Light and dark.
Laughter and tears.
Joy and sorrow.
Life has made a poet out of Dee Strickland Johnson nee Dorothy Jean Strickland — known since age 9 as “Buckshot Dot” — a beloved Rim Country entertainer and an officially designated Arizona Culture Keeper.
She’s tough and tender and beautiful and funny. She’s like the Rocky Mountains, with sunlit peaks above the tree line and canyons so deep the bottom’s lost in shadow.
She mourns the sister she never knew.
The mother she had for such a short time.
The son she lost to silence and shadow.
But you’d never know it.
Not when she all but disappears behind her guitar and unleashes a rollicking ballad.
Not when she joyfully recounts her years-long search for a long-lost folk song.
Not when she tears up in gratitude for the friend who brings her groceries in her pandemic isolation.
Not when she jokes with her beloved husband of 60+ years.
Not when she talks about the quirks of her history, drama, and art students, her voice soft with her love for them.
She’s almost made it into her 90s with all the loss and grief that comes with such an accumulation of years lived with such an open heart. But you’d never know it, when she launches into the story of a friend, a song, a Scottish musical, the strange dream of a castle on a craig.
“Perhaps my place in life is to bring some happiness into the darkness — but the darkness is important too,” she said after a rambling interview that inspired a mix of tears and laughter. “It’s just one side of the coin and the other side.”
Now she’s offered the Roundup a chance to share that dappling of light and dark with its readers, by offering up her bright, funny, touching poetry as an occasional feature. She is a master of cowboy and Irish ballads, but also “whimseys” inspired by the grim challenge of COVID and the “fairy” poems for people who have been kind to her and her husband John during this time.
It’s rooted in a life where grief and gratitude have been all mixed together — the rich, dark patina on a sculpture of grand and mysterious design: A Remington with hummingbirds.
“I have four male friends who are all alone in their homes because of the COVID. One is 95 years old — a world-renowned botanist, the ‘Father of the Navel Orange.’ He’s got a map in his office in Riverside that’s covered in pins indicating all the places he has given a lecture or workshop on citrus.”
On one lecture tour, he discovered that the Chinese botanist — who had developed a grafting system for the Meyer lemon — was in prison there for political “crimes” against the Communist regime. Dot’s friend’s lecture on this man’s method of grafting explaining the importance of the imprisoned botanist’s work convinced the Chinese authorities to release him.
“Oh my goodness, can you imagine that?” she says, delighted. She does that — launches suddenly into a wonderful story full of light and darkness about someone she came across because she loves the world and grieves for it all at once.
At the time of her birth, Dot’s family lived on the Navajo Reservation, later moving to Tonto Basin where, during the Great Depression, her father directed a CCC crew in building road bridges in Tonto Basin. There, at the age of 3, she gave her first public performance. Shortly thereafter, the family lived in a tent on top of the Mogollon Rim while the crew built the road over the old General Crook Trail. Then they moved to the Hualapai Reservation on the Rim of the Grand Canyon where her father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The family of four lived in a one-room house painted bright vermilion. She grew up singing with her family, parents harmonizing and she and her brother joining in.
She has taught high school drama, history, free enterprise, English, and art as well as the gifted program and fifth grade. She has written five dance folk-musicals, four for Frances Smith Cohen, director of Dance Theatre West at Herberger Theater and has opened for renowned singer Lyle Lovett. She won the Academy of Western Artists Female Cowboy Poet of the Year award and the Will Rogers Medallion award, also the Western Music Association award for Best Poetry Book of the Year for one of seven books she’s penned.
But that’s all just stuff that happened along the way. Mostly what she loves to do is talk about the people she’s happened upon. You listen to Buckshot Dot talk about people for an hour or two and you realize the world’s full of miracles and kindness and that maybe the point of loss and sorrow is to make us love the world and the people we stumble across.
So she talks about the sister she never knew who as a toddler danced to “Golden Slippers” played on the old Victrola. She tells how little Joanne died with a fever during the night before Christmas Eve, how the car wouldn’t start as her frantic father cranked it, so he and his wife ran carrying the little girl and her infant brother a mile or two through the snow to the neighbor’s house. They arrived too late for Joanne.
