I’m still on Facebook. Shouldn’t be after I made a commitment to leave and even wrote an op-ed about it five months ago, but yet I linger — although I’ve had little time to spend keeping up with everyone. I really will be leaving. It’s just a matter of time. How long, I don’t know.
After a week of the fates swirling around me just a bit, I’m still here in the flesh, too.
Let me explain what I mean. And since you know me, you know it’ll take a while.
A week ago Friday, I made a 10-hour driving trip from Arlington to glorious Santa Fe, New Mexico. The last, and only, time I’d been there was in September 1995, when Kay and I drove up for our first anniversary.
This time, it wasn’t for such a happy occasion. But it was for a loving, memorable celebration, of someone whose life ended tragically early. My friend and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News colleague Jon Ehret (wife of Laura, another friend and colleague at both papers), just 55, died of a heart attack last August while engaged in one of the many activities he loved and was exceptional at — handling a peregrine falcon named Olympia as a volunteer at the New Mexico Wildlife Center in Española.
I want to talk more — much more — about Jon and my special trip and some of the wonderful people I was blessed to spend time with. But first, the weirdness, the near-misses, the man-am-I-lucky-ness of it all.
On Sunday, the day after Jon’s special celebration and before driving to Albuquerque for a delicious dinner and engaging conversation with Katy and Steve Scott, awesome folks and former DMN‘ers, I spent a few hours hiking at Bandelier National Monument. It’s a very cool place northwest of Santa Fe with numerous hiking trails, breathtaking views of mountains and rock formations, many of which include cliffside dwellings that Native Americans lived in hundreds of years ago, along with petroglyphs that an older couple and I tried to decipher (aliens, we wondered about some?). I took dozens of photos because when you see natural beauty you’re not used to seeing, that’s what you do.
After getting to the end of one stretch of trail that featured lots of those cliffside homes (one of which I climbed up a wooden ladder into), I had a choice of continuing down another path toward something called the Alcove House. I didn’t know what it was, but it was only a half-mile down, so I decided it was worth checking out.
I reached the end of the trail and saw that it was a large opening high on the side of the cliffs. I finally found information on my map explaining that it had been home to 25 ancestral Pueblo people and that it sits 140 feet above Frijoles Canyon. To reach it, tourists must climb a series of four wooden ladders and stone steps.
Sitting on a bench and eating a snack, I watched other folks young and old (although not many) go up to the Alcove House and back down. I asked a couple and their young son how it was and whether it was worth it. They assured me it was. The boy said it was harder coming down, and his mom said the longest of the ladders was 25 rungs or so. Just don’t look down, she said. I smiled, of course.
So after what must’ve been 15 minutes, I decided to take the plunge — or whatever the equivalent of climbing several ladders up a cliff would be. I figured hey, I’m 61, but I can handle this! I was carrying a small bag on my shoulder with water, my empty snack package, the map and a couple of other guides I’d picked up at the visitor’s center.
None of the ladders were really that difficult to climb. The second was definitely the longest, and while I was on it, I decided mid-climb to move the bag off my shoulder and put it around my neck because it kept swinging in front of me as I went up.
By the time I made it up to the Alcove House, I was definitely winded. There wasn’t that much to see, but just the thought that between the 1100s and 1500s, families were living in this place made it worth seeing and standing in. Off to one side of the old house was a “Kiva,” a covered pit that was used as a ceremonial chamber for religious activities, as well as for education and decision-making, and was the community’s heart and center. (Kivas are still used in pueblos today. I’d seen one earlier on the first part of the trail.)
After about 10 minutes or so and taking some photos and video, I decided to climb back down. There had been one young couple up there with me, and then a father and his young daughter followed. As I was going down the ladders, they got on above me, which I didn’t think was a good idea — one at a time seemed to me the best approach.
While I was in the Alcove House, I had seen and taken a photo of a sign that said:
DO NOT GO BEYOND
That makes what I’m about to say even more chilling.
On Thursday morning, Cathy Barber, a dear Aggie college friend who’s lived in Santa Fe since the year after retiring as the longtime DMN food editor in 2015, sent me a text.
“This is your news flash for the day. A woman died Wednesday at Bandelier. She was going up one of the ladders and some big rocks — big ones, I assume — came flying down from above and hit her. They called rescue from Los Alamos, but she died in the carrier before they got her down. Just that fast.”
The poor tourist was climbing the very same ladders I’d been on just three days earlier. She was 54 years old and from Illinois. After being hit by the rocks, she fell about 25 feet. She was on the second of the four ladders.
