I squinted up at the big horse. Prince near ’bout blotted out the sun. He was a giant among stallions……even if I hadn’t a’been six years old. This horse was bigger than Trigger, Champion, Man o’ War and Hi Yo Silver combined! I admired the way Nicky Joe and Leon pulled him up to Nick’s granddaddy’s big front porch to mount him.
It was an early dream of mine to grab the mane and throw myself up on Prince. ’Course, I was whistling Dixie here. If my older brother and his best friend had to use the porch, I didn’t have a chance. Later that summer I casually mentioned to Nicky Joe that I’d like to ride his horse one da— The sentence was cut off in mid air as Nick grabbed me and flung me over his head up on Prince’s broad back! Did I mention they never used a bridle or saddle? Good gracious, I almost bumped my head on the sky! And I’m telling you, I hung on like Willie Shoemaker thundering down the home stretch. It was a trip for the ages…….I WAS RIDING THE BIG HORSE!
I don’t remember a day in my life without Nicky Joe Stafford.
He and Leon were five years older than me. It doesn’t sound like much now. But when they were twelve and I’m tagging along at half their size, with one tenth of their knowledge and zero of their “coolness and command”, it was light years! Neither ever realized how much I looked up to them.
I was, at times, a source of embarrassment to Leon. I would follow him to the baseball games. I was way too small to play, mostly just in the way. They’d choose up sides and as the captains called out their picks the players would gravitate to their team. I would be left standing alone. Nicky Joe, even if he wasn’t a captain, would speak up, “We’ll take Kesley, he can bat last and play right field.”
Nicky Joe Stafford got me in the game!
He talked more than anyone on the field. Shoot, he talked more than anyone I ever saw! He was always in motion. He laughed easy and freely. Everyone would be playing hard and enjoying the game. But Nick seemed to be having more fun than the rest of us. It was impossible not to like him. He was a whirlwind whether we were playing baseball, racing up Stonewall Street, shooting baskets in Paul David Campbell’s back yard or hanging out at the swimming pool.
My goodness, Nicky Joe had a heart, a love, a zest for life that was even bigger than ole Prince!
His grandparents lived a hundred yards or so up a fairly steep incline off of the Como Road. One day Nick was shooting a 22 rifle at some crows or something down toward the road. I was too young to say anything, but it didn’t seem safe to me, “Nick, aren’t you afraid you’ll hit a car?”
“Naw, I’m aiming between the cars!” It was like he had everything under control. In a few minutes he had me shooting at the birds. It didn’t matter to him that I’d never held a gun in my hand. He was making sure I “got in on the fun”. He never, ever said a discouraging word to me.
I can see him right now, riding that horse up the road toward the house. His hair blowing in the wind, the biggest smile you ever saw plastered across his face. He would steer Prince up our driveway and across the side yard, slowing just enough to let Leon jump off the porch and unto the back of the flying steed. Of course, they trampled right through the hedge Mom had carefully planted along the length of the porch. She would run out and fuss a mite at both of them. Nicky would immediately go to telling her how she made the best chocolate pie in the world. Mom would melt before such becoming compliments. She loved Nicky Joe as much as any of us!
I was fourteen when he pulled into that same driveway in a brand new 1961 Corvette. It was redder than red! “Nick, this is the best looking car I’ve ever seen.”
“The key is in it”, he didn’t hesitate, “take her for a spin.” Folks, I’m fourteen! When he moved toward the house, I asked if he was going with me. “Naw, I’m heading for the refrigerator.” I drove over to Pat Houston’s Store and out the Gleason highway like I was the king of the road.
It took me years out in the real world to realize God didn’t make many people like Nicky Joe Stafford.
Leon was crying when I talked to him on the phone. Neither of us was shocked. Nicky had had some medical issues. It didn’t lessen the pain. I tried to think of some consoling words for my bother…….but I couldn’t get anything out. I thought of Nick’s wife. Diane is pretty special to all of us.
Leon said Nicky Joe left us peacefully, in his sleep. We agreed it was, “a wonderful way to go”. Then I thought of the laughter I could feel holding on to him on the back of that old Cushman Eagle, the all night Rook games, his head stuck in Mother’s oven; I thought of the smile, the up beat tempo, the joy he brought to every room he ever walked into. Maybe it’s not so much a wonderful way to go………as it was “a wonderful way to live”!