Leon Emmons is going to kill me. If my body is found tomorrow morning at the bottom of a nearby river, please give his name to the police. You see, today is Leon’s birthday, and he has no idea that I am writing about him. He’s going to be mighty mad and I’m going to be in trouble.
Leon Emmons lives in Des Moines, Iowa. He and I have been friends for 14 years, but we met each other for the first time only two years ago.
The catalyst for our very unlikely friendship was the Thunderbird that I bought in the fall of 2001 and drove down Route 66 with Julie. It took Ford two years to produce the car after it was introduced in concept form at auto shows in 1999, and many of us around the country managed the wait by joining what were then called online “newsgroups.” Leon and I were both members of the Thunderbird newsgroup, but I didn’t know him at all. After my Route 66 journey, though, I submitted a long piece about the trip to the Vintage Thunderbird Club International for inclusion in its quarterly magazine. There was no money involved. All I requested was that I be sent a couple of copies of the magazine when my article was published. Unfortunately, the organization’s president fell out with his colleagues and refused to ever send the copies. I happened to mention this in a newsgroup post one day, and that’s when I became acquainted with the generous, decent Iowan I am writing about today.
Leon sent me an e-mail telling me that he had a bunch of copies and would send them to me. To this day I have no idea how he acquired those copies. When I profusely thanked him, he actually said he was grateful to me for having written the Route 66 story, especially because it had an uplifting ending. He told me that a few years earlier he had been in a hospital with bacterial pneumonia, fighting for his life after being given a 5 percent chance of recovery. He said that he continued to be thankful every day, and that “we all need to slow down and reflect, and your trip was a great way of showing lots of busy people the real meaning of life.”
Of course, I have no memory of what I wrote back then, so I had to go back to those now-dusty magazines and read the ending again:
Well, I’ve worn the same socks for a week; my cholesterol has GOT to be over 300; and my uncut hair looks like Ringo-Starr-meets-Bozo-the-Clown. This is the end of the line. A bittersweet end for me, but it was certainly a joyous ending for the Dust Bowl travelers who saw the orange groves of the L.A. basin for the first time. For me, my reward was to see the orange sky over the Pacific Ocean at sunset in Santa Monica.
One thing all of us have been brutally reminded of this year is that it is all too easy to make our way blindly through the minutiae of daily life. But we live in a gorgeous country whose past and present we need to respect and cherish. All of it is out there to experience: the roads, the burger joints, the friendly motels, the abandoned buildings, the farmhouses, the autumn leaves, the canyons, the desert, the sun setting over the ocean.
Okay, that settles it: The primary thing that Leon and I have in common is that we’re both a couple of saps.
Since that time, Leon has periodically sent me newspaper articles and packages. They’re often Iowa-related. I’ve received food items like Maytag blue cheese and a kind of Norwegian crepe-like potato bread called lefse. He’s sent articles about the Iowa Cubs minor league team and about famous gymnasts who have trained in the state. When we got Buster, he sent a little stuffed football. And if I happen to mention something I like, he remembers it. He sent me a 49er jacket. He sent me a Route 66 book. When I mentioned that I watched “Mad Men,” he mailed me a DVD box set of season one, signed (and personalized) by January Jones because of course he knows her. Similarly, when I noted that I watched “Nashville” regularly, he sent me a personalized, signed photograph from one of the cast members because he somehow knows her, too.
For the past 28 years, Leon and a bunch of his buddies have rented a ski lodge for an annual get-together in the Rockies, and he mentioned once that they had brought a bottle of rye whiskey with them. When I responded that I had sampled my share of Kentucky bourbon but had never tried rye whiskey, of course a bottle of Templeton Rye arrived in the mail.
I’m afraid to ever tell him that I have never ridden in a fast, expensive car, because I fear that a few days later a Ferrari will show up on my doorstep!