Alcove House is now closed while the accident is investigated. I have a feeling it won’t reopen for a long while.
It chills me to think that I had been right there, taking the same careful steps she was taking, blissfully unaware of the possibility of rocks falling on me. There had been snow Monday and Tuesday nights (I had left for home Monday morning), and it’s possible moisture loosened the rocks. It probably wasn’t a good day to be out there.
But whatever happened, it’s a tragedy — and I feel like I avoided one.
On my way home, I missed another disaster.
Monday morning, I was thrilled to have breakfast with Johnny Boggs, my friend and old Star-Telegram sports copy desk colleague. We worked together from 1992 to ’93, and then again from 1995 to ’97 (in between, I’d moved to the news copy desk for a couple of years) before JB left the paper — and the newspaper business entirely — in ’98. He and wife Lisa moved to Santa Fe, had a son, Jack, in 2002 and now that kid’s a sophomore at the University of New Mexico.
And oh: Johnny became a prolific, award-winning author of Western novels. When we met for breakfast at the Pantry Restaurant, a short walk from my hotel — a cheap, white adobe-themed, kitschy motor court on Cerrillos Road called Cottonwood Court — I asked if he was up to 45 books or so now. “Sixty,” he said as I did a wide-eyed double take.
After we caught up for an hour and ate a delicious breakfast, I checked out of the Cottonwood and hit the road at 9:30 Mountain time (10:30 Central). Although I was anxious to make good time because of the lost time-difference hour, I wanted to allow for any fun stops along the way. I decided to get off I-40 in Tucumcari, N.M., and pulled onto the historic old Route 66. I took some photos, stopped in at Tepee Curios (which I learned got its start as a Gulf station in 1942) and bought a couple of gifts — including a great find, a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll that I knew Kay would love.
Along the way home, I ran into a good bit of rain, including one gullywasher. By the time I was getting into NW and North Texas, I was seeing a line of scary-black clouds ahead. At one point I looked at my phone and saw there was a tornado watch for several counties, including ours, Tarrant. I talked to Kay a bit later and she said a line of storms was coming toward Arlington, but the tornado threat was low.
I ended up getting home about 8:30. It was great seeing my family, and a little bit after a dinner of hamburgers, Kay and I sat down to watch the 10 o’clock news. There, we saw what we had no idea had happened: Tornadoes had hit Jacksboro (northwest of Fort Worth) and Bowie (northeast of Jacksboro) a few hours earlier. Other areas of Texas, including the central part of the state, had also been struck by twisters.
So here’s where my other near-miss comes in: I drove through Bowie along U.S. Highway 287 a little over two hours after it was hit by, as it turns out, not one tornado but two. Monday night, the news reported one, but the National Weather Service confirmed the next day that two EF1 twisters had struck Bowie, while the strongest, an EF3, had hit Jacksboro.
So if I hadn’t taken an hour for breakfast with Johnny, hadn’t stopped in Tucumcari for a while, hadn’t made 3 other stops to get out and walk around, take a pit stop, get gas, buy water, who knows if I might’ve hit Bowie right around the time those tornadoes were blowing through?
I’d rather not think about it. I’d rather just thank the dear Lord that there were no falling rocks at Bandelier the day I was climbing those ladders and that the tornadoes had moved on by the time I drove through Bowie on my way home.
Thank you, God.
When I arrived in Santa Fe last Friday evening and checked into the Cottonwood, I was thrilled with the not-so-certain choice I’d made. The room was tiny, there was little light, the window unit was loud (but I slept mostly soundly for three nights), there was no outlet in the bathroom for shaving, and the shower pressure was atrocious. But somehow, it was still perfect for me.
I went to dinner at Atrisco Cafe & Bar with my DMN friend and copy desk colleague John Lose, who’d flown in from Dallas earlier in the day, and with Cathy, the former DMN/college friend I mentioned earlier. I’d texted them that afternoon about what a blast it would be for three Aggies to go to dinner together, and they seemed to have agreed.
It was such a thrill seeing Cathy, who’s been living in Santa Fe with her husband, Dan. She has been his caretaker for years, as he’s braved MS since a diagnosis in 2001. Sadly, Dan passed away last October.
But Cathy also waged a health battle of her own most of last year. A year ago last Sunday, she was driving Dan and herself to get COVID-19 shots when Cathy blacked out and crashed the car. She ended up being in a coma for weeks, diagnosed with a brain tumor (a benign meningioma) that nearly took her life. She was in the hospital and rehab until September, and after that went through 30 radiation treatments while also dealing with Dan’s death. To say 2021 was a shitty year for Cathy would be missing the bull’s-eye by a hundred miles.
