As I looked down at the sack of corn, lying busted on the ground, I thought, “Zaidle would’ve gotten a kick out of this.” I find myself doing that, lately, thinking of Don when something funny happens, or when I have an outdoor experience I would have shared with him the next time we talked on the phone. I guess that’s what it means to miss someone – wishing you could still share things with them.
The corn incident occurred while I was filling a deer feeder at ten o’clock at night, because the feeder was almost empty, and that was the only time I could spare to fill it. That particular feeder – a 55 gallon barrel atop angle iron legs – sits on a rocky knoll a good hundred yards uphill from the nearest place I can drive to in my pickup. Filling it is a pain in the buttocks, even when it isn’t pitch dark and 27 degrees.
The third corn sack out of the back of the pickup went a little too far over my shoulder and ended up on the ground behind me, the bottom blown out and corn all over the ground. I picked it up and carried it in my frozen arms, cradled like a very large, cumbersome baby up the hill, over rocks and cactus and catclaw, to the feeder. All the way I kept thinking Don would’ve laughed about it, and then told me about a similar experience he’d had.
As I looked through the tributes to Don in the December issue of TF&G, and read again what I’d written about him, I was struck by the thought that it wasn’t enough. Don’s friends and colleagues waxed eloquent, and Don would’ve been suitably embarrassed, but there was far more to the man than could possibly be summed up in a few short pages.
A eulogy, after all, is just the highlights. Don wasn’t the kind of guy to live for the big moments; he made big moments out of little ones. He enjoyed life the way Gus McCrae advised in ‘Lonesome Dove,’ he learned to appreciate all the little things.
I often find myself wishing I could have one more conversation with Don, listen to one more of his stories, hear one more of his philosophies. I should have paid more attention when I had the chance, but I guess that’s always the way. When Josh Deets was killed in the movie, Gus told Call, “I don’t want to start thinkin’, Woodrow, about all the things we should’ve done with this good man.”
Don was one of the few people I knew who had been bitten by a poisonous snake, although such an event is hardly rare. What impressed me was that Don never even went to a doctor about it. He was preparing to grill some steaks for friends when a copperhead bit him on the hand, and he shook it off and went on about his business. His arm swelled up, turned color, and hurt for a few days, but he ignored it, the way he ignored any other inconvenience of life. He didn’t let trivial things interfere with what he wanted to do.
When Don joined his volunteer fire department, he didn’t hang back and let others carry the load, he jumped in with both feet. For a man who had little spare time, he devoted far more than he could afford to that dangerous, sometimes unpleasant duty. He did that because he realized someone had to do it, and he wasn’t the kind of man to let others do the dirty work for him.
Since I was also a volunteer firefighter, Don often called me just to tell me about a call he’d responded to, or ask about a fire he’d heard about in my area. Helping others was important to him, and he wanted to do the best job he could at it, even if he wasn’t getting paid for it. He did nothing halfway.
Don never told me what to write about, but he often gave me ideas and pointers, and he seemed to be tuned in to what his readers wanted, more than most editors I’ve known. He reminded me of a ship’s captain, reading the wind and adjusting his sails accordingly, trimming his craft to get the best performance from it he could.
Although he will be remembered by most as an opinionated champion of right who never suffered fools, I will remember Don as a friend who cared far more than he wanted it known. He called me once when he’d heard I’d been having problems, just to make sure I was all right, to see if there was anything he could do to help. He spent time he probably could hardly spare to let me know he understood, that he’d been through the same thing himself.
Don Zaidle was one of a kind, a man whose life can’t be summed up in a dash on a tombstone, or a few pages in a magazine. As Clint Eastwood said after he buried his friend in The Outlaw Josie Wales, “I rode with him, and I got no complaints.”