My name is John Tilden, and this is a story about my life.
My parents always thought I’d grow up to be a doctor. I don’t know how they settled on this—not through personal knowledge of one, since I don’t recall any doctor ever staying in our small west Oklahoma town long enough for anyone to get to know him. Maybe it was General Hospital, which my mother watched furtively when she knew my father was in the fields; maybe it was simply the default dream uneducated country people have for their sons. In any case, all the time I was in high school they had this image of me ministering to the sick and, maybe, pulling down a six-figure income to provide for their old age.
My high school sweetheart, Samantha Mathis, thought I should
be an architect or an engineer. I don’t know why she settled on these occupations for me, since I displayed almost no aptitude in those directions, but when she sat on my lap and kissed me and sketched out our future, I was more than happy to entertain the notion, and made sure all the colleges I applied to had engineering schools, just in case she might be right about me.
I had the idea that I’d become a lawyer or a writer. I’ve always
been good with words, on paper at least, so unlike those other
notions, those options seemed reasonable.
None of these dreams came true. What I ultimately became was
a farmer, like my father and his father before him, and I plow the
sandy red soil of the farm where I’ve lived the better part of forty
years. It is not, I think, what anyone expected, but life, as they say, has a way of changing your plans.
People have always told me I was a thinker, but I believe they
meant different things at different stages of my life. When I was
growing up, they meant that I was destined for a future far beyond
the dusty confines of Watonga, Oklahoma. What they meant once
I passed the age of thirty was that I thought too much for my own
Trouble is, going off on a mental tangent is one of those things
you can’t avoid if you’re a farmer and you’ve got half a mind. Driving a tractor just doesn’t require that much concentration: You chug around in an enclosed space that grows ever smaller, turning left whenever you run out of row. That’s it. A ten-year-old could do it, and this isn’t just folksy exaggeration. I’ve been driving a tractor in these same fields since I was ten years old. Hard to believe so much time has passed and only the tractor has changed: The spindly red Ford is now a monstrous red International Harvester, and here am I, still seated behind the wheel.
The hours stretch as I manhandle the tractor into a turn, shift
gears, lower and raise attachments, listen to the dull roar of the
engine outside the glass-windowed cab. There isn’t much to do out
here besides think, which is what I was doing on that afternoon last fall where I want to begin this story.
I thought about my farm: the price of wheat, currently three
dollars a bushel, although it would drop back to $2.50 when the glut of harvest began in June; the calves I planned to buy and fatten over the winter on the very wheat pasture I was planting at that moment; the repairs I’d need to do on the combine before the next harvest, something perhaps to occupy me on a winter morning or two after the calves were fed.
I thought about my family: my wife, Michelle, much-loved beatnik senior English teacher at our alma mater, Watonga High; our oldest child, Michael, a moody college dropout (just temporary, he claimed); our obedient son B. W. (named Brian Wilson Tilden by my wife after her favorite rock star poet); our youngest, Lauren, twelve years old and changing so quickly in body and mind that I could scarcely keep track of her from week to week or even day to day.
I thought about the basketball team I coached, the Watonga High School students who, as soon as football ended, would take to the court under my part-time tutelage for the third straight winter: B. W., my point guard, throwing passes with the beauty and
precision of geometric diagrams; Larry Burke, whom I called “Bird” because of his wispy mustache and his fadeaway jump shot; Martel and Tyrel Sparks, fast and agile forwards with a lot more talent than discipline; stolid, solid Jimmy Bad Heart Bull, long dark hair in a ponytail, grabbing another of those rebounds that seemed to appear in his hands as though willed there by the Great Spirit. A team, unfortunately, with mostly unrealized promise.
And I thought about myself, the life I inhabited, moving at five miles per hour in a field of dwindling squares enclosed inside each other like Russian nesting dolls, and the contrast with all the lives imagined for me in years long past. Those lives, the ones from which I expected to choose, vanished for reasons you will hear, and yet in some ways they were still there, always present. Maybe a phantom life is like the phantom limb of an amputee: The future I lost still felt tangible—possible, even—but whenever I reached out for it, my hand passed through empty air.
