This is the first post on my new blog. I’m all about the circus, living my life as a creative artist and how wonderful my life with horses has been. I have many stories to share about my interesting life and have finally begun getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more and let me hear from you. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
My role as a traveling artist took me every winter to a luxury RV resort built out of what was once a dude ranch. Oak hammock shaded campsites lined with tropical flora gave the motorhomes a sense of being in Eden. Hayrides, musicians in the restaurants, airplane fly-ins, added to the boating, fishing and horseback trail rides available every day. The complex was lush with plenty of flowerbeds and the Wild West saloon with a Saturday night rodeo provided flavor for this magical place. Things were hopping.
River Ranch hosted rallies of all types. Because of the hotel, lodge and airport here, fly-ins of aircraft occurred almost every weekend. Beechcraft, Cessna, amphibious aircraft, kit planes and others convened for these gatherings.
Motorhomes rolled in and out constantly during the three-month winter season. The developers This provided me with an endless supply of new customers. During the day, I ran my business and provided all sorts of custom painted options for motorhomes and their owners at this resort. The creation of airbrushed murals of wildlife, patriotic scenes and whimsical art of all types were the most popular. Here I had found a demand for what I love to do.
While making my rounds at River Ranch, I remained diligent about noticing what was going on around me. I made it a point to wave at everyone I saw. When I noticed someone provide more than a friendly response to my gesture, I knew they might have a request I could accomplish with paint.
A couple from Indiana often called out to me to stop by as I motored through their area of the campground. Terry and Doris were here to escape the cold and weren’t necessarily interested in a mural for their class C motorhome but they were friendly, curious and wanted to know more about the interesting person in the VW bus who kept busy all the time all over this place.
When I stopped, they invited me to sit down under their awning and simply sit. Their beaming friendliness demonstrated sincere regard and appreciation for what I was doing. Although they never commissioned a mural from me, their campsite became a regular stop, especially late in the day when we would visit around their campfire. The appearance of their humble motorhome, camping equipment and Terry’s bass boat reflected good care. They loved being here. Terry was here for the fishing. I even went with him on a boat ride or two.
Terry invited me to come see them in Indiana during the summer. Destinations with projects took priority at that time. A year went by and I never did stop to see them. The next winter while we all sat around the campfire at River Ranch, I heard the invitation again.
The next year my busy summer schedule yielded an opportunity that took me close to them. When I did stop at their rural home near Muncie, I found a small horse farm in a stand of hickory trees with their excavation business quartered behind their lovely Bedford Stone home. They had a place waiting for me to park my rig back near the horse barn. When evening came, due to the abundance of sticks under the trees, we had a campfire. This is when I became familiar with their connection to the community.
Terry and Doris operated an excavation company made up of several dump trucks and flatbed trailers needed to move the specialized equipment around using a crew of a men. While I surveyed his operation, I learned the names of the machines that did the work – excavators, back hoes, pans, dozers and a loader. Often times on a Saturday morning, Terry would be in front of his shop washing a dump truck. This demonstrated affection and pride for his equipment. This regard was also evident in all he did and influenced the men who worked for him.
While raising two boys, he became connected to the 4-H community and promoted good horsemanship with all the kids. Still quite active with horses, Terry and Doris made regular trips to a state park with two horses to ride the trails and dry camp in an area with no electricity. While there they enjoyed a campfire, remote nights and skies filled with stars.
I have a fond memory of a time spent with my friend Terry during a horseback ride on his trail riding horses, just the two of us. His property shared a common border with a neighbor, the cartoonist who created the character, Garfield. His neighbor had hundreds of acres and loved wildflowers. We found vast pastures seeded with wildflowers and on one outing, we approached a vast spread of vibrant blossoms that created a sea of yellow about as high as the barrels of our horses.
As we rode through this sea, all that was above the vast spread of color were the heads of our horses and us from the waist up. The expression on my face radiated the wonder of this sight. My friend Terry beamed, also quite pleased with this wonder of nature. Even today, I still think about this special experience Terry shared with me. I see his radiant smile imprinted in my mind as I recall our fun afternoon in this vibrant setting.
Terry was fascinated with my mural creation service. Terry told me I could bring two motorhomes at a time to his place. When I received a request from a couple from Virginia or North Carolina, I had them meet me in Muncie to get the work done. Terry and Doris were sincerely interested in everyone they met and hosted a campfire while they enjoyed my guests at their place.
The time spent at the home of Terry and Doris became an annual respite that resembled going home. My advance planning began to include Muncie because I was welcome to bring motorhomes to their place two at a time. Because I spent weeks at their place, I expanded my involvement in the community. I found out about Toastmasters, the club that promotes good communications and leadership. I found a small group that gathered each week at a cafeteria in the local mall.
By watching the efforts of the members with public speaking and encouraging each other, I began to accumulate a desire to develop my ability with communication. Because of the rigorous pace of travel to rallies, projects or visits to one of the RV plants, it was quite difficult to be a regular attending member. Since Muncie became a regular stop, the members allowed me to participate whenever I was in town. Thanks to them, I gave my Ice Breaker and a few other brief speeches in the midst of this hectic schedule.
