I like my heroes flawed. Conflicted, tormented, filled with issues, dark desires, contrary natures and imperfect. Paragons of heroic virtue bore me. In all the books I read and enjoy most the heroine (often flawed in her own ways) recognizes the hero’s flaws – but also the rock solid man beneath those flaws. And she is strong enough to love him in spite of them and help him become a better man in the bargain. If he has no reason to grow, why read the book?
Four years ago I discovered two heroes. Six months ago today, I lost them both. Sheriff Bo Handel, of Cado County, Texas populated several Southern noir crime novels, and a number of short stories. He was not a romance hero. Bo was older, a bit out of shape, and not as handsome a devil as we expect in our romances. But he had all the makings of a true romantic hero. He had flaws, but had faced them. He was brave, courageous, loyal and compassionate. He was a sexual animal true to his woman, a younger female deputy in his department – while never forgetting the memory of his deceased wife. He was good with a gun, fearsome with bad guys, and a force to be reckoned with by the foolish, ignorant, lazy, stupid, criminal and stuck-up. He was not above blackmailing a corrupt politician – but only to get more money for the salaries for his officers. He did not always equate right and wrong with what was necessarily legal or not. But his choices were always what he knew was honorable in his heart. His creator had hopes for a film option for his stories, and relished the thought of Tommy Lee Jones being cast as the crusty lawman.
Bo Handel was also not a surprising character to be have sprung from the fertile mind of my real-life hero, Milton T. Burton, of Tyler, Texas. Milton possessed many of Bo’s own qualities, from his diverse interests, feisty sense of humor, ill-tolerance of the fools of the world, and his treatment of women. And in truth, Milton himself possessed great vocal similarity to Tommy Lee Jones.
Milton passed away on December 1, 2011, after fighting valiantly against a series of ailments, including a hospital acquired infection, that in the end wore out his considerable, but not unlimited, strength. I was able to speak with him one last time two days before he died. I think he knew then that he wasn’t going to make it, but he never made a complaint. That’s certainly my idea of a hero. Before he died, he told his daughter that he had lived a good life. And while I knew of the trials he’d suffered, I knew too of his staunch love for his family, the joy in his diverse friendships, as well as the tremendous pleasure he took from the simplest of things – good food, good books, rousing conversation, the arts including theatre and music, as well as great films. He was tough, but funny, a redneck intellectual, and a curmudgeonly but comforting man.
Milton and I met, if you will, on a writers’ forum. He said he liked my sense of humor, and that I, too, was a writer, and invited me to a forum of his own, unlike any other, and I met a number of other wonderful, eccentric folk, thanks to him. He started asking my opinion of his writing, and from there it was off to the races. We began talking on the phone, and once we developed a personal relationship it was as if we’d been friends for years.
Every day, often several times throughout the day, I’d be greeted by Milton’s basso profundo, “Howdy, how you be?” greeting. Inconsequential topics, jokes, a good meal, a great video discovered, and most often, writing discussions were what we talked about. Our friendship morphed slowly, sweetly, into something more, though we never had the chance to meet. His Texas drawl and his belly laugh brightened many dark times for me, and he never failed to offer his sympathy, advice and support when I needed it. He also nudged me mercilessly about my writing if he felt I wasn’t producing. I was his reader, his cheerleader, and press rep. He called me his girlfriend, and I called him my man. Silly perhaps for 2 physical strangers, of more than a certain age, but true. His daughter, at the end of his days, told me she knew how very much I meant to him, and that I had added a great deal of enjoyment to his life.
So fictional Texas hero Bo Handel has ridden into the sunset. Alive on the pages of Milton’s published books, and the unpublished manuscripts I’m fortunate enough to have, yet no more adventures lie in store. Because my very own Texas hero is gone, too. Milton’s author’s bio said he’d been variously a college professor, cattleman, and political advisor but he’d been far more. He was most certainly flawed and would be the first to admit it. He was tortured, too. By his own mistakes, and by the bad hand fate had sometimes dealt him, most importantly in the death of his young son, George, who he mourned until the day he died. But he triumphed against adversity by sheer dint of willpower. He was a great friend, a generous mentor, a devoted father, beloved grandfather, and mischievous lover. And I know that of great importance to him, Milton was simply a superb storyteller. He never quit writing. He finished the final galleys of his last book, Mortal Remains, literally days before he went into the hospital. It was his swan song, and I know it would have pleased him had he known it would be his last work.
Over the years, Milton sent me dozens of photographs. I have saved them all, but I keep one of the last ones he sent me close at hand. It is a picture of his writing desk where he nurtured his fertile and creative imagination and wrote great tales of good, evil, men, women, and the world he loved.
Above his desk hangs the Confederate flag. On it sits, among the writing implements, his pipe. Against the desk lean his crutches.
I keep this picture close because I miss him. And because whenever I look at it, I can hear him say in his twanging growl:
“What have you written today?”