A Personal Geography: Ouray, Colorado

He was born in 1927 and grew up along Summerland Avenue, on Chicago’s North Side. His parents spoke mainly Swedish. He played the harmonica and he loved baseball. As he grew up over six feet he developed a wicked fastball and a what he would later call a “serviceable curveball.” One of the Chicago newspapers gave him the nickname “Tookey.” I have no idea why or what it means.

Paul Johnson 1944 Delta Indians

He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs his senior year in High School and immediately traded to the Cleveland Indians. He went into their farm system, playing for the Delta Indians. They had no team bus. On long drives between dusty Midwest farm towns, he would roll down the window, drive with one hand, and play the harmonica with the other while the other five guys sang or strummed or plucked their jaw harps.

He got drafted. Played for the Air Force in Europe during the occupation. Broke his pitching shoulder. Left the game. Went to college. Moved back to Chicago. Got married and had kids.

By the time I came along, the youngest of four, he was long past his playing days but he could still drive and play and he could still throw a fastball and swing a bat like nobody I’d ever seen.

In 1976, we took a summer camping trip to Ouray/Silverton Colorado area. As he drove our family station wagon, I sat in the back seat piling wads of gum into my jaw like it was chewing tobacco. The sound of his harmonica floated back from the front of the car as an accompanying soundtrack to the dream I projected on the station wagon’s back window. I had just pitched a no-hitter in some corn-fed Midwet town like Murphysboro and here we were, jammed into a station wagon moving along to the next town, the next game, with a Midwest sun dying into the immensity of corn.

Around the Colorado campfire my older brother and I bugged him about chewing tobacco. What was it like? Why did all the players chew? Did he chew when he played? He told us that if we wanted to cure ourselves of the fascination we should try it, get dizzy, vomit, and get over it.

We took his bet, shoving huge wads of Red Man into our cheeks. I don’t remember getting sick. I just remember how sticky it felt and stringy and how it made me feel like a man. It was sweeter than I imagined.

He died on April 7 the following spring. We were in Florida. He and I were at the Mets spring training camp that day. I pitched in the bullpen, a lanky 11 year old with a fastball and a baseball pedigree. Players lazed about in the early April sun, cracked jokes, and spit tobacco juice.

Not long after his death I started chewing for real, hitting five tins of Copenhagen a week throughout high school and college and beyond. The same for my brother.

Paul Johnson 1945 Air Force American Eagles

I quit the day I graduated from college. I quit again when I got married. Then I started quitting because it was Monday, or because my gums were so raw they hurt, or because my dentist told me if I didn’t “see that thing right there, yeh, that’s gonna fall out.” It took me a few years with a psychotherapist to actually quit, though I don’t recall it actually ever being the focus of any discussion.

A few weeks back I returned to Ouray for work. When we were done shooting, I drove up the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton and stopped at that old family camping spot, the place of my last summer vacation and first brush with tobacco.

In late March, the campground is still covered in snow. It looks rather unremarkable in its plainness, just a flat spot of ground in a spot where the canyon threatens to open before closing again upriver.

As I drove away, I tuned into NPR’s Selected Shorts which was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with a reading of the first chapter.

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”

And, of course, as Lieutenant Jimmy Cross learns, the things we carry often kill us.