A creative mind is creative in all areas. Immersed in the lifestyle I admired as a youth, I combined music, art and later, classic circus horse training. Later, mural making became my primary focus and vocation. Writing and speech making utilized the same creative mindset that produced the endless stream of custom painted masterpieces that appeared on the backs of motorhomes.
While in Michigan I couldn’t resist seeing what was going on at the Elliott Amusement Company. Years ago, as a sign painter in Michigan, I found an interesting outlet for my work at the fairgrounds. I discovered a fun place to work. With several weeks open I headed for the winter quarters.
Upon arrival at the barn, I saw Red had a new ride partially set up in the yard. Delighted to see me, he filled me in on this quest. He had a friend in Europe with a large fabricating company that built exhaust systems for ocean going ships. This same man had a hobby building carnival rides. This man had created a large spoked unit that stood high in the air. When his ride was complete, he asked Red to give it a shake-down on his route.
This ride was plain. It had tubs that actually looked like Fred Flintstones car and this unit was heavy. Red had stories about having to get overload permits and how he became familiar with the overload laws of the states he trucked through. While using this ride Red discovered the tubs created a claustrophobic feeling for the passengers.
Here at the yard Red was busy removing the roof and side pieces from the tubs. He had another idea for a theme and asked me to make it look science fiction. I got busy with my airbrush. The dog-house, or operator’s cubicle, the lower scenery and back-wall scenery soon received a fantastic other-worldly-scape with outer-space garbed figures in various poses.
I collaborated with sign friend Tom Gonder who had a computer and a plotter for making vinyl letters. I composed twelve different space sounding names to place on the underneath side of each tub. He generated these large names out of white vinyl.
During set up prior to the Lenawee County Fair, Tom had the vinyl names ready for installation. While the tubs were in the air, our installation began. We had a challenge installing the letters overhead on the bottom of each tub, but when complete our contribution gave this unique piece some personality.
By this time in my career, the only people in the carnival industry I painted for was Tim Bors and Red Woods who partnered the Elliott Amusement Company. I always made time in my schedule to work for them. The following summer they acquired an office semi from Floyd & Baxter, an early FRP paneled unit. The exterior panels developed a consistent pattern of stress cracks due to some aspect of the resin formula. Tim wanted me to make it look like a party. I enjoyed the challenge.
I began by making a detailed scale drawing of my concept – a large carousel horse flanked by marble pillars with coils of confetti coming down. Tim gushed over my concept. Once my idea was approved, I began drawing my image full size on the semi-trailer.
Using a large brush, I started to cut-in the background to delineate all the features. One at a time each color shape was established. The large horse was depicted using the wet-blended technique. After a week of work the effect was spectacular.
Tim had the ambition to become a show owner and had me design a logo for T&T to initiate his partnership with Tom Arnold. I finished the rear of the trailer with that design.
Soon I responded to yet another request for a mural on a motorhome and headed away from the carnival.
I have the carnival to thank for where I am today. When the bread and butter of the sign business began to erode, due to the computer arriving on the scene, I had my hand with the airbrush. I accidentally discovered a huge market for murals on motor homes. The transition into this new field of endeavor was seamless, thanks to my fairground prerequisite. I soon transitioned to attending motor home rallies where I provided this service to the demographic immersed in the motor home experience.
The following year I heard from my friend Debbie. She called to tell me that Tim had died in his car after going off the road. That was a shock. I painted for Tim since the beginning. I helped him with his ambitions that hinted toward having his own show. That loss affected my being around the carnival because I wouldn’t paint for just anyone.
Later that year Red died prematurely. Red was one of my favorite people of all time. This news also prompted grief. I now had no reason to return to the carnival.
Demand for mural work on motorhomes increased. By this time, I had a regular route between hot-spots of activity, rallies to attend and requests to travel to homes and businesses to create beautiful art.
My life was a blur of custom painted images and a series of intimate touches into the lives of the wonderful people I served. My life was full.
Back in the seventies, the van craze placed custom decorative paintwork in the limelight. That led to spectacular paint jobs on tour busses for country and rock bands. Those busses sported scenes of a Mississippi paddlewheel river boat, a multicolored airbrush version of an album cover or a mountain view with a super-imposed masthead of the band’s name. The movie Smokey and the Bandit made the hand-painted image of a running team of horses pulling a stagecoach famous. In those days the only decorative work on any vehicle was hand painted.
As I drove along the highway in pursuit of the next painting opportunity, I occasionally saw a circus performers rig. I beeped the horn in response to their wave and reminisced the camaraderie that took place when I was part of a group that trouped together, performing in a new town every day.
I evolved thanks to this background. With the skills and the uncanny advantage to be efficient on the road, I embraced the emerging trend among motorhome owners and satisfied their desire to look like touring country stars.
