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by jdgarcia | February 16th, 2017 under Big Bend Blog » Big Bend Blog Highlight

Last of the Canby cowboys


“Ain’t that somethin’. Ain’t that a son-of-a-b#$*%!” – Vernon C. (V.C.) Johnson, 1924-2017

To classify Vernon Carl, or V.C. Johnson — who died Feb. 3 at 92 going on ornerier – merely as “memorable” would be an understatement and likely, an injustice.

“Unique” more accurately describes the last of the Canby, MN cowboys (or rugged individualists, depending on locale) that I once knew. According to son Russell, V.C. remained semi-independent and driving until the last couple of months of his life, when cancer claimed the upper hand.

V.C. gained his adventurous/entrepreneurial spirit from his father, Sam, who as a teenager traveled by train from Canada hauling horses to Western U.S. destinations. Sam later worked on Standard Oil construction projects through Central America, and on the Alaskan Highway.

When asked when he was born, Sam would exclaim, “When was the Maine sunk!”

Why, in 1898, of course. Sam also lived into his 90s, retaining much of the spark that defined his life.

V.C., who could be surly, bluntly opinionated and irascible when he was in a good mood, sprinkled his personality with kindness as well. He always treated me cordially, and trusted me with his stories, which are boundless. More than once, he offered his terse summation of true real estate values:

“(Expletives deleted) land is only worth what it will produce!” he barked in the midst of agricultural bidding wars. “If corn is two bucks a bushel and you raise a hundred bushels to the acre, the value is two hundred bucks an acre!”

Years later, land in Southwest Minnesota would exceed $7,500 per acre, with corn yields of more than 250 bushels. The price of corn fell far short of 30 bucks a bushel to justify his belief, but I doubt V.C. was doing any speculating.

In his lifetime, V.C. built homes for his children on a 10-acre site named “Johnsonville,” where he also built and operated a bowling alley/bar/grill. He farmed, drove semis, drilled wells, moved buildings for the military, built bridges, dug graves, plowed snow, bladed roads, operated a bus service for a parochial school and maintained a ready-mix concrete business.

Later in life, he became an auctioneer, and my wife and I hired him to handle our auction when we moved from Canby.

During our association, V.C. provided a ton of stories, including his start in the trucking business. V.C. drove a semi for a Canby farmer who kept expenses extremely low, including a reluctance to fix the heater in the truck V.C. drove.

“When I asked him that winter to fix the heater, he just said, ‘Why don’t you buy the truck, then you can fix it!’” V.C. recalled. “He knew I was just starting out and didn’t have a big line of credit, but I called his bluff.”

V.C.’s loan application was rejected at the local bank. Undaunted, he drove 15 miles down the road to a neighboring bank, asked for a loan and was given the money to buy the truck. He handed the farmer the check and asked for the truck title.

“He (farmer) drove right down to that bank, demanded to know if the check was good, and when he found out it was, he chewed out the banker for giving me the loan,” V.C. laughed. “Then he told him, ‘you’ll never make any money making loans like that!’”

Apparently, bygones became bygones, though, as the farmer was one of the guests at Sam’s 90th birthday party.

V.C., no slouch in the sales department, once narrowly avoided an extravagant purchase caused by a faster-talker.

He pondered buying an inexpensive mobile home to house construction workers, when a visiting salesman insisted on accompanying him to a mobile home lot in a neighboring town.

“Every time I looked at a low-priced model, this (expletive again deleted) would ask the sales rep, ‘You got anything more upscale?’, and the price and my nervousness kept rising,” V.C. recalled. “I kept nudging this (character) to shut up, but he was having too much fun at my expense.”

The fast-talker was almost out-glibbed when the mobile home sales rep led him and V.C. into the deluxe, doublewide model, priced at roughly eight times V.C.’s self-imposed cost limit.

Sensing it was time to set the hook, the sales rep trolled his prospects through spacious bedrooms, ample kitchen/dining room space, even the laundry room. Meanwhile V.C. saw escape routes — short of a heart attack, not necessarily faked – rapidly vanishing.

The sales rep led them to a mini-deck with a round table and lawn chairs on the front of the doublewide.

“And here is the perfect spot to put up your feet, pour yourself a drink and relax at the end of a hard day’s work,” the rep said.

Drink? Did you say ‘drink!’” V.C.’s companion exclaimed. “Why, my family has practiced temperance for three generations, and you have the audacity to mention drink! C’mon, V.C., we are leaving this den of iniquity immediately!”

By all accounts, their indignant strides marched them back to the car and probably to the nearest tavern to toast their narrow escape.

A final story would exhaust available space, but the ingredients included unheeded warnings against flirting, leading to threats of a moonlight re-enactment of William Tell, a frantic bolt for freedom that led to gashing a leg on a barbed wire fence, necessitating a wake-up call for the town physician to administer numerous stitches.

V.C.’s stories, always accompanied by his barks of laughter, kept me in stitches as well.


Steve Lang salutes V.C. Johnson for a life well-lived.

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