for the Original Winter Texan
There’ll be waltzing in Heaven
For all who are up there
Waltzing in Heaven on purest of air
With old friends and strangers
Who’ve beat you up the stairs
They’ll be waltzing in heaven
When you arrive up there.
Pharr — Virginia and Howard Johnson from Kansas City, Missouri, were in Oklahoma at a Charolais convention on October 2, 1970. Virginia was out shopping and Howard was just finishing up a meeting. Someone asked if he had a son playing football with Wichita State. Giving an affirmative answer he was told there had been a plane crash. Thus started their nightmare.
Virginia had talked to both their children the night before. “If I’d known what was going to happen, I would never have stopped talking,” said Virginia, with passion.
Thirty-eight years after the accident which took their son, and 30 other passengers’ lives, Howard has converted his poetry about his son into a tribute for those who died in that crash. Exactly 38 years to the day — October 2, 2008 — Wichita State University’s theater department held the world premier of Waltzing in Heaven. Janie Peak, a theater professor at Park College in Parksville, Missouri, helped write the script and Rick Lopez, from Alamo, wrote the music to Howard’s lyrics.
It wasn’t an easy task to do for remembering Ronnie - the alive, vibrant, life-loving Ronnie - can still send waves of emotions over Virginia and Howard.
It was Virginia who began to bring them out of the stupor they lived in after their loss, listening over and over for months to Ronnie, a player of every type of horn and piano, singing on a tape.
“We can’t do this any longer. You [Howard] get out and check your cattle and you get to living again,” said Virginia. “I guess that was the day we started re-living.”
Indeed, their lives had always been so full and they had their stories to prove it.
There was the time in high school in Hutchinson, Kansas when Virginia was picked to sing a solo. She looked at the teacher and said, “I don’t think so. If you want me to sing the lead it will have to be in the choir where nobody will have to look at me.”
Laughing as she recalls the incident, she is quick to say she now has no problem singing as a high soprano in the park’s choir and loves every minute of it.
Growing up on a farm 19 miles from town, Howard and his brothers loved to play pranks, with his mother bearing the burden of them at times - like the time with the snake.
“One time my brothers and I found a big, ole long black snake. It was about six foot long. We killed it, as we always killed snakes, and brought it back to the house. There was a hole under the step going out from the kitchen through the hallway and then you step out on a concrete patio and I decided we’d entertain or scare my mother,” he said, merrily. “I had my little brother get in a tree and start screaming and carrying on like he was hurt, hanging from a limb.
“We started hollering, ‘Mother, come quick! Quick!’ We had coiled the snake from this little hole underneath this step so when you pushed the screen door open and stepped out, you were going to step on this snake,” he continued, laughing out loud. “Here she come running, opened that screen door, stepped out and saw this snake.
“I swear she went sailing through the air, ran around the side of the house, grabbed a hoe and went to chopping on that snake. The snake never moved and pretty quick she got to going slower and finally stopped. She looked up at me, put the hoe against the house and wiggled her finger for me to follow her, heading for the willow tree. There were welts all over my backside, legs and everything else. Oh, she was mad. She didn’t think that was funny at all and I didn’t either by the time she got through!”
After high school Howard served his time in maritime service with the Merchant Marines, once taking a 6900 ton load of ammunition to the Phillippines, going through enemy lines and mine fields.
“We had escorts on all sides of us but one little torpedo and there wouldn’t have been anything left of us with all that ammunition on board,” he said.
Back home again he was working in a clothing store when one day he went to the bowling alley to watch a pretty young thing bowl — not Virginia.
“Virginia had a better wiggle,” said Howard, laughing. “How could I help it? She just wiggled down there and threw that ball and it just rolled on down there.” And he was hooked.
A year and a half later, October of 1948, they were married. It was when a radio station came to town and hired Howard as their sales manager his career began taking off.
“They were real proud of what I could do because I would sell advertising for a couple of ants crawling down the street,” he said, chuckling. “I would get a sponsor for anything that created excitement and they were happy with that.”
When Kansas went wet in 1949, Howard and a partner opened a retail liquor store, beginning his long career in alcoholic beverages - joining Italian Swiss Colony Wines as their National Sales Manager in 1954 and another company in the industry later.
By this time Vickie Lynn and Ronnie were born, keeping Virginia active. However, never an idle one, she became involved with Howard’s business when, in 1960, they started a Charolais cattle ranch, growing it into one of the biggest operations of Charolais cattle in this country, with 300 mama cows. It was Virginia who had to keep track of all the bulls - all the where, when and who (meaning heifer) was in their lives.
“It was a full time job,” Virginia said.
It seems the heifers at times had a yearning for the bull and the bull, at times, had strong yearnings for those beautiful little heifers.
“Those heifers would jump in to be with a bull and if I was there by myself, I had to get it out of there,” said Virginia. “If there was a little heifer wanting the affections of a bull, they were bound they were going to get it. I chased a bull out of the heifer patch one day until I was blue in the face. It was one young bull but he was the orneriest little dickens in the world and he got into the heifers all the time. Finally I got tired and went in, shut the gate and said, ‘Go ahead, breed every one of those heifers. I don’t care!”
They had the ranch when the kids were growing up and they fondly remember Ronnie and Vickie playing an intricate part of the cattle business. Talking of their lost son, a loving glow seemed to encompass them and the memory of his voice, his talents, his love swept across their mind’s eye and he seemed to be by their side, once more. Before they continued, they wanted to tell the Miracle of the Ring.
Virginia had bought Howard and Ronnie initial rings in 1963 which they both wore faithfully, never taking them off. After the accident, Ronnie’s ring was no where to be found and they thought it was lost forever.
In 1983 a man who was an airplane buff who liked to go to crash sites, having done it for a living earlier in his life, brought his wife to the site. For the previous two nights she had dreamt of a young blond man motioning her to follow him.
The day they actually went to the site she was going to wait in the car but felt compelled to follow her husband up the mountainside towards the crash side. About 500 feet below the site she stopped to rest beside a boulder. Looking down she saw something shiny and it was a ring.
Further investigation brought her to the front door of the Johnson’s home where at long last, it came home to rest, thirteen years after the crash.
But there was still life to be lived and the Johnson’s carried on.
While the ranch business was thriving — on the outskirts of Kansas City they would have cattle drives from one pasture to another — Howard began manufacturing commercial heavy haul trailers. This brought him to the Valley, where they eventually retired and settled in Pharr South, loving the weather and the lifestyle.
Watching Waltzing in Heaven on the DVD made of the play, isn’t just about death. It’s about the run of a life, the promise and the hope that life brings, something the Johnson’s wish to share with all who have gone through the loss of a loved one. Stories abound — life goes on — memories last forever.