To understand that feeling completely, it’s necessary to go back much further than last fall—to go all the way back, in fact, to the winter of 1974. It was the beginning of basketball season at Watonga High, the moment before my life changed for good, and—as they too often used to—that’s where my thoughts drifted that afternoon last fall while the tractor toiled. The future was revealed only slowly, of course, peeling off event by event like layers of an onion, but in the winter of 1974, I still believed that great things lay ahead, that nothing bad would ever happen to me.
For those four short months from December to March, as
the world outside changed from ice and snow to wildflowers and
redbud blossoms, life was golden: I was in love, colleges were writing acceptance letters, and our team was playing basketball like no one in town had ever seen before.
Bobby Ray Daugherty set a single-game district scoring record
that season that still stands, forty-seven points against our archrival, Thomas High School; Big Bill Cobb earned All State honors at center and went on to play college ball for Southern Methodist in Dallas after becoming one of the leading scorers in Oklahoma high school basketball history; Phillip One Horse returned from a five-game suspension for repeated and flagrant infractions of Coach Parker’s team rules and pulled down seventeen rebounds against Comanche to help us advance to the state finals; Jim “Oz” Osborne threw up a thirty-five-foot set shot at the buzzer of the Comanche game to seal our victory; and I was a point guard with so many targets that I led the conference in assists for two years running, the kind of player who could always make other players look better.
Together, the five of us did what no Watonga High School
sports team had done before or since: We won a state championship. For years after, whenever people from Watonga wanted to conjure us up out of the past, they simply mentioned the year we won it all—1975—and sighed, or without further clarification, referred to “The Team,” and there was never any doubt on Main Street who they were talking about.
We were a team, true enough. The five of us had played together
for what seemed like our whole lives. On the court, we completed
each other, covered for each other’s weaknesses in a way that was
marvelous to behold. It’s too bad that we couldn’t do that for each
other off the court and in the life that followed.
Because, you see, it is no easy thing for a young man to conquer the world—remember how Alexander the Great is said to have wept when he realized there were no more worlds to conquer?—and that is what a state championship means in a country town held together mostly by its school and sports. Between the five of us, I think we represented every possible reaction to early greatness: As of last fall, Bobby Ray had gone through two wives, had three corporations file for Chapter Eleven, and lost more money than I will ever be able to earn; Bill had played college ball, earned his degree in business administration, and stayed on in Dallas where he parlayed his smile, handshake, and jovial laugh into his current life as a bigwig in commercial real estate and the Texas Republican Party; Phillip robbed a Watonga liquor store with a couple of other malcontents in 1979, did ten years hard time in McAlester State Penitentiary, and after his release, hid out on forty acres north of town; Oz went to pharmacy school at Southwestern State courtesy of his pharmacist father-in-law and grew stoop-shouldered from fifteen years of hanging over the counter of that pharmacy down on Main Street, helping the elderly and indigent who are just about all who remain in a town like ours.
And me? Well, in February of 1975, when Samantha Mathis
broke up with me for the first and only time, I was paralyzed with
grief. Phillip One Horse was even at that early date a reliable guide
to the world of alcoholic excess, so when my life’s fateful moment
presented itself to me early one Saturday morning in the person
of cute and lanky Michelle Hooks, I was too drunk to recognize
it as a fateful choice until it was too late and the rest of my life was
When Samantha drove out to the farm thirteen days later and
tearfully apologized for our fight, we got back together, and I thought it would be best if I didn’t tell Sam about Michelle. Besides, our moment together had really become nothing more than a pleasantly foggy memory.
Sam and I got back to making plans about our future life together,
talking about marriage—when it might come, what it might look
like. She wanted five bridesmaids, which in those days was an awful lot, although I’ve seen more since.
