Big John. People know him as a giant of a man with the biggest voice that echoes from here to Saskatchewan. He greets people with his own unique “How is it doing?” instead of “How is it going?” paired with his big laugh that pretty much sounds like a cross between a grunt and the holler of man falling down several flights of stairs. In short, it is quite an impossible task to not notice John if he is in the building.
But beyond this seemingly loud nature of the John experience, I’m not quite sure if we are hearing him out the way he wants to be heard. He tends to go with the flow of things and even resorting to cliché phrases to get by in small talk. He is an awesome conversationalist especially if trivial things are set to be the topic. He speaks like there is no tomorrow but I still wonder if underneath the unending pleasantries that John can throw, lies a clue about a thing that might really rock his world.
I have known John for a couple of years and he is one of the best crew members I have the pleasure of working with. In the earlier years of our friendship, I got to know him as someone described in the above statements – repetitive, loud, predictable and genuinely nice. It was easy to work with him. One year, he started talking about being active in the Self-Advocates of Semiahmoo (SAS). This delighted me as a friend because now I know that John will have a crowd that will listen to his fantastic stories that he usually just tells me. Over time, he started taking interest in letting people into his world and sharing what the world has shared to him. He is a good advocate. Of course he still needed support, a bit of reminder about things here and there but generally, he is a fantastic dude who speaks his mind. Ooops!, Have I mentioned that John is in the senior realm already? But he never looked his age. His involvement with SAS went on for months. He was still the good old John that I know but now, he has his group that he feels proud of to belong. He loved the group’s activities and as expected of John, he kinda went with the flow of how the group thinks and talks about what the group has agreed upon. This was awesome, but a part of me still wished that John can talk about what really makes him burst in rainbows and unicorns in happiness.
One day, while we were driving our ETS crew truck, John blurted out something that made me do 1 or 2 possibly 3 more shoulder checks that I would take. “I’ll take over Nashville” John confidently said –and when he says something, it sounds like he was a mile away. I asked him again to repeat what he said. “I will take over Nashville” now in a voice a few decibels higher with swagger. I curiously asked, “What do you mean John?” his response was firm. “I will take over the Tennessee Three, get on a tour bus and travel the world to have concerts”. I said that is cool (But I never heard John talk about music, or singing – then here he is talking about sold-out concerts). He is quite determined to someday quit his crew and just perform in front of a raucous crowd jamming along with him. “I am the new Man in Black” John quietly mumbled (quite like an old vacuum cleaner in an echo-friendly room)
I guess now he is talking. It sounded like John is really speaking now from his old ticker. This went on for a couple of days and he further believed that he is the new Johnny Cash. There were days that he talked about losing sleep thinking about how he would make this plan of his a reality. (I call it plan instead of dream because this is how he would word it)
It was a bit of a problem for me as a friend and supervisor to support his unplanned plan considering Nashville is just about as close as Jupiter from here and to buy his tour bus, we might need to work for an extra 93 years. Then we came across a word: “creative compromise”
Every Thursday, there is a thing called “Music Makers” in Semiahmoo House Society. Here, a fantastic musician rocks the place for about an hour or two, playing requests and pretty much having his own concert with special guests. A little idea was born. If we cannot bring John to Tennessee today, then we will bring Tennessee here instead. So there was a revamping of the original plan. I talked to John about this idea. It took a while for things to be clear but both of us became excited. At first, we thought that we needed practice first before we try our best to get John a segment in “Music Makers” so along we went on selecting the song that he loved. The Ring of Fire was his blazing piece. We would play it in the truck on repeat for days until he got his first gig in the Self-Advocates of Semiahmoo Karaoke night. John was so excited to share his talent on that night. He did the best that he could and I believe, on that same night, a star was born. The next stage to conquer was Music Makers. Are we ready? You betcha! We think. We hope. Haha!
We made arrangements with the Music Makers led by the fantastic Paulina, who John adores, and landed John a one-song segment in the concert. We prepared for several weeks until that faithful spring day in 2016 when the John ship of Rock and Roll is making her maiden voyage to stardom. John wore his all black sleek suit, gelled up his brushed hair, put on his black 10-gallon hat, his leather Western boots and the aura of the Man in Black. He walked shakenly towards the podium (he was shaky not because he was anxious, he is just typically shaky) and as Gordon the guitar player strummed his instrument, expecting the first few words of the Ring of Fire—love is a burning thing. Poof! Nothing. Nothing came out of his typically volume-blessed
mouth. So Gordon took the helm and sang away while John swayed with the music with his eyes closed. Not exactly how I saw the dream working out in my head, I imagined John rocking it out and raising the roof with his voice. But still, in his mind, he was Johnny Cash. That very moment he was the Man in Black.
To date, John has not stopped talking about this experience and looks forward to the next one. He wears this unusually big grin on his face as he talks about the millions of people listening to his voice. I guess in a way through the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo and Music Makers, we have made his dream come true. Big John, Big voice, Big Dream, Big Heart. He is one Big man. He is our Man in Black. He owns the stage. John has only begun cashing in his dreams here in his home place and who knows what other stages he can conquer. Nashville can wait.
Note: Since that day, John has been a regular in the Thursday concert series (Music Makers and the sporadic karaoke nights for The Self-Advocates of Semiahmoo) but now, with more words and still, less need for a microphone.
By Jasper Macabulos, Semiahmoo House Society
Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community. The Semiahmoo Foundation exists to fund, support and enhance the programs and services delivered by Semiahmoo House Society.