Early in our friendship, after Leon started sending me things, I decided to Google him, because of course one never knows the intentions of strangers. What I found was an article in the Des Moines Register about a tragic accident in which a 13-year-old boy named Roger, riding on the back of his dad’s motorcycle, was seriously injured when they were hit by a truck. The dad died. The doctors told Roger that he was paralyzed from the neck down and would have to breathe through a tracheostomy the rest of his life. Leon somehow heard about the story and paid for the boy’s first month at the Ronald McDonald House. He also gave him a jersey signed by Vikings QB Dante Culpepper, organized a meeting with former running back Chuck Foreman, got one of the coaches to call, and promised Roger a trip to the Metrodome if he walked out of the hospital. According to the article, three months later Roger’s bones had miraculously fused, and sure enough, he walked out of that hospital.
Leon hadn’t mentioned this to me.
When I brought it up with him, he just said that we all need guardian angels.
Leon is a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner. He’s been married almost 40 years to Sherry, a “blond beauty,” he says, who is the absolute love of his life. (The story of their courtship and marriage actually made it onto the nationally syndicated Paul Harvey show.) They have two children and a couple of beautiful grandchildren. He’s a religious man – a man, I can attest, of tremendous faith.
The town of Emmons, Minnesota, is named after Leon’s family. Every year, Leon takes his mother to a Minnesota Vikings game. She is NINETY-SEVEN years old. When she turned 95, she asked Leon to buy her a push mower for her birthday. Man, they make ’em strong and tough in the Midwest.
I know that Leon has an attorney brother, so I should probably be doubly afraid that, if Leon doesn’t kill me when he sees this blog post, he may take me to court. I don’t know the brother’s name, so just for fun I will assume his nickname is “Lemons.” Lemons, please read this whole thing before you sue me for libel.
(By the way, just as an aside, Sherry’s maiden name was Clemens! And yes, she’s related to Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain]!)
So please forgive me, Leon Emmons, Lemons Emmons, and Sherry Clemens!
In 1981, Mickey Rooney starred in a made-for-TV movie called Bill, a true story about a sweet, charming, developmentally disabled man named Bill Sackter who was institutionalized at the age of seven and spent 44 years in a neglectful home, never seeing his family again, and not knowing the touch, affection, and love of other human beings. Forty-four years. Imagine that. Bill was doing menial work when he met Barry Morrow and his wife Beverly – two saints who would save his life. Barry Morrow was just out of college and starting a career then (he would dedicate his life to the disabled and go on to write the Oscar-winning screenplay of a little movie you may have seen called Rain Man), and he and Beverly befriended Bill, got him out of the institution, brought him to Iowa when Barry got a job at the university, and essentially saw to his care and development.
Bill was a funny guy; he would make everyone around him smile when he’d say things like “Be careful when you cross the street, because a car can kill you. And that isn’t good for anybody.” He played a mean harmonica. He was a loving, giving, charismatic man, and as much as Barry and his circle of acquaintances taught Bill, Bill returned the favor by helping them all see the beauty in our differences.
In 2005, a director name Lane Wyrick made a documentary about Bill’s life called A Friend Indeed. The documentary points out that the only times Bill would get sad would be when he obsessed over his wigs. Apparently, when he was living in the institution, a cruel worker had once grabbed his hair and thrown him down the stairs so violently that his hair was pulled out by the roots and never grew back. Bill was self-conscious about his baldness, and he always wore terrible-looking wigs, sprayed with a bottle’s worth of shellac-like wig spray, placed on his head in ways that could only generously be called “askew.” The documentary points out that an Iowa man in the hair restoration business saw a photograph of Bill in the newspaper and noted the god-awful condition of Bill’s wig. So the businessman volunteered his services to make a good-looking wig for Bill that would be stylish and match his beard. Bill absolutely adored his new wig and it marked a turning point of sorts in his life. His self-consciousness abated. That generous businessman was, of course, Leon Emmons.
