Like any of us, the Johnny True you know today is the sum of all my past actions, circumstances and events in my life. A rundown of my accomplishments both personally and professionally may leave you with a sense of knowing me – who I am, what I am about. But there is always more to a man than what may be listed on a sheet of paper; there is also our heritage – our family roots and where that family come from. And yet, there is still more to me than that. A background and family history does not define me as an individual any more than my accomplishments may; it is yet just another brick in the wall, helping to pull together the story of my life.
John Ira True was the name I was born with and will die with too – but, for 53 years of my life I was referred to by another. I was born on October 5, 1946, in the Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, Oregon to a troubled young mother, just 19 years of age. Two days after my birth, I came to live at Albertina Kerr Adoption Center in Portland. At the age of six, and after living with a foster family for four years, John Ira True became John Rodger Hendrickson, at the signing of adoption papers. It would be 40 more years before I would come to meet my biological family and, soon thereafter, find a distinct change in myself.
I come from cowboy stock; there are no two ways around it. Those who came to know me in my business heyday and sporting times see a man reborn, someone who they may have never known existed before; as even I may not have known myself. But make no mistake, inbred into my genes are horses, manual labor and sidearms. In discovering my family – and even myself – I have simply returned to my roots.
The True family – my grandparents – migrated to Oregon from South Dakota in 1924. Poor farmers with little money, they pushed west as many did at the time to find promises of a new life on the rich abundant soil of the Pacific Northwest.
With their two faithful German Shepards, four strong farming horses and six children, Abraham Frederick True and his young wife, Artha Jane Kidd, twelve years his junior, set down roots in Ontario, Oregon, east of the Blue Mountains. The previous ten years had found them hopping from Kansas to Missouri to the Dakotas, farming land along the way, in search of a place that they might someday call home.
“Home” was not merely a house in the eyes of Abraham and Artha; it had become an intangible entity to them as they jumped from state to state. They hoped to find a place to settle their family for life, a place that offered an answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
Each state brought more children to the True family and, in turn, more expenses, oftentimes forcing the clan down the road to the next farm available for rent and toil. Oregon brought them their next house, place of employment and, finally, gave the True family a real, honest-to-God home.
Living on a rented farm and working the land of another supported the family, but just barely. While food was never scarce, money certainly was and the life they lived was a tough one of fierce expectations of long days toiling the earth, seeding the ground and caring for the animals. No one was exempt from taking part in running the farm, no matter their age.
My father, Ira Leroy True, seemed to believe otherwise. Born the second of four boys, and the third child in line of the total, Ira had worked his hand on a bevy of rented farms his entire 17 years before he began to question the authority of his father. Soon he allowed his eyes to wander down the empty road to anywhere for the first time in his life – but certainly not the last. Where the other True children had accepted their life responsibilities without question, Ira had a rebellious and impetuous spirit, restless to be out in the great wide emptiness of a cowboy’s trail.
One warm summer night in 1930, only months before his 18th birthday, Ira saddled his horse while the family slept. He carried with him a bag of necessities, a bedroll and a buck rifle. He stuffed his saddlebags with minor provisions and filled his canteen with fresh water. Without so much as a farewell note, he mounted his favorite horse and rode away comfortably on his father’s handmade saddle.
Ira stayed away for two months that summer, seeing America saddle-side like men may have done thirty years earlier. He notified his mother and father when he had made it as far as Kansas, telling them that he was safe and would be boarding with an Aunt until he felt it was time to move on again. He worked odd jobs as a ranch hand or handy man until, two weeks after he sent word to them, his parents showed up on the doorstep to drag him home by the ear, screaming at him all the way home about the special saddle that he had stolen.
Although he continued his life responsibly in Baker County, Oregon, the restlessness that Ira felt from a very young age did not subside within him and slept like a houseguest inside of his soul who just wouldn’t leave.
Ira received the call to serve his country in World War II when he was 27 years old. Excited to live out what he saw as an adventure, he sold all of his belongings and prepared to appease the restlessness at last.
After reporting for duty in Portland, Ira ran through a battery of physical tests and found himself ever anxious and ready to travel. While his desires had less to do with a proud sense of patriotism than it had to do with seeing the world, he understood that the two were part and parcel. Much to his dismay, a previous bout of Tuberculosis that he had as a child kept him from chasing adventure across the ocean – and out of the war – which could very well have inadvertently saved his life.
Ira returned to Eastern Oregon to nothing of ownership and, while that may have depressed him initially, it came to free him in some way. He was attached to nothing and that’s just what held him down. Ironically, understanding that seemed to root him in his life and Ira stayed put, working odd jobs locally for many years.
By his late twenties Ira found himself able to afford property on which to build a home. He purchased 160 acres of raw mountainside land in the shadow of Mt. Emily, thirty miles beyond the city limits of La Grande. Beautiful Emily was to be the only female in his life for several years and he didn’t seem to mind that.
