Fly high, Cowboy — A tribute to a mountain of a man — Tom John Aumen
This is a first for me. I’m writing this column from an airplane, 35,000 feet above the heartland of America and on my way to the city of my birth — Denver, Colorado.
As I return to “The Mile High City,” I can’t help but reflect on the great experiences I had as a boy — hiking and skiing the Rocky Mountains, playing football for the Buffaloes, taking my first solo flight in an airplane and horsing around in Wyoming.
By the time I turned 30 and headed east to wrangle my first job as a creative director and work on the Stetson account, I thought I was quite the mountain man.
In hindsight, I was more like a “Pisces dreamer.”
Advertising had turned me into a mountain-of-exaggeration man. Though the skiing included Aspen and Vail, the football reference was from a different league — Little League — where I started humbly, as a 10-year old lineman for the Golden Buffaloes. And my first solo flight was in a Cessna 150, and I never piloted anything faster than a Beechcraft Bonanza.
Finally, the only horsing around I ever did in Wyoming was on location — writing and art directing print ads for Wyoming Tourism and Coleman Outing Products in Jackson Hole, Devil’s Tower and Hell’s Half Acre. (Google them — I’m not making these names up.)
Reflecting on the past can be a sobering experience (which I sorely need), especially when I find myself traveling to celebrate the 97th birthday of my sons’ grandfather, while I, myself am just a few months away from turning “The Big Seven-Ohhhhhh.”
OMG — I can’t believe I am really this old?
I have had a great ride, and I dearly love my wife and life in North Carolina. But last weekend changed me — humbled me — made me realize that life is fleeting — and that I have not amounted to “a hill of beans,” and have not accomplished “diddly squat” — compared to the likes of Tom John Aumen.
I had the honor of attending the iconic Tom John’s “Celebration of Life” at Cataloochee Ski Lodge Saturday, Sept. 10. My wife and I made his acquaintance a few years back, when we attended a cookout where T.J. lorded over the barbecue grill, tossing steaks around like he had apprenticed at Benihana.
As I listened to friends and coworkers reflect “in Memorium”— sharing stories about TJ’s amazing life and accomplishments I realized that Tom John Aumen was one of those great men who really was “Larger than Life.” He was Maggie Valley’s own John Wayne, and in so many ways bigger and better than “The Duke” himself.
Tom John Aumen was one hell of a wartime helicopter pilot; yet a down-to-earth and accomplished horseman. He was a seasoned backwoods guide, the grand architect and craftsman who shaped Cataloochee Ranch, the “Boss” of Cataloochee Ski Area — and according to many of the speakers last week, kept that operation running.
Tom John Aumen could fix most anything, anywhere. He managed with an iron hand, but you always had to be on guard for one of his well-executed pranks.
Though I never skied Cataloochee, I can now picture TJ — vaulting down the mountain to come to a fallen skier’s rescue, or running head-long up the mountain to get a lift working again; and in-between, stopping a late-arriving ski school instructor — not to chide or criticize, but to make him or her a breakfast sandwich.
“You can’t ski on an empty stomach,” Tom John would say.
As my wife, Carol, and I stood at TJ’s “Celebration of Life” gathering and watched speaker after speaker — friend after beloved friend — give testimony of his life-long accomplishments, I restrained myself from taking the microphone and telling my own, humorous Tom John story.
It was the week before TJ passed away, and Carol and I were spending a couple days at Cataloochee Ranch celebrating our anniversary. TJ was sitting outside with other family members, quietly eating dinner. One of his granddaughters, was nearby, and I asked her, “Are you the one wearing the Beavis & Butthead T-shirt yesterday?
“Yes,” she grinned and replied.
I then asked her who she liked best — Beavis or Butthead?
“Butthead,” she exclaimed.
Then I remarked, “Everyone likes a good Butthead,” which triggered a long laugh from TJ.
As a wannabe humorist, I was happy to bring such a mountain of a man a little lightness.
Tom John Aumen — It was a pleasure knowing you, and you are now in a better place — even better than the grandeur of the mountains of Cataloochee.
Fly High, Cowboy. Soar with the eagles. Keep a watchful eye on all of us down below who loved and now dearly miss you.