Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"


     Trailing him down the sidewalk for almost five minutes on that cold fall day in 1969, I scurried along behind so scared I couldn’t speak.  He was making his way across campus, him with his long purposeful strides, and even the leaves swirling around his feet seemed to scramble out of the way so as not to impede his progress. Walking behind and so nervous I couldn’t swallow, the scared little rabbit that was me inside fought for the courage to speak. But he was a professor, and me? I was just a farm boy, a scared college freshman who had never passed a single course, a stutterer and so afraid of him.  I had to ask him a question, but so far, I just couldn’t get it done. Just couldn’t do it.  He was just…he was just so much more than me. At last I stammered, “C-c-c-c-ould I b-b-bother you for a moment?”
     He stopped - his shoulders hunched against the cold – and he stared straight ahead.  Then with deliberate slowness, he turned and those steel-gray hawk eyes looked so far down and deeply into mine, I heard my legs say, “Warning, Warning Will Robinson!  We are not going to be able to hold you up. May Day, May Day, repeat…we are going down!” And just before they buckled, he said
“Bother me? Of course you can bother me, son.  Don’t you know that’s what I’m for?”  

     His name was Sam Cochran, and he was truly a legendary figure.  As a fighter pilot in World War II, Dr. Sam was shot down by the Nazis, and placed in a POW camp.  He escaped and made his way to safety and eventually home to America, and to Ohio State where he received his Ph.D.  He would also become my major advisor, my teacher and my friend.  Every time I think of Dr. Sam, I’m reminded of the words in the Bible the Lord uses to describe Eve.  Most of us have been taught to believe the old Aramaic words describing Eve’s role in creation meant “helpmate.”  Biblical scholars and linguists now suggest the words ezer kenegdo may very well mean something more powerful than “helper”; it means “lifesaver.”  And that’s what Sam Cochran was for me. 

     Thinking back on that first cold fall day encounter, I can’t remember the question I had to ask, or even what we talked about.  As a matter of fact, I can’t remember anything he said…except one thing.  The entire time we talked, my only thought was when I became a schoolteacher, and any student ever asked me if he or she could bother me, I knew I would use those same words. 
“Could I bother you for a moment?”
“Of course you can bother me,”
I would say.  “Don’t you know that’s what I’m for?” 

     And I think about him and all the rest, and those that are helping me now.  I have so many teachers in my life now, and I glean even more value from these modern day ones because I listen better.  I think about them when I’m in the barn at the end of the day.  The horses mill about, and I pour over my notes reading suggestions from ropers so much farther down the path than me about throwing my loop.  I study my list of handwritten tips handed down from good horseman and horsewomen on helping my two partners, Blue and Shine.  The horses occasionally come close, and peer over my shoulder as if they too want to read and understand what my teachers have suggested.  “Study that stuff, Pop,” says Little Blue.  “You have a long way to go.”
     And when I’m on the road, I think about all those that came before.  Early in the morning driving through Kentucky I look over in the field to my left as a flock of blackbirds rise, and it strikes me they are the same color as my third-grade teacher’s hair.  And I know Mrs. Watts is still with me.  “Keep trying Michael,” she says.  “Keep on, I know you can,” I hear her say. “Don’t tell me you can’t, I know you can.”  And I think to myself as the blackbird swarm lifts away as if it’s one living thing,  “The first thing I’m gonna’ do when I get to heaven is to hug my Momma and Daddy, and then I’ll say, “Have you seen Mrs. Watts?” 

     And don’t limit the word “teachers” to just those in the schoolhouse.  Certainly they are included - and somehow I was lucky enough to get the very best – but it seems to me now that my life is filled with them at every turn.  The Lord must love teachers ‘cause He sends them in so many forms.  As a matter of fact, that’s the occupation He chose for his son.  Jesus was a carpenter – he built things.  He was a physician – he healed - but that’s not what they called him.  They called him Rabbi which means teacher.  The Lord puts teachers in classrooms, in churches, in the body of little kids, in old ropers, in cowgirls, horses and perhaps most of all in students.  I learned so much from so many of them, but from one I learned the most.   

     His name was Johnny Wright, and he’s now a high school baseball coach in Oklahoma.  I first met him some twenty years after my conversation with Dr. Sam. He was a cowboy in jeans back then, and I could tell he was scared to death.  I would become his teacher and his friend, and he would later become those things for me… 

     Pacing nervously outside the classroom door, his mouth so dry he could not speak, he tried to find the words. “This is crazy,” he said to himself.  “I don’t belong in this place.”  There were no university halls, classrooms or books in his world.  His world was one of honky-tonks, bucking bulls, fist- fights and the school of hard-knocks.  Yet something tugged on his spirit, some odd thing inside bid him stay and find the courage to ask the teacher a question. He had a question, and they said this man would know.  He wanted to ask him about the dream…his dream to be a coach and a teacher.
He had never passed a college course, but the dream was keeping him up nights and waking him up in the morning.  And they said this man would know whether he could or not.  He took a deep breath, and opened the door…
“D-d-doctor Johnson?” he said.  “Could I bother you for a moment?”  


       Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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