Dot was born three years later. “My mother was so delighted to have another little girl that she named me Dorothy (Gift of God) and Jean — (God’s Grace), hence “the gracious gift of God.” Whenever we were where music was playing, I would pray that the band wouldn’t play ‘Golden Slippers’ because it made my mama cry.”
Her mother taught “Dottie Jean” to treasure books and music. “Even when I was very young, she read classic prose and poetry to me. She wrote creatively herself, had a number of pieces published. She was also a wonderful artist, but she had only one canvas; she would just keep painting over the former picture — and she didn’t finish the last one.”
When Dot was 10 years old, her mother died — it was Dec. 7, 1941 — the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That morning her father called her down from upstairs at her grandparents’ home, there she found all the family gathered. They told her that her mother was gone — and our country was at war. Very soon her father would also be gone — he joined the Sea Bees and went off to war.
So you see? How do you crowd all that into the introduction for some light-hearted poetry? How do you tell the story of such a life in a newspaper, with paper that tears and yellows? How do you do such a story justice?
And we haven’t even mentioned the Scottish folk musical she wrote about a castle she made up — only much later to discover that there actually was such a place, (now abandoned and broken) just as she imagined it — on a high craig of rock “wi’ the sea beating aboot it on three sides?”
And did you hear about when she was in secretarial school paying her way by working as the nanny for a banker’s family? On her one day off each week, she went looking for a church with a post high youth group. One night, soaked to her skin in the pouring rain, she finally found such a church. There she learned to play guitar and the sponsor of the group helped her to get a scholarship at the University of New Mexico.
And did you hear the story about how her husband — the electrical engineer — proposed many times. She (by then Dee) finally accepted so casually he didn’t realize it until he heard her making wedding arrangements on the phone — for the following weekend. A friend said they were proof that opposites attract — because “John is MENSA material and Dee — well, Dee does cowboy poetry” — a punchline she delivers with a laugh that could cure migraines.
And what about their three children? Son Daniel, adopted at the age of 28 months, was so musical. “He knew so many poems and songs that I was amazed. He also wanted to play a fiddle and didn’t think much of anyone who couldn’t! Some foster parent had spent a lot of time with this precocious child. He soon learned to play fiddle, of course, and he could dance as he fiddled. He has recently retired from 37 years in the Army.”
Son Tim died recently at Payson Care Center after a near-fatal car accident 17 before which had left him half paralyzed, unable to speak, sit up, or stand. She visited him every day. She says a Shaman friend went to see him. “He said, ‘Tim’s in there and I will prove it.’ He did.”
During his first year in confinement, Dee helped Tim communicate — first to tap his finger for YES or NO, then to spell words when she presented him — first with an alphabet, then with the letters of a computer keyboard. The first thought he composed was “I want out.” The next was “I love you.” Dee said, “That just broke my heart.” Tim had been an electrician, a carpet layer, and an auto mechanic. He could fix anything. After the accident, she went to visit him every day. Most days when she left, he would spell out “I love you Mother.” He died just before COVID struck. She says, “It’s a mercy he died before that came — it would have cut off my visits and those of all others.
Oh, my such a sad and luminous story.
And we haven’t talked about their daughter Becky, adopted at 1 year — a bright child who could read at age 3 and tested genius category at age 4. She now lives near a small town in Virginia where she turned an abandoned strip of grass into a thriving farmers market. She became the mentor and mother figure to all the vendors, including the black preacher with a gift for making barbecue sauce and the Ukrainian vendor who Becky coached to turn the baked goods of her native land into a farmers market sensation.
Might as well give it up.
Who can explain poetry or love or life? It’s mysterious and grand and heartbreaking. The poets know this and tackle the great mystery in fragments and snatches to help us bear the darkness and nurture the light.
So Dot’s poems are little glints of light from the river bottom, gleaming through the dark waters.
She sends them to her friend, crushed by his divorce which he cannot bear or explain after 23 years of marriage. “Christmas was terrible for him,” she says, always gripped by the stories of others. “So every day I send him something — some Scripture or silly poem. I want him to know that there is a bright ending. It’s like a railroad tunnel. You go into the darkness and you can’t see a thing. You’re fearful and in the dark. And then you see a tiny bit of light that gets brighter and brighter. The light will come at the end of the tunnel. It’s coming! Don’t forget that. The miracle is coming!”