I was heartbroken to learn Saturday night of the passing of my dear friend John Duncklee. For the past year I've been working closely with Dunck, editing his story collections. During that time we talked on the phone regularly, sometimes for hours, and damn how I looked forward to those conversations. Dunck has done it all: author and poet, geographer, professor, working cowboy, sailor. And boy did he have stories to tell. He would make me laugh so hard my wife could hear me downstairs. He was fearless, too, and lived life on his own terms. We joked about a possible title for a memoir: "And the Horse You Rode In On"... say that with a smile and follow it up with a booming laugh, yet leave your audience confident that yes, you not only said it but you actually mean it, and you would have the essence of John Duncklee. Or as one of his friends said, "Heaven won't know what hit it."
I had the privilege of editing and publishing John's twin short story collections Tales from Corral Fences and Tales from Clouds and Sea. I am damn proud to be associated with them; taken together, they are a masterful work. What made them come alive for me was the fact that, here and there among the stories, the narrator was being visited by the ghosts of his past, the spirits of people (often cowboys) he had known. I'm including an excerpt from one, "Silent Mike," so you'll see what I mean, and get a taste of John's voice (he won a Spur Award for his poetry, by the way.)
look around at the soft swishing noise and Silent Mike had disappeared. Back in
those bygone days, he would have bellowed, “Adios!”
I looked around at that once beautiful desert grassland I thought about the
sadness I had felt when I learned about the conditions under which Mike had
died. It was a genuine sadness because I not only remembered the great times I
had shared with the man, I also admired his bravery while rescuing the boy from
the blizzard hidden mountain. After our chat, and I realized that all the rough
times of his life that he had been particularly responsible for had vanished
from his spirit being. Gone were the periods of anguish, the years of searching
for wealth in dollars when he had already acquired a wealth of experiences.
Given the chance, everyone has things they would just as soon forget. Passing to
the spirit world may be solace after all. I knew that my sadness about Mike’s
demise had vanished from my mind just as he had vanished, to go to wherever he
I learned so much from my friendship with John. And he always had words of encouragement when things got tough. I'd give anything to know I was going to get another one of those calls. And I hope if I can make it in this rough old world another forty years, I will be as fearlessly, poetically, unapologetically real as my friend John.
And to that old grim reaper I say: And the horse you rode in on.