On a normal Thursday morning at 8:26 AM, one of my two childhood best friends, Gag, would be at the bank, breaking vendor hardware and writing reports about it. I, on the other hand, would be 34 minutes away from pretending to wake up. So when he called at 8:26am on Thursday morning, June 7th, 2012, I was already in business mode before I first opened my eyes.

“Hey,” said Gag.

“Wazzup?”

“You know that call we’ve always expected to hear about ‘Country but didn’t want to get?”

I skipped to the end of the page.

“What time?” I asked.

“About 3am this morning.”

I checked the phone to confirm the date: last night was Big Country’s birthday.

“How?”

“105 miles per hour on his bike into a tree.”

“Sounds like the way we expected him to go.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Gag, followed by a solemn chuckle.

“Cops?”

“Yup.”

“Grmm know?”

“I called him first.”

“Where are we meeting?”

“Not sure yet, but we’ll be at my house if you want to come out.”

And like that we spent the next week preparing to say goodbye to one of our dear, dear friends, Timothy “Big Country” Gajdik.

Who was Tim “Big Country” Gajdik?

He was nothing you wanted and everything you loved in a friend. He was a 6’6”, 240 lbs. hard living, hard lovin’ grizzly bear of a trucker from North of 30 whose roots were firmly planted in the south. He was a brawler, a huckster, and a hustler. He was a hunter, a woodsman, and a farmer. He owed you money and would tell you he’s about to pay you back while he’s buying a barfly a beer and you never thought twice because he was the first one there when you needed a hand. He was coming up with the next deal, assuring he got his cut, and making you believe it was the best thing for you. He could fix your car, bust your face, and outdrink you stupid all in the same night. It made him the best wingman you’ve ever had.

You couldn’t tell if he was coming. You didn’t know where he was going. And there were several times he was doing that for your own good.

He would piss you off. You’d swear him off but come running when he called your name.

He was outlaw country, true and true. With enough Native American in his blood to to apply for his share of the gambling revenue – but don’t tell some of his lesser cohorts.

He never hid who he was. It probably freed him up to laugh louder and enjoy the good times more than anyone else. Damn, could his smile light up a room.

He made sure you enjoyed those good times just as much as he did. And he did it for all the good reasons because that grizzly exterior sheltered his cubby bear heart.

You knew what you got with ‘Country, even when you didn’t know what that was, because before anything else you knew you had a friend.

Leave it to Big Country to stir up the dust when he went.

The police report said it was few officers in pursuit behind him in those final moments. The whispers from the neighbors on those roads that fateful night said it was a few more.

I don’t know. I don’t care.

I did care that one local paper essentially graphically corroborated the story by using ‘Country’s prison photo for the article. He had 60 photos on Facebook, laughing and smiling and being his true self, but that wasn’t the story they wanted to tell.

And even though I like him, I did care that the other paper’s writer said that after he “reviewed the reports” and heard from both of his ”readers” and “residents who claim that police should not have chased Gajdik ‘to his death’”, he decided the cops were justified. Had he tried actual journalism and researched ‘Country’s family a at all – which would have been a task in itself given Country’s 14-15 siblings – he would have found the sister he had dinner with earlier that night. She had a boatload of text messages from when ‘Country updated her while he was pulled over on the way to dinner by [if I recall] one of the cops that would later be looking over his body. He wasn’t speeding but they searched him and found prescription meds. They made him go back to get the prescription from the house. Hell, the writer could have shown up to the funeral and heard the texts read aloud like the rest of the hundreds upon hundreds of us who were there.

Because had he researched he would have found that ‘Country had many relations with the cops. Some bad, but most of them were good.

Had said writer put those bits of information together, he could argue that “the chase” happened before the night began. And he’d have a good, self-fulfilling prophecy argument.

And it’s not “the cops,” I get pissed about.

It’s just a couple. As the Corey Smith song says, it’s just “every cop who thinks the badge is a crown.” I don’t know their names or I’d start a revolution. The community’s already course-corrected and they’ll be trusted less. As for the rest of the force, ‘Country was friends with them. He’d hang out with them. Everyone loved ‘Country.

Everyone but, seemingly, a jealous few.

The events of the night are not what I think about when I think of ‘Country.

Here’s what I think about when I think about Big Country.

learn how to pull the engine out of a front-wheel drive and everything at Big Country's Garage State Park
Back in Big Country’s (dad’s) garage.

