From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

The Man in Black

Although there have been many, this story is about meeting one of my special unsung heroes—The Man in Black.

It happened back in 1967. I dropped out of school and my parents told me I had two choices: one was to go back to school, the other was to join the Job Corps and learn a trade. Well, because the Job Corps would get me an airplane ride and I wouldn’t have to mind my parents— besides, it was an adventure just like any immature kid would want—I opted for the Job Corps. Like most kids that age, I thought I knew it all, but I really didn’t know anything! A couple of weeks later I was on my way to Rodman Job Corps Center in New Bedford, Massachusetts. For a boy from Kansas City, it was a completely new experience. There was ocean all around the Job Corps center, and as a kid from the Midwest, it was awesome. But it was nothing like home and it didn’t take long before I was homesick.

My parents had brought me up listening to country— Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and yes, even Johnny Cash. So when I heard that Johnny was having a show around the New Bedford area, I saved up my money for two weeks— just enough to see the show. Back then, it wasn’t so much that I even liked his music, but that it was something that reminded me of home.

The night of the show, I took the bus that runs from the center to the downtown area to the theater where the show was going to be. I couldn’t believe how many people were waiting to get into that theater. The seating was “first-come, first-served” so the line must have been two blocks long. Luckily it didn’t take too long for me to get up near the front of the line. I got a pretty good seat to watch the show and the show went by real fast. Before I knew it, it was 11:00 P.M. But being that I was having fun it didn’t matter.

Then I remembered the last bus going back to the center had already left. I was in trouble. There was no other way back except by cab and I had spent all my money on the ticket for the show. To make matters worse, if I didn’t get back to the Job Corps center by 12:30 A.M., they would put me on restriction for a month. That meant that I couldn’t go back to town for a month.

Because I was already in trouble and couldn’t see a way out of it, I decided that I might as well go for broke and try and get Johnny’s, June’s, and everybody else’s autograph that I could, because I would be stuck at the center for a month.

That is what I thought at the time. But that is not how it turned out.

When the show was over, everybody tried to get Johnny’s and June’s autographs. But I was a little craftier. I snuck past their security guards and got back into their dressing room. I ran into the dressing room thinking that no one would be in there and was startled when I ran into the Carter Family. The thing that got my attention was mother Mabelle. She had the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. One of the girls asked me what I was doing there, and I told her I wanted to get Johnny’s autograph. But before she could say anything, in walked Johnny and June.

The girl said, “This is . . .”

“My name is Richard,” I said.

“Where are you from, son?” Johnny asked in that deep southern baritone voice.

“Kansas City, sir,” I replied. I was in awe. Here I was actually talking to The Man in Black.

“Why’d you come back here?” he asked.

“I wanted your autograph, sir,” I managed to get across my lips.

He sort of smiled and said, “I think that can be arranged.

. . . Let me step in here and change, and I’ll give you an autograph.”

When he came back out, he said, “Okay, son, what would you like me to autograph?”

Well, I felt kind of stupid ’cause I hadn’t brought anything for him to sign! I noticed a handball, picked it up, and he signed it for me.

He was getting ready to leave and he asked me if I wanted to carry his guitar out to his car! Needless to say, he didn’t have to ask twice! I felt like I had the whole world in my pocket. I mean, here I was—mecarrying Johnny Cash’s guitar to his car!

Well, off we were to his car. The only problem was he had forgotten where he had parked it. He remembered it was parked on the side of a restaurant, but he couldn’t remember which side. He remembered that there was a sign with a blue whale picture on it. I knew where that was, so we were able to find his car.

He put his guitar in the trunk of his car and was getting ready to leave and all of a sudden he looked up at me and asked, “Where are your parents?”

“Back in Kansas City, sir,” I told him.

“Well, how did you get to my show?” he asked inquisitively.

At that point, I told him the trouble I was in.

Without hesitation he asked, “Do you know how to find your way back to the center?”

I said, “Yes, sir. I know what streets to take there.”

He said, “Well, get in, son, I’ll drop you off there.”

And with that, he took me back to the Job Corps center.

Now how many entertainers of his caliber do you know that would take the time out to help a kid like me stay out of trouble and make sure that they got home safe? There may be others, but from a personal point of view, I know only one—The Man in Black—Johnny Cash. My unsung hero.

So Johnny, if you’re reading this, I just want to thank you for caring about that kid from Kansas City. Because you cared, it has given me a reason to care. Like I said, it take s one to teach one.

Richard Tripp

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