Ira took the summer away from working for others and set about to literally make a home for himself. The wooded acreage would soon boast a one-room log cabin and barn, each made entirely with the bare hands of a cowboy, aided by his faithful horse and a rusty jeep that he had bought from a neighbor.
The majority of his summer days were spent harvesting trees, felling and delimbing them on his own, using an ax and a crosscut saw. On those days he found himself in need of an extra hand, Ira called on his brothers, inviting one or all three and their families to spend a day on the range on a warm Sunday afternoon after morning church services. As the women and children explored the deep mountain forest on horseback or picnicked in the sun, the men spent hours mortaring crevasses or hammering shake shingles down, with their shirts off and their backs burning in the hot sun.
These infrequent family Sundays came to mean much to Ira as it was often the only contact he would have with others in the space of an entire week. Still, he enjoyed the peace once the noisy children were gone, the chatter of the adults had calmed and the hammering had subsided. It was then that he could hear the quiet again. He longed for this, it was his meditation; it was his prayer.
Ira’s nights were spent near a campfire under a spread of stars and he slept soundly on a bedroll under a canvas. Each morning brought back-breaking work and he rose to the challenge, donning his worn leather work gloves and his determination.
Only weeks before fall, Ira’s home was completed. The simplicity of the home was indicative of who he seemingly was: a man born fifty years too late. With no electricity, a pot bellied stove pulled double duty, warming the small house and acting as a range for cooking food. Running water was another indulgence that Ira went without, possibly believing that it was a luxury of the 20th century, a time that he may not have entirely accepted as his own.
Ira chose a life of peace and isolation – if not reclusion, living out his days removed from society. He came to live off of the land and, besides his horse, he could say that he trusted none other.
Once settled into his home and his life of seclusion, Ira returned to work among men, again putting his cowboy-ing talents to use. Manual labor, farming or handling horses became his forte and he established a reputation for being a hard worker who kept his nose to the grindstone. He often worked more than one farm at a time, finding he had a knack for multi-tasking. Ira came to be known for his work ethic and found himself to be a valuable commodity in the area.
Steady work and the lack of material goods afforded him lazy days of a cowboy life when he wanted it, freely choosing a long ride in the mountains to a days wage at a local rancher’s property. And while the nation was in a state of cultural progress – seeing a TV in every living room, the advent of the teenager and the birth of rock n’ roll – Ira shrugged off such silly things as idle, drawing into the safety of his trusted two hands that could bring about all that he needed in life.
One summer morning Ira drove his rickety old jeep into town for supplies understanding that he was about to celebrate his Daniel Boone-esque status among the young boys who recently flaunted the coonskin caps. While such things as celebrity didn’t matter to him, he knew that it was inevitable on this day.
Days earlier he had heard the distressed cries of an animal on his property that he could not identify. He loaded up his shotgun and setout to put the agitated animal out of its misery. Following the cries, he came upon two black bear cubs, no bigger than a small dog. Orphaned or abandoned by their mother, the cubs were hungry and unable to feed themselves. Their hunger superceded their fear of Ira and neither of the two bears moved away as he approached. Instead, they stared at him with large, sad eyes as if to ask, “Are you my mother?”
Always an animal lover, Ira took the two bears as his own and on this particular day, concerned about leaving them alone – either inside or outside of his house or barn – he chose to bring them into town with a string tied around each of their necks. The muffled whispers of passersby turned to outright gasps as people stopped to ask him about his unique pets. It had been many years since Ira had associated with as many people in one day and, although polite in his responses, he was eager to return to the solace of his homestead.
It wasn’t long before the cubs grew to adolescence and an instinctual aggression took over. Ira knew that keeping them much longer would hinder their growth as well as put his life, and the lives of those around him, in danger. He hiked to the edge of the forest, a quarter mile south of his cabin, bears in tow, chasing one another and running like rambunctious children all the way. They did not know that they were to be orphaned once more.
Ira knew that he could not expect the two cubs to simply wander away from him to forge life on their own. He understood that his role had become a parental one and that they sought refuge and protection from him. Ignoring his very human emotions of attachment, Ira loaded his rifle, aimed toward the rough-housing bears and fired. The shot startled the bears enough that they began to run, howling in fear as they went. Twenty yards out both bears seemed to realize that they were not running toward their safeguard and their guardian. In confusion, each bear turned to run to Ira, expecting him to embrace his parental duties, expecting him to defend. Instead they found another shot aimed in their direction, driving a wedge between them and their protector.
It would be several more shots and another half hour before Ira would turn and walk indignantly back to his cabin, free of the only real company that he reliably had. He knew that chasing the bears off was the right course of action but, unlike the parent sending a child out into the world, a sense of pride and happiness did not follow. Though he tried to convince himself that he was grateful for the return of peace in his home, he was aware that this was a farce. For the first time in many years, Ira felt a real sense of loneliness.
