by: Wes Ishmael

Hooter was heading for the escalator at Denver international Airport when he heard a voice behind him call, loud and frantic, “SOUTHWEST – WHERE'S SOUTHWEST?”

It wasn't loud like someone trying to get your attention; it was top-of-your-lungs loud, as if someone didn't realize or care that the baggage area leading to the escalators that led to the ticket counter was a public place.

Hooter turned to the voice, saw a man in his mid-20s and said, “The ticket counters are at the top of the stairs.”

The young man blew past Hooter just as he was stepping onto the escalator and bounded up the stairs. Hooter was about halfway up when he heard the same loud voice, “IT'S NOT HERE! IT'S NOT HERE!”

By the time Hooter reached the top, the young man had figured out that you had to turn a corner to see the ticket counters, as pedestrians were directed to do. He must have because by the time Hooter got in line, the young man was already at the counter. He heard the voice first.


“To where?” asked the ticket agent.


Everyone else but Hooter and the ticket agent were looking everywhere to avoid making eye contact with the young man.

He just didn't fit somehow, so folks worked double-time to ignore him. When Hooter looked at him though, he couldn't help but think of a man named Billy from whom he'd rented some dry-land barley ground years and miles ago. It had been Hooter's only attempt at row cropping and a miserable one at that. At first glance, that ground appeared used up and spit out like Billy.

Actually, Hooter rented the ground from a kindly, white-haired military veteran named Tom who took care of Billy's business affairs.

Billy didn't fit either, much less so than the young man searching for Southwest. Hooter was never sure what had addled Billy's mind (addled at least by everyday standards), or how Tom came to be Billy's pal.

Billy couldn't talk. You were never sure if he could hear you either. He'd grunt at the oddest moments though, and sometimes convulse in a kind of horse laughter, staring in the distance at something only he could see. Billy smiled a lot, though, and his gentle spirit was plain to see. Dogs loved Billy and he loved them; it was the only time Hooter saw him that Billy seemed to know exactly what to do.

Billy was easy for most folks to ignore. That's one of the things Hooter grew to love about Tom. Tom would tote Billy to see his old place or to town for a store-bought meal no matter how uncomfortable it made the patrons feel. More than that, Tom always included Billy in the conversation though he knew any response would be one no one could understand. Tom never treated Billy like someone who didn't fit, but like someone who was special.

By the time Hooter got to the security line, the young man was a few people ahead of him again. The young man was silent until he got to the security officer, who checks to make sure everyone entering has official identification and a boarding pass.

When the officer asked the young man for his paperwork, he replied, “WHY DO YOU NEED TO SEE IT?”

The way the officer looked at the young man, two things were apparent: he took his job seriously and someone out of the norm raised all sorts of red flags.

The officer muttered something Hooter couldn't hear.

“WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF I DIDN'T HAVE MY ID?” wondered the young man.

“Why do you want to know?”


It didn't go much better from there. Before Hooter could get to the next stop in line, security had escorted the young man to a room for a private screening.

It was both tragic and funny. Hooter felt for the young man who obviously was no threat to anyone. He was angry that anyone had to be subjected to such idiotic rules to begin with. At the same time, he had a notion the young man would give the security department all they could handle.

Other forms of panic

As it turned out, Hooter saw that same young man again two days later. It was back at the airport. Hooter was heading for his return flight and spied him coming off the jet way. Actually, he heard him first.

“HOW FAR IS IT?” he was asking the ticket agent. Hooter had to smile.

Hooter had been to Fort Collins for the workshop on competitiveness in the livestock markets. He was representing the Rio Rojo Cattlemen's Association. He and the boys back home reckoned they knew the outcome of the meeting, but decided it was best to be represented in person.

They weren't disappointed. As Hooter would relate to the gang that night, it appeared obvious neither USDA nor the justice department would be swayed to modify their preconceived notions based on any of the discussion.

As Hooter expected, the meeting was foremost a chance for producers on both sides of the fence to plead their case. Folks like Hooter and the boys were unlikely to convince those on the other side that free markets and less government intrusion were what allowed the industry to remain as competitive as it was. He and the boys were even less likely to be persuaded by the other side that the opposite was true.

Even Hooter was shocked though. As a panel member emphasized how alternative marketing arrangements and the free market allowed the industry to serve consumer beef demand more effectively, someone sitting near him threw up their hands in exasperation and said loudly, “I'm sick of hearing all of this stuff about beef demand!”

The gulf was even wider than Hooter could have dreamed. How do you argue with someone whose reality rests outside of the real world?

Where was the reason and logic in such a response? Then Hooter remembered the young man from the airport and felt like shouting even more loudly, “IT'S NOT HERE.”


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