Remember that old movie?
In 1956, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll
Baker, Chill Wills, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Earl Holliman,
and a host of others brought Edna Ferber’s novel to life.
Filmed in and around the West Texas sprawl of Marfa, the film
was a giant. The bible says they walked the earth at one time
– giants, I mean. Did you ever know one? Ever know a real
giant? I did. I even walked with one for a time. I knew one.
His name was Sam Cochran.
I arrived at the university in 1969 – the runt of the litter if there ever was one - a rodeo bum with an old truck, a one-horse Miley trailer, two pairs of jeans, couple of sweatshirts, and one good little filly who could run like the wind in a spring storm.
I also brought something else with me…thirteen consecutive F’s in my college career. Thirteen.
But now I sought to change my ways. My father had died, my mother was devastated by grief, and I was bound and determined to make up for my past failures. Oh, and I forgot to mention…I was scared to death.
My fears grew unmanageable when the counselor casually mentioned, “You need to go find Dr. Sam Cochran and ask him a question.” I’ve long forgotten what the question was, but I remember the gut-twisting apprehension I felt.
“Ask Sam Cochran a question?” I thought to myself. “Are you crazy, ma’am? I can’t do that. You can’t just walk up to a giant and ask him something.”
And a giant he was. Here was a man who did not live on the earth with the rest of us. The pilot and only survivor of a B-26 shot down over France, Sam Cochran was captured by German soldiers, and hospitalized in France. He escaped and survived by eating pigeons until rescued. Eventually, he made his way home graduating from Ohio State with his Ph. D. Now he was my major advisor…and I’m supposed to ask him a question?
Cold fall day. Wind blowing across the campus and then I saw him. He was walking – I can see him now – him with his long purposeful strides. Walking with his topcoat on - striding, reaching with his long legs. I followed behind shaking in my boots. Young farm boy with a stammer so bad I could hardly finish a sentence. And I know you won’t believe this, but as he covered that ground…the leaves were parting! The leaves were actually getting out of his way so as not to impede the progress of this great man. Almost forty years now – I still remember the words as if I spoke them a moment ago…
“D-d-dr. Ch-ch-ch-ocran? C-c-an I b-b-other you for a m-m-oment?”
He stopped in mid-stride. In the slowest of motions, he began to turn toward me. Then his hawk eyes locked on mine, and my brain said, “Warning, warning, Will Robinson – we are going down, we are going down.” And he said…
“Bother me? OF COURSE, you can bother me, young man! Don’t you know that’s what I’m for?”
Almost forty years. I still remember. And the giant became my friend.
Oh, he wasn’t my syrupy best buddy. As a matter of fact, he constantly prodded, pushed, fretted, and sometimes scolded me always obsessing about the same thing. “You can do this. You have no idea the things you can do. Don’t tell me you can’t. I already know that you can. Come on, I’ll show you how – and the awesome thing about it is it’s not that hard to do!”
An obsessive bike rider, he frequently rode out to the old farmhouse I lived in eight miles from town. “Just to see how you’re doing,” he would say. During one of his early visits, he taught me how to study…
“Let’s take one single fact from the book,” he began sitting at my old kitchen table. “And let’s write that down.” I did as he asked. “Now write that same fact ten more times.” Again, I did as instructed. “Now read and repeat that fact twenty times.” After doing so, I realized we had spent almost twenty minutes on this one item. “Now I’m going to ask you a question,” he said. “Tell me about this item we have been studying. Tell me all about it - when it happened, who did it, why they did it, what their background was, etc.” I did so. Then he said, “Excellent! Now all you have to do is repeat this procedure with all of the items in these chapters you have been assigned to study…and you can make straight A’s!”
I thought for a moment about how long we had worked on this one question and said, “All of the items? My goodness, Dr. Cochran, that will take all night.” He stood up and at the top of his voice thundered, “OF COURSE IT WILL! THAT’S HOW YOU MAKE A’S!”
Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” Sorry, Willie. That’s wrong. While the evil some people do may well live on, the good that others do does too. Even though he’s been gone for some time, the good that Dr. Sam did for me lives on. Because of the way he lived his life and the way he treated not only me but also everyone he encountered, the good he did lives on. Where would I be without him? Where would any of us be without the people who helped us?
Dr. Sam Cochran died June 5, 2003. He was 81. He’s buried in a little cemetery in Wayne County, Mississippi. I wasn’t the best student he ever had, but I am the proudest to have been his student. I plan on going to that cemetery before I die. Don’t know exactly what I’ll do once I’m there. Might plant a flower on his grave. I’ll probably cry a little, and I’ll still wonder why someone like him ever gave someone like me the time of day. Don’t know what I’ll do for sure - except for one thing. Before I approach that place where he’s resting…
I’ll take my boots off.
Aug. 1, 1921 – June 5, 2003
About The Author:
Dr. Michael Johnson is an author, a national columnist, and a cowboy. His Cowboys and Angels was selected as "Best Non-Fiction Book of 2002" by the Oklahoma Writers' Federation, and Michael was named "Oklahoma Author of the Year" in 2005. His latest release, Healing Shine - A Spiritual Assignment describes the seven-year journey of Michael's relationship with a troubled horse. Both emerge from the experience more than they were. Michael lives in northeast Texas with his wife, Sharon, four horses, twelve roping steers, and their Australian Shepherd, The Rowdy Cow Dog. All Michael's books, CDs, and magazine columns can be seen at michaeljohnsonbooks.com
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