I am so damn proud of Cathy, and I told her so on the phone a few hours after we saw each other at Jon’s celebration of life. Getting from where she was when the tumor threw her life into utter uncertainty and chaos, not knowing whether she’d be able to talk, walk, drive, smile, laugh, cook, share her charming wit, write beautifully — do anything like she used to — to where she is now has been nothing short of a miracle. I have no doubt her courage, stamina and will (although I’m sure her doctors and therapists helped) have been the biggest factors.
One thing I know: After not having had a lot of contact in recent years, I’m not losing touch with Cat again.
I arrived way too early for Jon Ehret’s celebration. Not trusting Google Maps, not knowing my way around, not realizing the place (the Log Cabin in the Las Campanas neighborhood) was amid the expanse of gorgeous rugged, mountainous landscape outside Santa Fe, I didn’t want to get lost and be late.
When I walked up to the building, the first person I saw was Craig Lancaster, who immediately recognized me and we gave each other a tall-guy hug. He stands 6-3 and is just as, shall we say, girthy, as when I last saw him in 1991.
I can’t believe it’s been that long since he left the Star-Telegram, after working there for a couple of years as what’s known as an “agate clerk” while he studied journalism at UT-Arlington (an agate clerk compiles stats, standings, and box scores and takes call-ins on the same, a vital but thankless job). Craig was a great kid and a fun part of our regular pickup basketball group — and he’ll never forgive himself for letting his foot get in the way when my right one came down on it while going for a rebound and rolling my ankle. That was about the 100th time I’d sprained that one, and I ended up having two surgeries over the next year and a half.
Then I saw Jon’s wife, Laura, whom I haven’t seen since she and Jon left Dallas in about 2008. Another hug. I’ve known them both since 1990, when we all worked at the Star-Telegram, where Jon joined me and the sports copy desk gang straight out of journalism grad school at Mizzou. The two of them started dating not long after Jon arrived, and they married at the Robert Carr Chapel on the campus of TCU in Fort Worth in October 1991. They were sweet to ask me and my roommate at the time, our friend and S-T colleague Steve “Coach” Kaye, to be ushers, and Steve’s nickname for me, “Frankie” — which he still calls me — is engraved on the pocketknife Jon gave me as a wedding party gift.
Longtime friends Steve and Ana Waggoner, also S-T and DMN colleagues, arrived next, and it was great seeing them too. I hadn’t seen Ana in years, and Steve retired last year from the DMN sports desk. Seeing Felicia Smith, another long-ago S-T friend and colleague who hasn’t changed in decades, was also a joy.
As a group of more than 50 of us listened, laughed and cried, the tributes to Jon that afternoon flowed with admiration and respect for a guy who always gave of himself and his time, whether to his family, friends or causes. The fellow from Seattle whom Jon volunteered with to help coach lacrosse when the Ehrets’ son, Hawkins, was playing flew down to honor Jon. The friend from the wildlife center who found Jon after he was stricken with his heart attack and gave him CPR — even though she’s moved back home to a new job in northern California, she came to show her love for Jon.
Craig and his wife, Elisa, who live in Billings, Montana, came to Jon’s celebration for a darn good reason: Jon and Craig were the best of friends. I didn’t even know when we worked together that they were close, but theirs was a bond that blossomed over the decades. Craig is a remarkable writer who has authored 10 books, and his emotional testaments to Jon — at the Santa Fe event, on his blog, on Facebook — have been tear-, smile- and laugh-inducing.
During his homage, Craig talked about the untold things that made Jon special and made Craig love him like a brother. “He was my brother,” he said several times, in fact, which might confuse those who don’t know him and think he might be the long-lost brother of Jon, an adoptee who found his biological mother several years ago. Craig, wife Elisa at his side, talked of having props, and during his testimonial, she pulled them out — Bufalo Bills knit winter caps, complete with poms on top. They both put them on and Craig continued, launching into what a huge Bills fan Jon was, being from Buffalo.
He closed by offering that despite the tragedy of Jon’s too-young passing, he could only be grateful to have had the privilege of knowing such a great human being:
“I could rage against the fates that took him so young — when he had a son to see deeper into life, and a wife who loves him so and with whom he made common cause, and birds to tend to, and veterans to honor, and talents yet to be mined and developed, and chicken wings yet to debone.