By this time, my travel pattern took me to most of the states east of the Mississippi. I had a formula to keep travel efficient. Between motorhome rallies in various vacation areas and regular stops at the Blue Bird and Fleetwood plants, I filled the time with the requests received to travel to their home to accomplish the work. I waited until I received three requests from one state and, like a circus, planned a tour through that state to accomplish those works in an efficient run. I thrived using the lifestyle learned during tours on a circus. I drove across various parts of the country to accomplish works of art on location. I even visited John Herriott at the Land of Little Horses in Gettysburg where he performed for the summer season.
Michigan remained a regular stop each year because the horse and mule spent the summer there. I still considered Jackson headquarters although I pursued little sign work there. My business had changed since my sign painter days but still I had to handle correspondence responsibilities. My new clientele needed a way to contact me. I utilized a telephone answering service. Getting my mail was another challenge.
There was no procedure available with the Post Office to provide what I needed with this itinerate lifestyle. Postal regulations require the submission of an official change of address. That would create a mess. Since I travel, I never wanted permanent change. Rather than attempt anything at the giant post office in Jackson, I took my quandary to where one person ran the little post office in Clarklake.
I personally enrolled her to my situation. This wonderful lady understood. We created a solution. We adopted a procedure where I called in occasionally with a request to have mail forwarded to a specific location. She used the petty cash I left with her for that purpose. Her willingness helped with the success I enjoyed during those nine years on the road. I could never have accomplished so much without her.
Years later I was delighted to see her and her husband retired and camping in their motor home in south Florida
The principles of balance with the horse, although started by previous instructors, were further imprinted into my manner of being by my gentle teacher Dorita Konyot. Through her courage and tutelage many principles were revealed, some discarded and others developed into artful finesse with the horse. All along the way due to our mutual diligence, dedication and regard for the discipline, we became close friends.
During this growing intimacy, she welcomed personal aspects of what was happening in my life and career. I responded to her encouragement. I began to explain I had discovered an interesting parallel as the result of supporting my aspiration to become a great horseman with the means available to me as a sign and mural painter. Piqued, my friend invited me to continue. She listened intently.
I went on to explain. As I accumulated a command of the artform and various aspects of horsemanship – the development of finess with all parts of my body and the maintenance of the attitude that translated into harmony with my surroundings and especially with my equine partner – the developing finesse showed up in my artwork. I had begun to notice that one art-form complimented the other.
As I centered the focus of my horsemanship aspirations on achieving balance, attention to detail and finding a new ease and delicacy, these goals also showed up in the paintings and murals created on motorhomes. As I let go of the preconceived need to control the animal and embraced the concept of harmony and connection with the horse. Those aspects also became a subtle part of each hand-painted masterpiece.
At one time, I painted solely to get by until the next circus season commenced. The ability to travel learned with the circus was a big key to the success I had found. Mural projects took place nationwide. During the years I knew Dorita, demand for airbrushed murals on motorhomes increased exponentially. Mural painting provided the ability to excel with my passion. A dramatic shift occurred.
I still traveled with my horses, but now my entourage went north in the summer and south in the winter so I could be in the proximity of motorhome gatherings. As the resident artist at River Ranch during the winter, I had the perfect place to blend these two objects of my affection. I was a motorhome artist by day and a horseback performer at the Saturday night rodeo.
My two interests, horsemanship and artwork, seemed to complement each other. As serious progress in one genre occurred, a breakthrough showed up in the other. Over the years Dorita influenced me with her particular brand of wisdom and I excelled. Change was inevitable. With her help both fields experienced dramatic upheavals.
As I rattled on to my dear friend about options and dreams with various examples, my friend noticed my run-away thinking and did her best to pull me back.
Dorita calmly encouraged me to trust the process. Performing for performing’s sake is something I love. I remain eager to show off the ability and proficiency of my horse, now in his prime. Perhaps performing at the horse shows would have a double benefit as a perfect place to also showcase my talents as an artist to horse people.
As Dorita contently listened to the tug of war that seemed to be going on in my brain and heart, she casually reached out with a delicate yet masterful aged hand and flicked off the lengthy ash that had accumulated on her cigarette and summed it all up with just a few words.
“It sounds like you have two saddles and just one butt.”
As a child, my life’s destiny seemed apparent. Prolific and gifted from the start, I saw the world around me differently. During the springtime of my life the circus made her indelible impression. I knew what I wanted to do. At sixteen I played the drums in the circus band, painted images on the trucks and dreamt of performing.
The years went by. I began to learn circus horsemanship from the old-timers. I started with ponies. I absorbed the discipline of liberty training while my six-pony act developed. I performed with my wonderful group of six palominos and that became my primary livelihood. That and sign painting became the perfect small business for me. Incidentally, the ponies were really what made me such a good painter, because when we weren’t working, they kept right on eating. Sign painting was the perfect trade to use anyplace, during my time off.
Next, I began to learn the tricks of the Ménage on my first horse, a quarter horse. He would kneel, bow, lay-down, sit-up and march as part of his repertoire. Sign painting and circus horsemanship continued.
Later, I was introduced to another training specialty known as Haute E’cole, or a horse schooled to the highest level. This was commonly referred to as a high school horsemanship.