A Friend Indeed is one of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen. At 90 minutes it’s a bit long, so it was edited into a one-hour version. It won a lot of independent film awards and was shown on various PBS stations throughout the Midwest. When I stopped weeping after I saw it, I decided to write to the public TV stations in San Francisco and Santa Rosa to ask if they would run it. The Santa Rosa station didn’t bother to respond, and the San Francisco station took a pass. I guess they figured that their viewers, with the attention spans of three-year-olds and all the empathy of speed bumps, wouldn’t care for it. It’s a real shame. That film is a wonderful reminder of the kindness of strangers.
Speaking of the kindness of strangers . . . . When I took my train trip in 2014, I started off on the California Zephyr, which runs from Emeryville to Chicago by way of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. One morning our attendant Lamar showed up at my room and delivered to me a bottle of red wine from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, along with a card from Leon and his buddy Bob. At Leon’s behest, Bob had actually driven to the Amtrak station, met the train, flagged down a conductor, and given instructions for me to receive the bottle. What a fantastic experience it was for me to be presented with a gift while traveling alone 2,000 miles from home. These Iowans are good folks.
I have to say, one thing not so good about Leon is his ability to predict the outcome of sporting events. Every year I participate in a March Madness pool, and as most people know, Iowa seems to breed some pretty rabid college basketball fans. A couple of years ago, Leon told me with great confidence that certain Iowa teams were going to go all the way. Knowing nothing about college basketball, I took his word for it when I filled out my bracket. And every single team he touted failed miserably in the first round. That’s the last time I’m going to take sports advice from Leon Emmons.
I finally met Leon, face-to-face, in October 2014. Julie and Buster and I were driving to Kentucky and at the last minute decided to detour and avoid Missouri, which was plagued at the time by bad weather, baseball playoff traffic (did I mention that the Giants beat both the Cardinals and the Royals to become champs that year?), and unrest in Ferguson. We ended up driving through Iowa close to Des Moines, and I decided to get in touch with Leon and meet him in person once and for all. I texted him and sure enough, he dropped everything and came to our hotel lobby, bringing some edible Iowa goodies with him.
When my mom passed away last fall, Leon sent me a card. I was sitting in our backyard on an uncommonly warm evening, drinking a glass of wine, when I opened it. Inside the envelope was some money that Leon specifically told me to use on a Giants game, because he knew that every year we brought Mom to one or two games in the fancy Club Level (where she wouldn’t have to climb any stairs). I’m sure the wine magnified my sentiments, but I burst into tears at the thoughtfulness of Leon’s gift. So on August 19, Julie and I will be at the game in Club Level. I chose that night because it is Tony Bennett Night at the ballpark, and Mom and I shared a love for him. Tony just celebrated his 90th birthday, and that morning the Fairmont hotel will be dedicating a new statue to him. Rumor has it that he also may be at the game and may even sing for the crowd. In any case, I’ll be thinking of Leon when I am in my seat at the ballpark.
One of Leon’s best friends was a gay man who lived in San Francisco. I’ll call him “Aaron.” Every year, Leon would come out to California and they would go to a 49er game together. When Aaron died, Leon wrote to me in grief and said that he was glad that God had given him the opportunity to get to know the man. Aaron had been one of the ski buddies, and Leon told me that the guys were going to hold their own service in Iowa, at a synagogue up the street from his business. “What a sight that will be, a bunch of Baptist conservatives praying for the soul of someone with such a different lifestyle. When it comes to compassion, [Aaron] showed us and taught us the real meaning of love and not labeling people,” Leon wrote.
Barry Morrow said at the end of A Friend Indeed that it’s important that we value people who we might think are lesser than us. I would suggest that we also value people different from us. In this day and age when everyone judges everyone else, I hope that’s still possible. I suspect that Leon and I are different in many, many ways. But I believe him to be one of the greatest people on earth.
Leon, there is absolutely no reason for you ever to have been so kind to me. After all, I have done virtually nothing in return. So this is finally my gift to you, Leon. Happy Birthday.