The news made the rounds on social media Monday that ol’ Johnny Martin up and died.
He wasn’t the sort of guy who made headlines, but Johnny was a fixture here in Blount County. I first met him several years ago over at the Alcoa baseball field, back when my oldest gave the game a try for a few seasons. Johnny loved the game, and he recognized me from these pages when he introduced himself. We reminisced about a mutual friend, Gary “Gump” Graves, who had just passed away, and talked about everything from the weather to the game to local politics.
He was an affable guy, quick with a grin and a firm handshake, and the best adjective I can think of to describe Johnny is genuine. He put on no airs, no pretense; he was just Johnny, wearing a pair of faded overalls and a ball cap on occasion that made him perfectly, beautifully ordinary. That’s not an insult; if anything, Johnny represented all that I love about Blount County, because despite our different political leanings, we recognized one another as kindred spirits: decent individuals who love family, heritage and the place where we live.
As I write this, it’s Election Day, and at last one of the meanest, nastiest political seasons in recent memory is coming to a close. We’ll get a brief respite before everything ramps up again in 2020, and even before then, folks will take to social media to rail and rant and rage, making those who don’t believe as they do out to be monsters who want to see this country burn rather than prosper. There’s not an ounce of truth to that, of course; being part of the liberal minority around here, I get that a lot, and I just roll my eyes, because I love this county and this country as much as any conservative, but then I find myself doing the exact same thing when I read a post that gets my dander up and offends my sensibilities.
It’s all pointless, I think, because we’re all so much more than the digital representation we put out on social media. We’re so much more than the political affiliations we cling to. We’re all, each and every one of us, flesh-and-blood creatures who have more in common than we do different, and the friendships we make with one another transcend whatever division we might have over the issues of the day.
Johnny was the sort of guy who didn’t hide his beliefs, but neither did he hide behind them. He was — here’s that word again — genuine, and in talking with him, you couldn’t help but respect what he felt and what he believed in, because he accorded you the same. Most of the time, however, our conversations never drifted into those treacherous waters, because esoteric subject matters don’t amount to much when you’re talking about the coming weekend’s baseball games or the latest County Commission kerfuffle or the new restaurant going in down at the Five Points roundabout.
Those are the things that bring us together, those intricacies of our day-to-day lives that affect us as Blount Countians who share this particular patch of East Tennessee soil. We have roots here — and as was the case with Johnny, some run deeper than others, but he never treated me like an outsider, despite the fact that I’ve only lived here since 2004. He never hesitated to ask about my kids, or to inquire about the state of The Daily Times, or pay me a compliment about my latest column, and for that, I’m grateful.
Most of the time, I’d run into him down at the Kenjo on East Broadway, where he’d be sitting in one of the booths, reading the paper or scratching off lottery tickets, his hat on the table beside him. He’d wave and grin and never fail to get up and shake my hand, if I didn’t make it over to his side to greet him first.
I knew he had some health problems; the last time he got out of the hospital for a heart attack, he joked that his old ticker was tougher than a week-old pork chop, and he looked none the worse for wear. He went into the hospital last Friday with some additional blockage, and while things seemed to be looking up, they were unable to put in some stints. Apparently, sometime on Monday evening, that old heart of his just couldn’t keep going, and he up and died.
I think the great columnist Lewis Grizzard made that phrase famous: “up and died.” It’s fitting, I think, because Johnny was larger than life to a whole lot of people, as evident in the outpouring of sympathy on his Facebook page. A perusal through past posts shows a man who loved his family and his music and his faith — simple tastes for a man who, on the surface, seemed to live a simple life.
Oh, but there are plenty of folks who know different. The good he did for others, the small tokens of kindness and gestures of empathy, will be remembered in the stories told about him for years to come, I’d like to believe, and when baseball starts up in the spring, a whole lot of folks around the Alcoa community are going to be a little glum when they don’t see him shuffling down the hill, a grin on his face and a hand outstretched.
Rest easy, Johnny, and thanks for the friendship.