My choice of mounts became the American Saddlebred. During the eighties, I performed with an elegant mare named Class n Sass who danced her way into hearts during circus performances from California to New England. One highlight, the result of a special invitation to Dallas, was to perform for the society of Saddlebred aficionados at the Big D Saddle Horse Show.
My next horse, a 16.2 Saddlebred gelding “Souveran” as an eight-year-old, won first place at the Sarasota Int’l Circus Festival and Talent Competition. He was also featured in the American Saddlebred Association Versatility Issue of 1992. My passion continued. I still aspired to shine.
With the advent of the computer, the onetime exclusive realm of the artisan was invaded. I was fortunate to find a niche for hand-painted work on motorhomes. Also affected were jobs with the circus, not so much by the computer but by a combination of foreign talent competition, the influence of animal activists and the decline in attendance by the children of today who are satisfied with electronic diversions.
In the middle of my life, I had the opportunity to meet and work with a very special and influential woman Dorita Konyot. I actually felt Dorita’s influence long before I ever met her. The hands of her family had influenced horsemanship all across this land including the riding instructors I had worked with.
When I first arrived at her farm, the result of being referred by John Herriott, I asked her to watch me ride. I saddled up my gelding and demonstrated his many movements. I showed her his high steps, the bow and the stretch I had taught him. Soon thereafter Dorita Konyot accepted me as her student. For several years she provided private lessons between my tours. The result became our close connection.
Although her eyesight grew dim and lengthy sessions taxed her, she still had plenty to teach. As Dorita and I became close, she revealed something startling to an enthusiastic yet conceited horseman. She gave me a review of our history.
Her comments that first day, although designed to be helpful and kind promoted an arrogant resistance as evidenced by my response. She later confided that she almost threw me off her farm that day. But for one reason or another she took me under her wing.
As the years went by, she recognized an opportunity to introduce me to myself. She now added a lesson on how the ego will trip us up. She went on to explain the function of the ego. The ego scans our surroundings, experiences, statements, concepts, beliefs and even thoughts with a single motive – to find out that is it is right.
That means the ego driven person is not open to new information. It is only through humility that we allow new information in. That means the arrogant student will not benefit from teachings taking place. Only when a mind is empty will benefit be realized. Dorita carefully handled this subject and made me realize how gifted she was as a teacher, philosopher and a good friend.
The Branding Iron Lodge had enough good old country themed personality to make any evening worthwhile. The rough sawn plank floor creaked as you walked across. A large stone fireplace in the central foyer rose thirty feet with a moose head hanging high, staring right at you. Old oak barrels served as end tables in the sitting area around the hearth. The entrance to the restaurant had a faux porch roof over the doorway flanked by pitchforks with lanterns hanging from them.
Inside at the bar, real western saddles served as bar stools. The outside walls of the dining area had picture windows that open out to the beautifully landscaped oak hammock outside. On Saturday night, an incredible seafood buffet (that the fish died for) was a popular attraction. So popular that on this night, like many others, I had to stand in line to wait for a seat.
While I stood in the crowded entrance behind two women and a gentleman, I overheard some good old country charm, sweeter than any tea, coming from one member of the trio. They were in an age group not usually involved with RVs. As I listened to the verbal allure that bubbled forth, the hostess in charge of seating made an assumption.
“Group of four?”
“Well no…,” the cute blonde with bouncy bobbed hair caught herself mid-sentence, and turned to me, “Would you like to join us?”
Complimented, I discarded my plan to dine alone and jumped at the opportunity to be the missing component of two happy couples in the busy restaurant.
Soon we sat behind formal settings on a linen covered table with crystal-clear glasses and a vase of flowers. Our conversation moved through introductions, occupations and an apropos interruption: we all rose to go to the buffet. Back at our table we resumed our conversation between return trips for seafood.
I found out that my new friends lived in nearby Sebring. They were a scouting party in search of a great place for their singles group to have an outing. These three had been sent to find what River Ranch had to offer. As the resident artist, I was able to provide them a primer about this place. As I became more acquainted with the beaming personality of the woman who invited me to join them, I found growing admiration for Sandra.
Our sumptuous meal concluded with a delicate dessert. While I savored mine, I found my new friends were not in a hurry to leave. After dinner, I took them on a walk to share the visual sensation of the lush scenery outside. As we walked, I discovered Sandra was similarly attracted to me.
Our walk threaded through the quaint board sidewalks around the little village stores and back behind the main hotel. Since this was Saturday night, I guided them towards the saloon. As we got closer, we heard the crowd at the rodeo roar at some unseen occurrence.
We went up the steps and through the classic set of swinging doors and found the vast dance floor. One side had the long bar with mirrors behind the bottles and a central painting of a reclined nude. On the opposite side, the vast seating area was filled with round tables and rugged chairs. We found a table halfway up. The cowboy band blared out their versions of old and current country songs.
By this time, I had my place as a participating line dancer. After a minimum of observing and sitting, I took Sandra with me to the dance floor. The next thing I knew we were side by side moving, laughing and dancing to the Electric Slide.
