The dictionary defines a “yarn-spinner” as ‘someone inclined to tell long and involved stories (often of incredible happenings)’ and for anyone who knew Lee Johnson, that definition fit him like a pair of well worn goat-and-unicorn-rancher’s overalls.
I met Lee when I started in this job at some county function, can’t recall which one it was. It could have been any one of a dozen, because Lee was always interested in his community and what was going on. I’d look up from my notebook after writing a particularly good quote at a meeting, and would see Lee out of the corner of my eye.
I started following him on social media and enjoyed reading his long, sometimes rambling (heck, all the times rambling) posts. He was the master of what used to be called “the shaggy dog story” (or maybe “shaggy unicorn story”). I thought first to crown him with the sobriquet of “curmudgeon” but that was a title I aspired to myself. I went through the other titles that might fit: gadfly, muckracker, busybody, pot-stirrer…none of these seemed to capture the essence of Lee.
Then he started using that “tired old rancher” profile picture. You all know the one I mean, and the perfect word came to me: like Gabby Hayes sitting around the campfire eating a plate of beans and telling tall tales, Lee was a yarnspinner…
He commented on that in an Instant Message that he sent me:
Lee: thanks for mentioning the unicorns. the actual name is Rancho Woeisme Unicorn Sanctuary and any time you can sneek it into the paper, well, it would be appreciated. by the way, there is no such place as a unicorn farm. these animals, much like horse, cattle and goats, reside on ranches. and also thanks for calling me a “yarn spinner” instead of what most people say -”he’s full of bull$#!+”.
(In most of our exchanges we disdained the use of capitalization.)
Thus began an occasional message exchange between Lee and myself. He never stinted on the salty language, and we had many a lively discussion on different topics.
He had a big heart, too, at one time offering me one of his photographer vests (anyone who knows me knows how many of these I have). But instead of bringing it to my office, he invited me to a St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital fundraiser at Crenco. Lee would be in the dunking booth.
I told him I would visit, because ‘I need to exercise my pitching arm anyway.’
Lee: hey, you won’t need any exercise in your pitching arm. you’ve been slingign b.s. for as long as i can remember!
Me: Yeah but none of it usually sticks I need to make sure I’ve got enough Force to hit that paddle put you in the water
Try as I might though, I couldn’t hit the paddle just right to dunk him. But I wanted a dunking picture, so Lee’s wife Chris obliged by slapping the paddle and putting him in the water. I snapped the pic at just the right time. The result is the picture you see with this column.
Me: ‘Dja see your mug in my paper? I captured you at the moment you hit the water. Good photo. Maybe the photographer’s vest helped...
Lee: haven’t seen paper yet. i’ll have to grab it before my wife lines the birdcage with it!
He was always promoting the unicorn sanctuary.
Lee: when are u going to do a front page feature on the WOEISME UNICORN SANCTUARY? as i expect it to be in color we should do it while the leaves are pretty.
Me: On a slow news day.
Lee: the usda and nat’l geo have both contacted me. you could scoop them both! must be above the fold and in color so we should get crackin’ before the leaves turn and fall.. do you own a gilly suit?
Me: no but I have camouflage underwear.
Lee: Oh hell, I won’t be able to get that vision out of my mind at least for 2 or 3 days
Me: A dunk in cold water will help…
He admired one of my watercolor paintings (I think I eventually gave it to him) and I found out some things about Lee that I didn’t know.
Lee: i admire your talent as an artist. i once had aspirations of being a photographer. i went to a two year school and graduated top of the class. even had work hung at the PPA (prof photographers of america) annual convention and at their permanent display at their offices in chicago. i was the youngest person to ever do so. it was during a dam&ed recession and just could find a job that would pay enough to clothe, feed and put even a small roof over my head — the old starving artist thing. i was one he!! of a commercial photog and did some sports too. still have a 4x5 view camera in a closet. (what an outdated piece of equipment)! photo journalism was never high on my list — couldn’t get excited over events like shooting and reporting on things like the cerro gordo county rose show and tea, etc. of course, i never did any writing back then. my interests now are goats and unicorns/alicorns. which reminds me, when are you going to interview Chris and i on that big spread on The Woe-Is-Me Unicorn Sanctuary? A Spring report would be best. keep that in mind.
I urged him to take up painting as a hobby. I started painting late in life, I told him, and you’re never too old to start. ‘And you’re younger than me lol”.
He was not above tweaking me about my writing or my photography, either. After a story about a police arrest ran, he sent:
Lee: say, the picture online shows 3 guns instead of two. looks like pretty good reporting but terrible counting.
Me: Pretty sure Travis was reporting what police dept. put in press release. Article says two rifles and one shotgun. That makes 3 firearms doesn’t it?
He couldn’t resist a parting shot:
Lee: just wanted to see if you were paying attention. haha. btw, i counted $4 more than pictured. any comment?
We got on the subject of my upbringing one time and I told him I was raised Catholic, married in a Baptist Church and am Lutheran by choice. I was ecumenical, you might say. After I told him I was a Lutheran, he sent:
Lee: i knew there was something strange about you. let me guess....you are left handed as well! i’m surprised you’ve made it this far in life with those two big strikes against you” exclaimed the right handed, back-sliding methodist with 7 7/8 fingers.
Me: I’ve had to overcome some adversity it’s true...left hander in right handed world.
Lee: i always wonder why you hold a camera upsided down!
There was the time that I saw someone else on Messenger was using the same rawboned-rancher drawing as their profile picture that Lee always used. I didn’t hesitate to tweak him about this.
Me: somebody is using your avatar. Surely there cant be more than one curmudgeon yarnspinner in the world!
Lee didn’t miss a beat…
Lee: that guy is my identical twin .... fifth cousin. well, we aren’t exactly identical but he uses my pic as his avawhatever .... cuz i’m better looking .... and have both ears still located on my head. he carries his around in a little pouch in his pocket .... after that chainsaw accident.
Me: as we like to say fondly here in the South you just ain’t right
Lee (who was well known for his conservative tendencies) WELL I SURE AS HELL AIN’T LEFT!
That was the last message from him. We hadn’t seen each other at events in a while, but I would catch a glimpse of him every now and again. I think the last time we talked was at the ribbon cutting for the Gaston, Marion & Stubbs Richburg office.
I’m going to miss his gravelly voice and curmudgeonly sense of humor. Lee was one of a kind, and I’m sure the unicorns at the Rancho are weeping, just as I find myself doing, for there are no more yarns to be spun.
Although I suspect St. Peter has his hands full…