Ira threw himself into his work, taking as many jobs as he was capable of. He worked manual labor by day, and honed his newfound craft of working leather by night. He fashioned beautiful belts, decorative frames and intricate wall hangings. He found consolation in the creativity he had discovered in himself and spent many hours using his calloused work hands in crafting elaborate pieces of art.
As he approached his 32nd birthday, Ira took an interest in the daughter of one of his employers. Barbara Simpson, not quite 18, was a dramatic beauty. She was of Cherokee descent and her features surely manifested the fact. Her black hair, olive skin and dark, deep-set eyes set her apart from her fair skinned neighbors – perhaps it even segregated her. Moreover, though, mentally she did not fit in with her peers and experienced great difficulty in social settings.
Her poor social skills and mental state had less to do with a personality dysfunction than it had to do with a physical trauma. When she was 14 years old, Barbara had had an ice skating accident that resulted in a head injury. Smacking her head soundly on the hard ice, she found herself with a severe concussion – an injury that was to follow her the rest of her life.
Soon after her accident, she began experiencing severe seizures, memory loss, extended catatonic states and erratic behavior. Doctors diagnosed her with Idiopathic Epilepsy with psychotic episodes and, sadly, this became her identity. When once her heritage was the foremost thing that separated her from her peers, she now drew into herself, unable to trust that she would behave appropriately in a public arena. While her times of clarity were prominent, she knew that without notice she could become a different person, unable to squelch what was happening to her. She felt herself pull away from those around her, hoping to disappear somehow into her own private world.
As Ira began to reach out to her she responded, feeling a deep connection to this man who had chosen a life of personal space, away from the rigors of day-to-day society. The correlation she saw, however, came by her experiences gained through her own injured mental state as opposed to the real desire that Ira had to live independent of societal pressures. The hand that she grasped to pull her away from her pain was as a life vest for Barbara and she could not possibly understand the loneliness that she would feel in the coming year.
Ira and Barbara were married shortly after her 18th birthday and she moved to the small cabin at Mt. Emily, each mile away from town aiding in her escape from reality. The awkward pair adjusted to married life – each of them forfeiting something – Ira, the time alone that he had become accustomed to and Barbara, the time around others. It was not long before Ira saw her unpredictable conduct first hand, causing him to wonder about her stability when left alone.
One particular incident saw Barbara angrily wielding a sharp knife at Ira while attending a family dinner at his mother’s house. This episode caused his parents to not only ban Barbara from their home entirely but to actually fear for the well-being of their son.
Barbara became pregnant within the year and her psychotic episodes continued – if not worsened. Each occurrence was followed by a severe depression as she came to understand that the degradation of her mind was unstoppable and she would continue to hurt the people that she cared about. Her depression was furthered by the isolation that she felt from the real world and she quickly came to miss the comforts of home she was accustomed to. With no electricity or running water, her living conditions had certainly regressed fifty years and she felt the hard sting of a pioneers life – something that she was likely unaware she would be adopting by marrying Ira.
In late August 1946 at seven months pregnant, Barbara could take the solitude and decay of her mind no more and determined to leave Ira. The mountain had seen an early snowfall this year and temperatures were well below freezing at high noon. While Ira worked in town this freezing day, Barbara donned a thin coat and simply walked away from the house, on a road to anywhere – or nowhere at all. Hours later she was found laying on the side of the road, an apparent epileptic attack dropping her to the ditch, leaving her face down, unconscious and mildly hypothermic from the cold. A passing neighbor came to spot her and drove her to the hospital in town, calling Barbara’s mother at their arrival. Ira would not learn of the fate of his young wife until that evening, hours after she had been discharged and left with her mother for the long journey to Salem.
Barbara was admitted to the Oregon State Mental Hospital shortly thereafter by her own accordance, her mother at her side. On October 5th, she gave birth to a healthy boy and called him John Ira True, and so I came to be. Her incapacitated state left Ira with the final decision about my future.
Ira knew that he was incapable of raising a child on his own. Aside from the financial toll he knew it would take to find someone to care for the child while he gained employment, he understood that he was not equipped personally. Raising two bear cubs was a large enough stress on Ira and neither cried for a diaper change or a middle of the night feeding.
I was sent to Albertina Kerr at two days old, with Ira’s hopes that fate would bring him a secure upbringing – one free of mental instability and social isolation. The idea that nurture played a larger role than nature was heavy on the minds of my biological parents and they both hoped that it would bring me a long, productive life.
Before I was permanently placed with the Hendricksons, Ira and his brother Glenn took the five-hour trip to visit me at the adoption center. It was most certainly an awkward meeting for Ira as he had come to say goodbye more or less to the only offspring that he would have in his life.