Art was on the floor too. I introduced him to my new friends. By watching him, we were able to imitate the Boot Scoot Boogie and the Tush Push. A two-step song I recognized came on later and I took Sandra by the hand. We joined the parade of couples dancing around the floor. As we twirled, moved and stepped again, our mutual smiling convinced me we were growing fonder of each other by the minute. Later, the Cotton-Eyed Joe came on and we joined the stomping and kicking crowd with our vigorous rendition of that dance sequence.
Our evening was over all too soon. We had fun. I wanted to do it again and so did Sandra. We made a tentative promise. I walked my new friends back to their car and assured her I would call. After watching them drive away, I turned to walk home.
I walked back to my campsite with the vision of my new friend reeling in my mind. Before bed, I went to the hot tub to soak. Immersed in the warmth, I became thankful for the happenstance meeting. In the midst of the turbulence of my life that included positive change, I discovered hope. The advent of love had arrived. After a full evening of fun, regard and discovery, I nodded off with the vision of her radiant presence forefront in my mind.
One of my high-end coach customers left for a few weeks’ vacation and let me use his fancy Phase Two campsite while he was gone. There, I parked my horse trailer next to his large deck with patio furniture, party lights and a burning pit. This became the perfect place to share a weekend with my new friend.
Sandra was short, fit and active. Her little white dog came with her for our first weekend together. While I finished up after my busy day, Sandra made herself at home unwinding after her busy week. She interacted with many pleasant folks who walked past our site while she set the table for our evening together. Her personality was best described as bouncy. We had no trouble blending into a laughing couple as we took in the many options for our evening that exist here at the ranch.
Sandra became my regular guest. I admired her deliberate efforts with patio dining and our camping out experiences. Each time she came I found more to admire. She had the gift of being able to see the wonder around her. She bubbled with joy as she set our table, prepared the salad and served the sustenance prepared. I especially enjoyed seeing the bright reflection of candlelight in her eyes. Sometimes we simply enjoyed our meal together and other times she rose to fill the role of hostess as we entertained another couple.
Sandra had been encouraged by her boss with a housing development company to make a good impression by driving a Lincoln. Her role during sales and customer relations processes were to handle the myriad details with the steady stream of new homes being offered to the buyers who streamed into her Sebring office.
Sandra was raised in the south and had the thick accent that sometimes added an extra syllable in the middle of a word. Grits became Gur-ree-yuts. When she lifted her little dog up to her face for some affection, the sequence of sweet, silly rhetoric, altered by both her country drawl and an increase of an entire octave became almost unintelligible, although the love between them was clear. The little dog responded with relentless wiggling and licking. I relished the emotion that filled me. I had found a companion, an oasis in a desert of creativity and completion with this similarly minded woman.
We began seeing one another regularly and included other activities beyond the ranch in our routine. Occasionally I made the drive to her home. She lived in a tidy block house in a subdivision near Sebring filled with row after row of similar structures. I found the stepping stone pathway that led to the front door. After I rang the bell, the door opened and Sandra flew into my arms and kissed me. The little dog yipped and ran in circles while she tugged on my hand to follow her into the kitchen. The interior of her tidy home sported tangible evidence of her bouncy personality with flamboyant posters, inspirational pictures and mementos of special trips peppered throughout the comfortable interior.
I settled in the adjoining dining room where we would chat as she handled the final preparations. The little dog jumped in my lap.
As she busied herself, I heard about her day at the office. She explained some of the procedures she accomplished and added anecdotes of interesting occurrences. Then she asked me about my day, how my friends she had met were doing and about the latest murals underway at the ranch.
Our lives appeared to be going in the direction of committed permanence. When the winter season was over, my attention resumed the direction that took me away. Back in Sarasota I continued horsemanship aspirations with Dorita. Sandra came to visit, observe and enjoy these ambitions. When the time came for me to move north and begin my route of motorhome rallies, our regular coupling experienced the first interruption.
We stayed in touch. She began to help her brother launch his small business using her skills as an entrepreneur. I savored the image of her in my mind as I motored between projects along my route of regular stops, new rally destinations and requests to travel to individual homes to accomplish custom works of art on motorhomes.
After my long season, my route concluded back in Sarasota and we were reunited at the horse farm of my mentor once again. With the holidays coming we had yet another time to cement our regard and combine traditional functions that included church.
While I watched Sandra in the midst of my circus friends, my observations became tainted. My show business colleagues shared their observation of her being different. This began to erode my regard. I began to think in terms of qualities useful on this rigorous path I had chosen. I soon became obsessed with what was missing instead of appreciating the abundance of what existed.
When the winter season at River Ranch resumed, Sandra and I resumed our rhythm of being a couple. We became as inseparable as our routines would permit.
The winter season became another productive time of creation but as the end loomed, my mind began to think in terms of how my itinerate lifestyle would take me away. I wanted more for her. I suppose I made my love for her wrong and began to see myself as a threat to her contemporary inclinations. Deluded, I let these bizarre thoughts influence my perception of the future. Without the ability to see how we could merge; I became cold towards my loving companion.
