Lynn Burkhead — Thanks John; I owe you so much
Most years, I’m a bit jovial and reflective on this morning after Thanksgiving Day.
That should be true again this year, with the family all here for the Turkey Day festivities, complete with Uncle Larry’s famous cornbread dressing once again. If I had one meal left…well, you know how the rest of that goes.
Today also marks the beginning of the Christmas holiday shopping season, and since I’m inclined to agree with Andy Williams that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, I’ve always loved Black Friday and the start of the rush to Dec. 25th.
Usually, I’m also excited about a football game or two, but today marks the merciful end to a particularly difficult year of rooting for my favorite team. If you follow the Texas Longhorns and their gridiron activities in the fall, then you understand.
But this particular Friday after Thanksgiving is one that I’ve been dreading for some time now. Because one year ago today, as I broadcast the Denison vs. Frisco Liberty game at Munson Stadium with my KMKT broadcast crew, I unexpectedly had the final phone conversation I would ever have with one of the best friends the Good Lord has ever blessed me with.
In the days that followed that conversation, my friend John Waitt — who was a good friend to most everyone it seems, because that’s the kind of person that he was — got sick with COVID-19. He was soon in the hospital, soon in ICU, and a few weeks later, he was gone.
It was — correction, it still is — gut wrenching to see what his wife and children are going through as they experience the pandemic in a far more personal and terrible way than most. Quite truthfully, it is something that they’ll likely never fully recover from, the loss of a husband, the loss of a father, and even the loss of a grandfather, even though John unfortunately never knew that he was about to be a granddad.
Losing someone you love and care for is tough, especially when you have a front row seat through today’s modern communication platforms. A friend asked last January just before John lost his battle and went on to eternity in heaven how he was doing. I replied that the daily updates were gut-wrenching, something akin to reading a Stephen King medical horror novel.
But just as sad was the fact that those updates suddenly came to a halt, and he was gone.
Truthfully, John wasn’t much of an outdoorsman. He grew up in New England, was a card carrying fan of everything related to his beloved city of Boston, and never really had much interest in hunting or fishing.
Until he met me, that is. We met at Hyde Park Baptist Church nearly 30 years ago and struck up a deep friendship in the years that followed, going to a Monday night men’s Bible study, to Promise Keeper events, to football games, on skiing trips with our church, you name it.
In the very study I’m writing this column in, just a few feet away is a framed column that I wrote back in the mid-1990s. When you’ve been writing in this space since 1991 (for the Sherman Democrat first, then for the Herald Democrat when it merged with the Denison Herald), that’s a lot of Friday columns and outdoor stories.
Truthfully, I’ve forgotten many of the pieces I’ve written down through the years as time quickly slips away. But out of the thousands that I’ve written, including many for ESPN Outdoors and now Outdoor Sportsman Group, I’ll never forget that one.
The truth is, I had my priorities a bit misplaced at that time as a young husband and father. When I realized what was happening, that I was trading my outdoors dreams for the time I was needed most at home, I relinquished my spot here and wrote a goodbye column about realizing that while the outdoors was important and enjoyable, my faith and family were more so.
It took a while for me to get it all straightened out. But eventually, I did, and eventually, I found myself writing again, and to a great degree, it was all because of my friendship — no, my brotherhood — with John. He never criticized me, he never judged me, and instead, he just kept encouraging me, kept praying for me, and kept being my friend.
One day in that era, he showed up and told me that he had something for me in the car, or in the “caaahhh,” as it sounded in the Bostonian accent that he never outgrew.
When he opened the car’s backdoor, he pulled out a framed and matted copy of the column I had written, and a few photos of the young family that needed me more than the deer woods or the duck blind did.
So, you’ll understand why I got a little teary eyed yesterday looking at that prized possession and thinking of that incredible friendship, along with a sad occasion 12 months ago today.
But I also smiled, because that’s the kind of person that my friend John was, always giving, always encouraging, always lending a helping hand.
To my knowledge, John had rarely, if ever, gone fishing and I don’t recall him saying that he ever went hunting. But while he never knew what it was like to hear the whisper of mallard wings over a decoy spread, to tense up at the sight of a buck trotting after a doe on a frosty November morning, or the thrill of a largemouth bass blowing up a topwater plug, he entered my world by reading the drivel that I wrote in this spot on a weekly basis.
He also knew that the outdoors and writing about it has been my livelihood since 2001. And ever since that crazy career path developed — one that I never sought but one that came calling for me anyway — he was always there to help me keep my priorities grounded in my Christian faith, my family, and then all of the other stuff, in that order.
In fact, he regularly tried to help me out in my work, texting me, e-mailing me, or calling me about a story that he had read of some big buck, a huge fish, or some sort of crazy outdoor tale.
I never had the heart to tell him that sometimes, I not only knew about his tip, but had actually already written something about it. Because I realized that, like always, he was in my corner and trying to help make my life a little better and a little easier, even though I was an outdoor writer in a world that he knew very little about.
I won’t lie, I’ve had trouble saying goodbye to John, and in many ways, I can’t wait for this year to come to a merciful end. It’s been tough, in so many ways, especially since that sorrowful day in January when the text that I had dreaded finally came in and confirmed the awful news.
But I’m also a bit more determined to keep my priorities right, to see what’s good in this crazy world, and to be more like my friend John.
And because of that, even though I won’t see or speak to him again until the other side of Creation, he lives on.
On what could be a somber Black Friday filled with memories and tears, I think instead that I’ll smile, look for someone to encourage, and try to make their day a little brighter and their life a little easier, even if our worlds are far apart.
Thanks John, I owe you.