The last time Samantha and I ever talked about marriage was
later that spring when I pulled my truck over to the side of a country road in the middle of a thunderstorm and told her that I was going to have to marry someone else.
Michelle Hooks was pregnant, and I was the father.
I will never forget the silence that stood between us, an invisible
wall in the tiny enclosed space of my pickup cab surrounded by the noise of falling water. First she had cried, which was bad, but then she was silent, and that was worse. She wouldn’t look at me. We sat, the engine revving, “Fire and Rain” crackling in from distant WKY-AM in Oklahoma City, sheets of water pelting the roof and hood. I thought maybe it was starting to hail. A fierce ache rose up from my stomach and took root beneath my rib cage, and I had no real hope or belief that it would ever leave.
“Are you sure it’s yours?” she finally asked. She was still looking
out the fogged-up window toward the fields green with winter
“Yes,” I said. I was sure.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
I bit my lip, let out a pained sigh, shook my head. I was not sure what I was doing, supposed I would never be sure again. “But I have to,” I finally said, and raised my hands, palms up, in front of me, a gesture I’ve performed since I was a kid, a gesture that can mean variously “I’m sorry” or “What can I say?” or both, which is what it meant then.
And that was that. My life in the wider world with Samantha, my career as doctor or architect or engineer or lawyer, someone that people might have treated with respect—all of that was gone. I never really had another choice. Maybe in some places this type of taboo would not require ritual expiation, but in Watonga, Oklahoma, in 1975, the dictates of my conscience and the mores of my community were in perfect accord; there was only one thing I could do and still call myself a decent human being.
People have always insisted that I am a good man, and to a certain extent I believe them. I have tried never to do anything in the dark that I wasn’t willing to make good in the light, and my faith tradition teaches that we are called to do what is right, not what is easy.
I got Michelle Hooks pregnant, so I married her.
And that is how my life changed forever.
Michael came along as anticipated; after Michael, we had two
children who were more or less planned. I took over my parents’
farm out west of town near the Canadian River, and in 1991, a
few years before the story I am to relate, I agreed to help out my
impoverished alma mater by volunteering my time as basketball
coach, an arrangement mostly satisfactory for all concerned.
When I was on the tractor and imagining my life as satisfying—
for truly, much of it was—I liked to think of it in terms of the land,
my family, the gorgeous rip of a basketball finding nothing but net,
and Michelle. Basketball season, after all, was my favorite time of
the year, and for more reasons than just the sport. There were, for
example, those chilly winter evenings that time of year, sitting with Michelle in the fire-lit living room at the far end of our house. The kids floated in and out, depending on their homework and which of the broadcast channels was coming in visibly on our TV. Michelle graded papers, did lesson plans, or curled up with a book. I did my share of reading, and when there was room at the desk, I did my share of writing: letters to my parents in Arizona and to my little sister, to former players lonesome for mail away at college, to Bill Cobb and Samantha—for the girl I loved in high school did not stray outside our team to find a husband—in Rockwall, a suburb of Dallas, where they rubbed elbows with interesting neighbors like Marina Oswald, widow of Lee Harvey, and Olympic track star Michael Johnson, the kind of people I would never meet unless they got as lost as Robinson Crusoe.
On those winter nights, with the fire glistening in the glass of the fireplace insert, the wind whistling across the north field and into the thick stand of cedars my father and I planted along the north side of the house, some Eagles or James Taylor playing low on the antiquated turntable in the bookcase, we sat, Michelle and I, and occasionally we would look over at each other, our eyes would meet, our mouths would curve slightly upward into smiles, and I’d remind myself that things sometimes turn out for the best. Michelle and I had not always loved each other—or rather, I had not always loved her—but I did at last learn to, and wasn’t it better to be unsure at first and in love twenty years down the road than the other way around?