I took the selfish stance of seeing only how our exchange was imperfect. My mentality took another delusional twist. I began to think in terms of how others saw us. I began to fear what others thought. As this process infected my perception, this wonderful woman became bewildered at the distance she received. As an invisible force drew me back into my role on the road, I began to only think in terms of uncomplicating things.
Although wildly successful as a professional, I had a social reluctance unknown to me at that time. Adolescent disturbances had imprinted my personality as a child. My vison was tainted. I only saw imperfection with connection with others.
I remembered a memoire I read in school about a showgirl on the Ringling Bros Circus years ago. She found romance with one of the other performers. Their romance ended when the route of the circus ended. Now the premise ‘I love you but the season is over’ seemed rational. I did not possess the ability to see that our union was more special than my vocation or see that Sandra had the staying power with my unusual situation.
My twisted perception may have included wanting the best for her while I made my plans to hit the road again. The avalanche of distance left my loving companion confused. I was about to do something that became perhaps the biggest regret of my life. At the end of the winter season, she confronted me about my mysterious behavior. My response only dropped her farther into an abysmal depth. Cold and unfeeling, blind to my warped mentality, I turned to this wonderful woman and said, “you’d best let go.”
I received a phone call from a custom builder called Cabriolet near Elkhart who wanted an airbrushed scene on one of their RV haulers. When I went to their shop near Constantine, Michigan I found a small company that assembled luxury sleeper compartments on a series of new truck cab and chassis.
After meeting with the boss, I was shown the unit to paint. The partially completed truck was to receive a mural of an eagle across the back. After putting my van in the proximity of the project I tapped into their compressed air. I got to work.
Midafternoon, the crew wound down. One by one they clocked out and went home. I still worked. The boss wanted to go home too. He requested that I turn off the lights and lock the door behind me when I was done. Then I was alone in the shop. I thought this was odd. I finished my project, closed up behind me and went on my way.
Cabriolet began to call me twice a year to create more custom artwork on the units they built for fifth-wheel RVers. They had plenty of room for my rig in their parking lot so this became a regular stop. Cabriolet even had a rally I was invited to. When I attended this get together, I met other couples who wanted my artistic product on their fancy units.
I stayed in touch with my parents throughout all these adventures. My dad was excited with how my career was evolving. He lived vicariously through me. During one of our conversations I learned about a challenge he was going through. My dad had been misdiagnosed a few years before. Now the cancer they didn’t catch had spread throughout his colon. Surgery revealed it was too late.
He chose to live his final days at home. A hospital bed was set up in the living room and caretakers arrived each day to keep him comfortable.
While I worked on another RV project, I received a phone call from hospice. “You’d better come now to see your dad.”
I finished the work that was pressing and drove to the Ozarks. I arrived at my parents’ home. It was bittersweet. My mother was glad to see me. I saw my dad in constant pain and that scared me. I couldn’t sit still and simply be with him. I made myself busy around the place.
An area outside where the rooflines of two garages met had been a problem designing a rainwater drainage receptor. I got busy. After situating a steel tub underground, I arranged large cut blocks of stone into functional positions to finish off the area. When I did report this progress in the house, my dad appreciated that I had solved this challenge. He wanted to see what I had done. With John’s help, my dad made it out of his bed and slowly walked outside of the house and over to see the accomplishment for himself. He was proud of me yet suffering from the internal pain of the cancer that ravished his body.
While I spent time with mother, father and my brother, I received another phone call. I had a request to design some stunning mural work for a Cabriolet owner from Louisiana. He wanted to feature paintings of his Boston bulldogs and several icons from the Cajun state on the truck he was having built. After receiving that phone call, I grabbed a sketch book and began to design the arrangement of all the items he wanted in his painting. I found safety in my work knowing dad was proud of me also.
While I experienced an emotional tug of war at the brink of losing my dad, a market for my work was opening up for me. Finally, I had to go. Duty called. Filled with sorrow and grief for my father I loved, I headed down the driveway to make the return trip to the Midwest to resume custom painting. That was the last time I saw my dad. I was grateful that our relationship had progressed from the frustrating foundation during childhood and into the healing portion that recovery had provided and we had become best friends. I found the love that I was created to reflect.
Between painting gigs, I used every bit of my spare time to compliment the mural making process. I needed reference for these projects. In an effort to be ready with the right stuff, I subscribed to several magazines filled with pictures of wildlife and nature pictures, Indian scenes, horses, scenic landscapes and an illustrator’s chronicle. While sitting in a restaurant between towns, I gleaned resource pictures from magazines.
While I waited for my meal, I flipped through the pages of these magazines. When I found a stunning picture, I ripped the page out of the magazine and placed it in a pile to file away later. My filing system was a box of folders with various categories – birds – animals – fish – Indians etc. subcategories included – eagles – song birds – horses – elephants – mountain ranges – wolves – skyscapes – oceans – etc.
