"Cowboy Dan" Owens and I were an unlikely pair, but he was my best friend.
At the high school basketball game where I met Dan, I was quietly sitting in the bleachers with some friends, several empty rows between us and the court. I was a nerdy teenager who had never done farm work. I grew up living inside the village limits of Diller, Nebraska, population 300. My family were all business owners in blue-collar industries in our small town. I wanted to be a journalist some day, or maybe an entrepreneur like my parents and grandparents.
It was just two friends and I in our group at the beginning of the game, and it was a bit of a slow night. My friend Sarah decided to summon her childhood friend Dan to the game via text, a sure bet to liven things up. Dan turned up in straight-legged blue jeans and a cowboy hat. He always had on either a pearl-snap button-down or a cut-off T-shirt. I can’t remember which he wore that night, but it was surely one of the two. Dan and a couple other new friends walked up to us in the bleachers, looked at the game, and said, snowball fight?
He carried a pair of pliers at all times and liked riding motorcycles and working on his truck. He and his dad weren't rich by any stretch of the imagination. They lived outside Washington, Kansas, thirty miles from Diller.
I was a sophomore in high school and a member of a regional underage drinking prevention board; Dan was a bit older and loved to party. I was cautious; he loved the thrill of whipping his truck around on a dirt road and hearing the screams of the many ladies he brought along for the ride.
We went out to the parking lot and started shoveling armfuls of snow at each other from the several inches on the ground. That was the first of many times Dan would transform a whole evening with his presence.
Dan and I became best friends. He is my model of what being a caring friend looks like. He'd answer the phone or show up in his truck any hour of the day if you needed help. He joked that he'd come even if you needed a toothpick at midnight, and one night a friend took him up on it. It was her way of saying she needed his help dealing with a difficult emotional issue, and he showed up and offered his support.
Dan taught me to country swing dance in my parents' basement and the Pla-Mor Ballroom on Sunday nights, an hour away outside of Lincoln. He was always a charmer, and taught me to not be afraid of asking a guy to dance. A few years later, I met a boyfriend on the dance floor that way, a "city-slicker" from Lincoln who opened me up to the world of progressive nerds like me in Lincoln.
Dan and I continued to be close as he went off to trade school and I moved to Lincoln for college and joined the community of progressive tech kids and hipsters. Dan became like a member of my family. He helped my dad with construction projects and was a laser screed operator at my grandpa's concrete company. He became close friends with my aunt and her fiance, a mechanic at the same company.
My aunt and uncle were ultimately among the last people to see Dan before he was found dead on November 9, 2014 in Wymore, Nebraska. He'd been out at the bar with them, and had seemed fine when they left. A few days later after a frantic search, he was found in a stranger’s garage across town, their van left running with the doors closed. Dan was a mechanic; he would have known better. Some people suspected foul play; I might be one of them. He was 23. Dan didn't deserve to die so young. He was a good friend, a good guy, a beautiful soul taken too young.
Dan had been missing a few days when I got a call from my dad to tell me that they’d found his body. I remember crumpling to the floor in the lobby of my dorm where I took the call. Tears started streaming down my face; I couldn’t speak. My boyfriend drove me to Diller, where we sat grieving in my aunt and uncle’s living room with many others who had loved Dan. I tumbled deeper into depression and didn't emerge for months.
With Dan gone, I've lost a key connection to the rural area where I grew up. I'm only an hour away on the highway, but much farther away culturally and socially. I hang out at the hipster bars with vegan friends and go to progressive rallies and protests. My friends drink craft beer and are more likely to be artists than construction workers. Not many listen to the red dirt country music Dan introduced me to; even fewer like to hunt.
Dan had a way of bridging the gap so that none of that mattered. He was my friend unconditionally, even as my politics and interests changed and there were more miles separating us. We found common ground in our shared struggles with chronic pain, our love of country swing dancing, and our desire to make the world a better place through relationships with those around us. I haven't danced much since he's been gone. Don't hang out with many biker dudes much any more, either.
I know in my bones the world needs more people like Dan, people who are kind and honest and unafraid to be a true friend to people who are different than them. Dan was pure and good. He felt it was his duty to put a smile on the face of everyone he met, regardless of their background. He took loyalty to friends seriously, and was willing to make sacrifices to help others. It never occurred to either Dan or I that we should stop being friends because our political outlooks were different, or because I gravitated towards the city while he settled down (as much as he ever would) in Diller.
Our increasingly divided world needs more of this type of friendship, and more people like Dan. It is a rare gift, and one that maybe just falls into place and can’t be manufactured on purpose. When it happens, though, it’s magical.