived in Nebraska, both Johnny Cash and the Harlem Globetrotters had scheduled appearances in Lincoln. I remember my parents talking about buying tickets in hushed tones when they thought my brothers and I were watching TV. Money existed for tickets to one show only. My dad had always dreamed about seeing Johnny Cash perform live, but of course, the kid-friendly Globetrotters won out.
Not until I became a parent myself did I understand the sacrifice my dad had made. When he was 44, he suffered a series of seizures that eventually led to the diagnosis of a malignant tumor, the size of a walnut, sitting inside the left, frontal lobe of his brain. After the operation and succeeding radiation treatments, he lived for nine years, but never really as himself. The brain damage caused by the cancer treatment affected his speech, his personality, and, of course, his voice. I never heard Dad sing again after his brain surgery.
There have been many times in my adult life that I have missed my father. As a high school teacher myself, I have often yearned to call him up for advice, especially after particularly grueling days. I would have loved for him to meet my children, to take them fishing, to tell them the story about seeing Elvis. Because I was 15 when my dad got sick, I never knew him when we were both adults. I wonder what it would be like to have an adult-to-adult relationship with my dad, similar to what I have with my mom. I miss it.
Now my son is 15. A few weeks ago, he bounded down the stairs, dressed for a forensics tournament at school, wearing a button-down black shirt tucked into black pants. A man in black. My son’s eyes are brown, but his black hair and cocky grin remind me of my dad’s high school photos.
“Hey, Mom,” he said, draping his arm about my shoulder and smiling. “Do I look like Johnny Cash?”
I paused for a moment before nodding my head.
Yes, son. Oh yes, you do.