Many times, a commissioned project required up to three different reference pictures. One for the sky, another for a mountain range and of course reference for the central focus of the mural, most times an eagle.
Although my life was solitary, inclusion in the many lives touched along the way made exposure to richness of people quite satisfactory. Add to that, I enjoyed my horseman friends in both Michigan and Florida, the AA fellowship I found at each town, the friends at regular stops at RV plants, rallies and of course River Ranch.
Those familiar faces and friendly folks along the way became my family. I had found my calling on the road and responded to the huge demand by Ma & Pa USA. With it came satisfaction while I made my customers happy. Word got around. My life was full. Things were about to change.
I was in Decatur, Indiana with two motorhome mural projects underway when I received a phone call. My father had passed away. I was immediately filled with a sadness that brought tears to my eyes. I shifted into high gear and completed the two eagle images in record time. I then arranged to leave the rig in Indiana and drove to Arkansas post haste.
Upon arrival in Sulphur Springs I embraced my mother. She was glad to see me. My brother lived in the guest apartment and had been there throughout the long illness. He was there and held my father’s hand as he passed away.
My sister and her husband arrived with their two boys. Little Michael and David adored me.
As a tyke little David made an observation, “You’re the most fun uncle I have.”
From that day on I became known as funcle Dave.
We were all there in that sad situation. The boys shifted from sit in the car mode on their long trip to grandfather’s house when they realized the severity of this situation. When they realized that their grandfather had died, they too were at the verge of tears. Their dad, stoic and stern, confronted his boys.
“Don’t cry,” he commanded as he shook them.
Both boys left his proximity and came to my side. They were sad. We held hands and cried. Their grandfather, a well-spring of fun in their lives was gone.
My father’s funeral service was lightly attended. By this time the Shiloh community had dwindled to about a dozen. Mother created the musical portion of the service and my brother emceed. His background with Toastmasters came in handy. He handled the agenda and spoke fluently his knowledge of our father.
John mentioned his contribution in the Army Air Corps during WWII and his career in the ministry. His testimony flowed to become one of great honor and a loving testament to this fine man. When John moved into the accomplishments of our father’s recent life, he started to weep as his talk continued. In spite of my brother being a source of frustration in my life, it was clear that John loved his father.
I too had a seething blend of confused emotions as I reviewed my history with dad. He was my hero but was also a source of frustration. He was perfectionistic and difficult to please as a child. I felt lost. I became a rebellious teen and launched myself in to the creation of a solution.
After going it alone with my ambitions my dad realized I was having fun and joined me to have the time of his life. Our experience changed. My dad became an ally and provided a hand when I needed one. With sobriety came a new way to connect and we became close friends. Now at the brink of a huge market for my skills, I had news to share with my dad but he was gone.
The service ended. Family members then received condolences from the community. These were all of dad’s friends. A pause occurred.
My sister Paula confided something to me.
“While listening to all those things about him,” she began, “I started to feel sad.”
“So, the whole time I kept telling myself over and over: I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry.”
Paula missed knowing a wonderful man. She had a history of fighting with him that never graduated to a level of connection. Whatever it was that she wouldn’t let go of interfered with her ability to enjoy the father who loved her.
This was not a surprise. My sister shut her feelings off long ago. Then she married Chris who had to be in control at all times. He brought a new form of discord to the family. I felt sorry for her. In my grief, I saw clearly how her contempt for her father and the relentless production of belligerence short-circuited her flow of health.
During my life, I fought conformity but I learned from the pain of my belligerence. In sobriety, at my bottom, I opened myself up to receive God’s grace and love. I learned in AA long ago that part of finding my true self required allowing myself to feel my feelings and not make them wrong. We were made to feel these God given emotions. There was a reason we have them.
In this situation, the death of a parent, a deep sense of loss was normal and a desirable part of emotional health. I learned it was okay to feel. I wept the loss of my true love. Here among community friends and my nephews I cried freely while Chris and Paula maintained their rigid emotional flat line.
Now I reviewed the series of life lessons – both good and bad – that resulted in my dad becoming my friend. At one time, while I confided to him about an obstacle that wouldn’t let me get past the frustration of childhood and the recognition of the value of coming to peace with the dad of my childhood, he responded with “I had to go through that same thing with my dad.”
The episodes we grow through occur for our greatest good. Obstacles provide growth. I look back and see frustration was part of what it took for me to grow into the man God intended. As I stay out of the obsession with what I didn’t get, I appreciate more of what I have.
Going up and down the highway remained constant in my life. Starting as part of a circus troupe, I learned to make one-day-stands. I learned travel skills as a teen. These skills gave me an advantage when I discovered this huge market for my artwork. Even though I was still going up and down the road providing artistic services for an audience of RV folks, in comparison to my initial experience, I was quite solitary.
While chasing high-end paintwork on motorhomes traversing the country, when I saw a circus performer’s rig on the highway, I waved. I was happy to see them. A few miles later, I became lonely. I missed the regular rhythm of traveling with the troupe and the connection that grew between the personnel while the season was underway.