Barbara never did make it to see me off in my life, her mental condition keeping her in the State Hospital for another four years. She sent me a toy fire truck for my first birthday, undoubtedly feeling the pang of a child lost. That was the extent of her contact with me, however, and even fifty years later when reunited she decided to not keep up communication. Perhaps I represented to her a mental state that she had unsuccessfully tried to defeat for most of her life.
Ira went on to resume the life he had always had: that of a solitary man. He lived in his one room cabin for nearly twenty years after Barbara left before the lonely road seemed to call him again, awakening his restlessness once more. This time around, however, he felt he had purpose.
A bible that had been gifted to him by his sister became a catalyst for the next big change in Ira’s life, spurring a new line of thinking that was in it’s infancy in a nation of post-war allegiance. The Haight-Ashbury movement was yet to come as many came to believe what Ira did: Our country had become immersed in servitude veiled as patriotism.
Although his family was steeped in religion, Ira was not, choosing to believe in himself, the things that he valued and that which he could see in front of his face. Still, the words he read in his bible came to bring meaning to his life, spurring a silent personal protest against Big Brother as well as a need to declare himself free from under the thumb of anyone at all.
Ira believed that as Americans we had become prisoners of our government, each of us bearing the “mark of the beast”, a number that kept track of who we are, where we work, how much money we make and what we own. Our social security numbers had stolen our personal identities and kept us under the tough rule of a poisoned government that hid under the guise of a democracy, manipulating a call to patriotism to both its advantage and its demise.
Ira was never one to allow another to control him, asserting his own life intentions and visions from the time he was a young man. He had mounted his horse for the life of a nomad before in an unruly, if not defiant way to protest the complacent life of a follower. Further, he refused to simply conform to a society that was increasingly blinded by its financial status, entangled in a cultural boom birthed from sensationalism and ego and saturated in decadence.
Disillusioned, Ira felt he could have no part of a life that he came to see as a lie and became determined to leave the self-indulgent lifestyle of his neighbors – and, to some degree even his own – behind. He renounced his government stamp, taking the sharp blade of his hunting knife to his social security card and any accompanying identification. With that, reminiscent of the seventeen-year-old boy he once was, eager to live the life of a wanderer, once again, he simply left on the back of his trusted horse.
Nearly three decades after his first countrywide trounce, his newfound walkabout spoke to his burgeoning principles and to a conviction for freedom – both literally and figuratively. Still, it could not be denied that there was a wanderlust deep within Ira. His defiance against the government and desire to remain anonymous may have placed him in such company as that of Thoreau, Emerson or Muir; those who felt a draw to nature and away from the technological advances and idyllic, fanciful activities of the time.
Ira wandered the country upright in his saddle for two years, camping under the stars and following train tracks as a guide to anyplace. Occasionally, he sent a postcard to a family member to let them know of his safety as he crisscrossed the country. When he found himself in need of supplies he would ride into the nearest small town and seek temporary employment to trade for his necessities. Money was of no importance to him; he found great personal wealth in his freedom.
Ira spent several weeks in Kansas, with the same aunt he had inconvenienced thirty years earlier. While there, he began to feel the draw toward Oregon and his family members. Though he found his autonomy to be comforting to him, he missed the relationships of those who cared for him and decided to head west for a spell. He sent a postcard to his parents, letting them know he would be back on the trail within the week, heading home.
Months passed and no word came from Ira. None in his family found this entirely unusual; he was living the life of a vagabond, after all, content with life on the trail. They expected they would soon receive a postcard from somewhere along the road, signed off in his standard way: “God Be With You, Ira”. None of his family anticipated what came in its place.
In late September of 1966 Ira’s mother received a phone call from a stoic individual asking if she was the next of kin of Ira Leroy True. Like any mother’s response might be when asked such a question, she immediately insisted about what had happened to him. The answer that she received is the nightmare of every parent, no matter the age of their child.
Ira’s body had been discovered by a rancher in Golden Valley County, Montana, just outside the city limits of the small town of Ryegate. He was found lying up against a large oak tree, as though he had simply stopped to take a nap. His bible lay next to him and two suitcases nearby. It was determined that he had been dead for approximately two months. The cause of his death was found to be natural and it may truly have been that he did simply stop for a nap, never to wake up.
Ira died how he had lived most of his life: alone. While that may seem lonely and terribly isolated to the rest of us, it was just the way he liked it. Moreover, his final years had been a tribute to his personal convictions. Ira walked his talk – for several years and innumerable miles. He lived a life of his choosing and regrets were likely minimal. Surrendering parental rights to his only child may have been one of them.
If Ira could see his son today, the man who reclaimed the name given to me at birth – the cowboy Johnny True – Ira would surely smile.