OPINION — A common phrase today is ‘not all heroes wear capes.’ You see it used with stories about regular people doing brave or noteworthy things, but it’s mostly meant as a joke. For instance, I saw it used with a story about Ander Christensen, a Nebraska fellow who petitioned his local city council to advocate that people stop calling chicken wings ‘boneless.’ And to be fair, the guy was right. Plus the video was epic. Ander waxed eloquent. I have no idea how the council voted.
Man makes passionate speech about renaming 'boneless chicken wings' at American council meeting
But the phrase recently reminded me of one of my role models. He was an old rancher in Mason County named Henry Kothmann, and he served as an elder at the church I attended for many years. Few people probably thought of Henry as a hero, since his service during World War II was entirely stateside, but he was one of the finest examples of honesty and integrity I’ve known.
Henry once asked me to drive him to College Station. A&M had built a new beef cattle center, and it was being dedicated to one of Henry’s classmates, O.D. Butler, I think. Henry had been invited to attend, but it was a four-hour trip. His wife, Leah, was in poor health and didn’t drive, and Henry didn’t like to travel far alone. I jumped at the chance to spend eight hours listening to Henry’s stories. The kind of stories you rarely hear anymore, because the people who lived them are mostly gone now.
Henry graduated from Texas A&M in 1932, and went to work for the Ag Extension Service in Big Lake. The following year one of his professors called him and asked if he would take two train car loads of hogs from College Station to the Fort Worth Stock Show. Henry agreed, and took a train to College Station to gather the hogs. Before he left College Station with the hogs for Fort Worth, Henry told the prof, “I’m going to show you how to put the gain on these hogs.” The prof laughed. He said, “You’ll be lucky if they don’t lose 100 pounds apiece.” The trauma of transportation usually causes livestock to lose weight. Henry just smiled.
Henry got the hogs to the Fort Worth Stockyards and settled them in. They were to be weighed before the stock show, and their weight then would be recorded as their official sale weight. The night before the show, Henry poured all the water out of their troughs and filled them up with dry oats. He gave them more dry oats the next morning, and about an hour before the weigh-in he gave them water. All they could drink.
After the sale, Henry went back to Big Lake, and the next day he got a call from the professor, who wanted to know what he’d done to those hogs. They’d weighed an average of 202 pounds when they left A&M, and averaged 303 pounds at Fort Worth. He told Henry, “You made over $6,000 for the school.” The oats had stopped up the hogs and made them thirsty, and water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon. And hogs can drink a lot of water when they’re thirsty.
Henry also told me about a fellow he’d known named Suggs, who owned land in West Texas. A lot of land. He was one of the wealthiest ranchers in Texas, but he drove an old, beat up pickup, and dressed like he couldn’t afford to pay attention. You’ve probably known folks like that. Suggs once heard that a bank in Midland had foreclosed on a ranch that bordered his, and went to see the Midland banker about buying it. The banker looked down his nose at Suggs and said, “I doubt you can afford the place. It’s 35 sections.” Suggs said, “I can afford it. I was just going to use it for a horse trap.” Suggs owned about 800 sections at the time. Suggs once drove up to North Dakota in his old pickup to look at some cattle. He met the rancher and looked the herd over, and decided to buy it, over 5,000 head. A deal was struck, and Suggs couldn’t find his checkbook, so he rummaged around in his pickup and found an old brown paper bag. He tore off a piece of it and used it to write out a check for many thousands of dollars. When he handed it to the rancher, the guy scratched his head and said he couldn’t take such a check, he had no idea if it was any good. Suggs suggested he call the bank if he was worried about it. So the guy called the bank, and told the banker he had a check on that bank, and wanted to verify funds. The banker asked who the check was on, and when the guy said it was on Mr. Suggs, the banker said, “It’s good.” The rancher said, “I haven’t told you how much it’s for.” The banker said, “I don’t care how much it’s for.” The rancher said, “But he tore off a piece of a paper sack to write it on.” The banker said, “I don’t care what he wrote it on. We’ll honor it.” And they did. Henry’s been gone a long time now, but he left me lasting memories of something worth far more than money. Not all heroes wear capes. Some of them wear boots, jeans, and hats . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister who is not a hero, but wears jeans anyway. Write to him at [email protected]