The Man In Black

I’ve lived 43 years. That’ll produce some mind-blowing moments.

This is the story of one of those moments, and I only found out just how mind-blowing when I discovered who the Man in Black really was.  I had a moment in time with the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.

When I was five years old I went on vacation to Jamaica with my parents. Christmas 1980, and a beautiful rental house hanging over the ocean just outside of Montego Bay. The pictures are breathtaking. We were bumping around cruising in a open jeep. This part of the memory is crisp and clear, seared in my brain like a grilled cheese in a hot panini press. The jeep was mighty uncomfortable, the sun was beaming down, the road was dusty and hot, and we were whipping along at a fast clip through a lush plantation. My tanned dad was driving, having a blast and loving every minute, free as a bird in the tropical sun.

A little boy with a huge grin suddenly appeared, running beside the jeep, trying to catch us. He couldn’t have been much older than I was. My dad slowly pulled over to the side. The little boy ran up to his side of the jeep, bubbly and energized, “ Hi-Hi-Do you want to see Johnny Cash?” He could hardly breathe from all the running, and his excitement oozed from every one of his little pores. “Follow me follow me!! “ he yelled and ran up ahead of us, wildly flailing his arms to direct us. I remember it vividly. My mother wasn’t digging the situation at all, and was definitely paranoid.  “Sure, we’ll follow him and then we’ll get swarmed by a gang around the corner and killed… “

I guess my dad must have been feeling brave that day and listened to his intuition. He didn’t listen to my mother this time, put the car in drive and off we went. We followed the little boy up a few winding dirt roads and around some corners, and came to a sort of clearing in the plantation. It wasn’t the same as the dense plants we’d been travelling through, here there was a breathtaking view  and enough room to walk among the rows of plants. It was as if our experience in that very moment suddenly allowed us some breathing room.

The little boy said, “Wait here”, and ran up ahead along one of the paths and disappeared. You could see the worry on my mothers face. She thought we were all going to get attacked and killed in the bush. Could very well have been the case-but thankfully not that day.

What happened next instead would be much less traumatic than a triple homicide, and makes for a much better story.

Within minutes we saw a man slowly us approaching through the bush. He had a black cowboy hat on, and when he approached he whipped it off with a big smile, and bowed his sweaty head a little with a gesture of respect.

“How y’all doing folks, I’m Johnny Cash” he said, and on went the hat again.

A big brimmed, country-loving, tough guy number hat.  The rest of my memory is fuzzy. That’s all my brain retained. I know the Man In Black stood there for awhile, happily chatting with my parents, and I remember a few bursts of his laughter, but considering I was five at the time-finding trouble in a plantation bush was much more exciting that a friendly stranger in a black hat called Johnny.

Turns out Johnny’s home, Cinammon Hill, was a plantation house built by Samuel Barrett, who ran a large sugar plantation there in the mid 1700’s. According to what I’ve heard, the place has quite the history of slavery and torture. Not good. Johnny on the other hand was always very generous with anyone who worked with him there and enjoyed giving when it came to helping many of his Jamaican neighbours. I liked his energy that day, I remember that. He had a glow. When I became an adult and found out more about him, I liked what I read. I especially appreciated the fact that he was always an advocate for Native Americans, which was expressed in his songs and on his album ” Bitter Tears, Ballads of the American Indian.” He cared about his fellow man. Bravo Johnny.

One Christmas Eve he was celebrating Christmas at Cinammon Hill, when armed robbers burst through the door and robbed him of everything, all the presents under the tree, and even the turkey cooking in the oven.  He was extremely upset over the attack, understandably, and packed up and left. It’s said that he didn’t return for many, many years after that.

I hear he finally went back and made his peace with Jamaica and Cinammon Hill just before his death in 2003. He died September 12, 2003, just three short months after June. True love never dies. It just gets postponed for a while.