Still, there was that night the family and I were watching an
episode of Unsolved Mysteries about a husband and father of five kids in Galena, Kansas, who got on the tractor one morning and left it sitting empty at the crossroads of a state highway five miles away, engine still running.
“He was murdered,” Lauren theorized from her spot on the love
seat. “Or kidnapped, maybe.”
“By aliens,” B. W. said, his mouth full of popcorn. I reached
down and took a handful for myself.
“He ran out on them, Lauren,” Michael muttered from the floor.
“How could anybody do something like that?” Lauren shot back.
“Maybe he just thought if he plowed one more row it’d be the
death of him,” I said quietly, my mouth full.
Michelle glanced across at me, but with the kids present she didn’t dare ask whether I spoke from personal experience. Not until
Not until bedtime.
One of the rules of our marriage had always been that when we talked at night, after the kids were in bed or otherwise absent, we would be totally honest with each other. I am not a compulsive truthteller—I believe that there are sometimes situations in which a lie is less harmful and certainly kinder than the truth—but over the years, I had never told Michelle an out-and-out whopper at bedtime, and I felt confident she had been equally forthcoming with me. I would not say it had always been easy or that it had bound us together in unbreakable chains of marital trust, but certainly it had never done permanent damage to our relationship, although it might occasionally have altered—or eliminated outright—the cuddling or other activities that might reasonably be expected from a married couple at bedtime.
“J. J., what did you mean, earlier this evening?” she asked, sitting
down on my side of the bed, still fully clothed. I generally went to
bed after hearing the weather on the ten o’clock news, sunup coming awfully early, but Michelle was a night owl and often stayed up to read or work or listen to music.
“Sometimes,” I said, “I can understand how people might want to get out from underneath all that. It’s not always joy and bliss being Farmer Dad.”
She ran her finger lightly down my arm. “Bad day with Michael?”
It was a logical question. Our eldest supposedly had a job working
the closing shift at the local Pizza Hut, which would account for
his being gone all night and sleeping all day. When he was here and awake, he was surly, if he bothered to speak at all. Still, that wasn’t it, and I think she knew it.
“No,” I admitted. “I didn’t even see Michael until I sat down in
front of the TV tonight. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure he still
lived here.” I reached up to her, tried to pull her toward me, and she did lean a bit closer, although she made me come up the rest of the way to meet her. After she kissed me once, softly, and nuzzled my cheek, she stood up, walked to the door, and hit the light, leaving me in darkness.
“You know, I do understand,” she said as she closed the door, and
maybe she did, although it was also true that late that night when
she came to bed and snuggled close, rousing me from a light sleep
and dreams of far away, she whispered into my ear, as she sometimes did at such times, “J. J., do you love me?” and I muttered back, somewhat less than half-awake, “You know I do, Shell.”
And this, I swear to you, was gospel truth, for however it was that we began our life together, Michelle is a wonderful woman, and if it took me a long time to accept just how wonderful, I did learn at last. I could not have imagined a better mother for my children, or a wife who cared more for me. Michelle knew me so well, had loved me for so long, that perhaps she did indeed understand the sad, sorry, shameful impulses that could make a man imagine leaving his tractor, his home, and his family, those same impulses that make up most of the story I am to tell you.
All of these things went through my mind on that sunny September day in 1994 as I listened to Don Henley sing of forbidden love, loud and raucous on the tractor’s cassette player, as a fly pattered forlornly against the inside glass of the enclosed cab, as the warming sun dropped slowly toward the far rim of the Canadian River Valley a few miles west: things from my past, present, and future. I had been around long enough to understand that, taken all together, these were the truths about life: Things had happened; things were happening; things were going to happen.
The last of these truths remained mysterious to me, as it must.
But all the same, with so much thoughtful time on my hands, I
couldn’t help but sit and wonder.
Did my future include another twenty years on a tractor in red
dirt, turning ever inward on myself? Or would there come a day
when I drove straight and true toward the far horizon?