I developed an efficient manner of completing several projects in a limited time span at a rally. I also made notes about the proximity of spill-over work requested by RVers in other areas. Like dominos falling over, all my efforts produced results. The completed murals on the backs of motorhomes crisscrossed the country and attracted comments wherever they went. Proud owners tossed my name around. The people entering coach ownership asked about the murals. Word in the RV industry spread. Letterfly became a buzz word between RV folks who sought to add a personal touch to their motorhome. I received a steady stream of requests that required travel. Travel to create more works of wonder.
I had regular stops to accomplish these works such as the Fleetwood plant and the Bird’s Nest in Georgia. The time between was filled with rallies and travel to client’s homes to accomplish the work. During the years that passed between being a sign man in Jackson and the big opportunity on the horizon, I was on the road for nine solid years. The only lengthy respite was my three-month engagement at River Ranch each winter. The remaining months were an endless routine of up and down, the routine learned on the circus as a teen – go to the new town, set up and create. When the job was complete, load out and repeat.
Each morning amidst the transparent stemware and linen napkins in the Branding Iron dining room, residents gather for breakfast and conversation. The picture windows reveal flowers and bushes amidst trees with their intimate canopy. Sounds of laughter interrupt the usual breakfast clinking and casual conversation due to the entertainment going on. No, it wasn’t something Sammy Davis said or the demeanor of Dean Martin in this place that stimulated the joviality, rather an acrobatic squirrel who willingly risked death by climbing on a crafted wooden arm that, with his additional weight, revolved rendering the furry passenger upside down. The squirrel was willing to endure that humiliation due to the cob of corn affixed to the arm he climbed. Once he assumed this inverted position he remained for a meal.
Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford weren’t here either. The infamous rat pack I refer to was made up of the fearsome foursome of bachelors who resided at this luxury Dude Ranch of an RV Resort out in the middle of the Florida wilderness known as River Ranch, a popular destination and winter home for camping couples.
This rat pack was perhaps even more diverse and talented than the original. We were made up of the quartet of marketing mastermind and musician Robert Maxwell Case, Retired IBM executive manager and all-around nice guy Art Burch, steel fabrication and engineering genius Gene Malick and myself, Dave “Letterfly” Knoderer the mural painting and performing horse guy. During the nine winters I spent at River Ranch, from 1986-1995, this group remained intact and inseparable.
The morning get-togethers were intensely stimulating. Each personality brought passion for an individual obsession, the range of which at the table made the scope of conversation especially diverse. Robert the computer programmer had a variety of projects underway at all times. His background was with Kodak in Rochester in marketing and management.
Robert was helpful with my early marketing attempts. He explained in detail how the consumer responded to advertising and how associations are formed in regard to quality in an industry. His expertise in this field influenced me as I began to establish the name Letterfly in the RV industry. I was a good student.
Robert would edit, suggest improvements and even typeset my early ads. The strategies learned were effective as Letterfly became known as number one among the mural artists in the RV community.
Gene, recently retired, was here to relax and fly his Navion trainer. He had completed a successful career putting up prefabricated steel buildings and later, towers for the emerging communications field. He told colorful tales about his ability to get a tower erected over a weekend using clever but not so kosher erection methods to elude officials with regulations and bureaucracy.
He was valuable to his customers with this ability to get in and get out. That characteristic carried over into these early morning yak sessions. After an hour, he was ready to get up from the table and go.
Now he likes to fly his antique aircraft – the same plane used to teach young pilots and actually used as spotter planes in Korea. Gene savored the thrill of freedom that came with altitude from an era and a craft that many heroes flew to victory, insuring ours.
Art Burch was here too, very popular with the residents as instructor of line dancing at the weekly exercise sessions. Over breakfast, my sidekick and I went over the mural projects both planned and underway.
There we were, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the quartet of bachelors at the dude ranch. All for one and one for all. This rat pack brought an air of mystery, a note of color and a splash of intrigue. All the elements combined to elevate each one of us higher than, as individuals, we could accomplish alone.
Sitting behind a music stand with lights on it to illuminate his smiling face, Robert Maxwell Case made his living singing songs reminiscent of the old west while playing his guitar. He sat on a stool in the corner of the dining room at the dude ranch. He sang and strummed old popular favorites to provide atmosphere during the dinner hour at the Branding Iron Restaurant. His plaid long sleeved western shirt always had the collar buttoned but no tie. Among the tunes popular with diners were ballads, at which he was especially good.
Robert’s demeanor can best be described as being like the playful otter. Whoever he was with at the time had his complete attention. Love was obvious, reflected in his eyes and apparent in his smile. Long stylish hair and beard were identifying marks.
A brilliant man with a marketing degree, during his spare time he was immersed in creating a computer program for keeping track of entertainers, theatre show times and events in Branson, Missouri, where he worked during the summer months. Also, in the works was a program he marketed to Microsoft to randomly place dots in various concentrations to create half tones, previously done with screens which produced a gray with the use of regularly placed dots. This entertaining personality had an impact on my life as the years went by and our friendship grew.