“And yet, I don’t. I’m not angry at the universe for calling him back to stardust, no matter how unfair the timing might seem. How could I be angry, when it’s the universe that gave him to us in the first place? He is my brother. He has been that since the first day he and I looked at each other and mutually acknowledged, yeah, OK, I’ll take a few spins with this wacky bastard. That was our call, our decision, and the vagaries of life and loss have no say in it.”
Jon’s talents were many — photography, crafting jewelry, leatherwork, designing newspaper pages and projects, hitting a golf ball a long, long way, making friends, helping and making people and animals feel they mattered — and so much more.
I didn’t ask Laura if I could say a few words for Jon until sending her a text the morning of his celebration. I also asked if she’d mind if I shared a tribute from our friend and former colleague Dan Dunn, who worked with Jon, me and the gang in the Star-Telegram sports department those 30-plus years ago. Of course, she said absolutely.
So I spoke of how upon his arrival in 1990, Jon fit in immediately and made consistently key contributions, especially as a sports page designer with his flair for creativity and making dazzling page centerpieces and special sections. He was a great team player and a hard worker and someone who was always there for his friends and colleagues.
Speaking of the Bills, I shared Jon’s ongoing rivalry with one of our colleagues, a sports writer named John Sturbin who’s also a native New Yorker but a lifelong Giants fan. Sturb gave Jon all kinds of grief when his Giants beat the Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV in January 1991, after Scott Norwood went wide right on a last-second field goal attempt. And then Jon had to suffer through the next three seasons, too, as the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, including two to the hometown Cowboys. He was in utter misery.
At The Dallas Morning News, I didn’t work directly with Jon because I was on the news copy desk, and still am after 22 years. He worked in Sports and later became an integral part of our Newsroom Technology Group who was fantastic at helping our journalists with system problems of all kinds.
Another amazingly special touch to the afternoon: Laura arranged for three staff/volunteers from the wildlife center where Jon had been a volunteer to join us with three of their ambassador birds, including Olympia, the peregrine falcon Jon was working with when he died. They also brought Cricket, a Swainson’s hawk, and Grubb, a cute little burrowing owl who weighs less than a cellphone. They talked about the birds and gave everyone the chance to see them up close and take photos and video. What an incredibly thoughtful way for Laura and Jon’s colleagues at the center to honor him and one of his many passions.
Also, Laura set up a table with a number of earrings and necklaces Jon had made through his business, called Elmystico Arts, and let folks take their pick. I was late to choose, but I picked out a pair of blue earrings for Kay. Another beautiful salute by Laura to Jon and his creative talents.
I wanted to save the loving words that Laura shared at the opening of the celebration to close with. She talked of his devotion to his family, his interests and passions, and his big heart that gave out last August.
“He loved his family, his dogs and protected our son Hawkins like the fierce papa bear Jon resembled,” Laura said.
Jon’s pride in “Hawk,” their only child, knew no bounds.
“He was proud and envious of our son’s athletic ability, telling me what a gift our boy had for picking up a bat or a rod and reel and inherently understand how to get the most out of it. Jon lamented that he didn’t ever get the knack for the poetic motion of a fly rod that Hawkins had. I lamented that if our house started to burn, Jon would rescue the dogs, assuming I could take care of myself,” Laura said to much laughter.
She talked about Jon’s personality and how he poured himself into numerous causes during their 30 years together.
“If you knew my husband in his younger days, you might have described him as intense,” Laura said. “He was that, but he was much more. As he aged, his intensity mellowed but his passion remained. He thrived in his volunteer work as a coach for our son’s lacrosse team, then at the national cemetery in Tahoma, Washington. And then at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, where he was able to indulge his lifelong interest in birds.
“He volunteered with the HOA board, he hauled friends’ and strangers’ cars out of ditches in bad weather and took particular pleasure in that because he had a winch on the front of his car.”
Laura said Jon did design work for a Ford Bronco forum, donating all proceeds to the group when its founder died. When she told the group’s members that Jon had died, they turned right around and donated over $800 in his name to the wildlife center — and they’d never even met him.
She also has lasting memories of their many travels, listing several overseas trips they took.
“Our life was an adventure I dreamed about but never thought I would have. We were both blessed with wanderlust,” Laura said, her voice breaking.
Although my contact with Jon and Laura in recent years had been limited to social media, I’ll always cherish our friendship and the years we spent working together at two newspapers. And I feel lucky to have been invited to and a part of such a stirring gathering for such a great man.