I think about Big Country’s Garage State Park. I think about George Strait playing on Indiana 105 on a Friday night. I think about the treasure trove of instruments with which him and Gag worked on their trucks, cars, bikes, three-wheelers, motorcycles…it felt like I was at a state park watching an exhibition. I think about getting nauseous from the garage’s blast heater in the winter. I think about rounding up XBoxes, networking them together and playing Halo all night on second-hand TVs while pumping out margaritas from the margarita ball and almost setting his house on fire by overheating the wood-burning stove. I think about how he could make the biggest bonfire one would ever see over at Grmm’s house. I think about ‘Country and Gag coming back looking like human popsicles after a night of three-wheeling down back roads in Duneland. I think about him being perplexed by the thought of Gag and I “wasting” our Saturday nights with margaritas, Doctor Who, and the William Hartnell drinkin’ game (every time Hartnell flubbed his lines, take a sip. Make sure you have a backup bottle!). I think about the way the folks in the bar always gravitated towards him. I think about the way Gag’s daughter bonded with ‘Uncle Tim.’ I think about the way he could tell three stories at the same time and they all made sense. I think about he was the worst poker player, ever, but kept coming.

I think about how we overloaded the funeral home for his wake.

Bikes, muscle cars, trucks, and minivans overloaded the parking lot and the vacant field next to it. We were lined up and down the street. Folks were waiting in line to pay respects for hours on end. Bikers, steel mill workers, leaders of local industry, mothers, daughters, barflies and bouncing baby boys were all in attendance to pay respects – and find justice. Every bar in town gave flowers, as well as many of the top local businesses – which was a delightful surprise.

It put the ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life” to shame.

Beaver Falls didn’t have as many in their town as there were at that place.

I think about how nearly as many showed up for the funeral.

I think about how we would rotate in the back so everyone got a chance to glimpse in on the procession.

And the incredible funeral procession of bikes.

It might be the most majestic display of respect I’ve seen given to someone. Over 100 bikes, riding two-by-two. Their engines signaling to everyone on every plane of existence that he was coming through the gates and you weren’t going to stop him.

But mostly I think about how he related to everyone.

I think about the way he made sure everyone in the room was included. It didn’t matter who it was. It didn’t matter where they were from. If they were there and they didn’t start a fight, they were a friend.

That’s the Tim Gajdik I miss.

When I think of him in his good moments, I think he reminds me of how folks described my father.

…down to the Carhartts. I think I was meant to meet ‘Country to get a glimpse of what my father could have been like. What I could be like, at my best. ‘Country was my window into the past and future, though don’t tell him I said that.

I don’t confuse the two, ‘Country & my father. Not one second. I couldn’t do that to ‘Country.

That man I lost that night was my friend, Big ‘Country, the richest man in town.

richest-man-in-town

PS – It’s been two years now & three days now.

The band definitely split ways. Gag went east to ‘Carolina; I went west to California. Sounds like Grmm will be nearby again soon. ‘Country? Well, something tells me he got in upstairs in spite of himself because of the effect he had on good people.

I wasn’t even by electronics on this year’s June 7th. I didn’t know what day it was when it came and went. I had to look at a calendar. I did notice that on that day, something stirred me to have a day in nature, the way ‘Country would have liked it. All I wanted to do that day was to be outside and look up at the sky.

He’d love the skies out here and being a couple hours west of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Something pretty wonderful just happened.

Katie was looking at photos on Facebook and came across a photo of the ‘65 Mustang her best friend purchased a few years back. It’s maroon and isn’t running. She said he knew as much about cars as she did, when wasn’t much. We called to ask if it was repaired. He said it wasn’t and he wasn’t sure what was wrong.

Given that her friend forgoes his chemical engineer career to stay in St. Louis and to tend to his ailing mother, my first thought was, “Oh, Gag & I could tow it up to ‘Country’s garage and take a look for him. They’d love to look at at a ‘65 Mustang.” And for a moment, that moment before reality set in, I was drunk in the excitement of going to ‘Country’s garage and being Indiana boys on an Indiana night: drinking beers, working on cars, and making the best of memories.

How quickly those days slip away.

Obituary links for Big Country:

Update 2018/06/06 – 6 years later.

The years keep pushing home farther and farther away. Gag’s family is now all the way to the Carolina Coast. His youngest daughter graduates this weekend. Me and the Mrs. are about to close on a cabin along the Oregon Coast. We’re thinking of starting a family in the next year. The freest spirit of the three, Grmm, planted deeper routes back home, somewhere in the middle.

Then this day hits. D-Day. The day we initially thought of bewedding. Big Country’s birthday. And for long, brief moments throughout the day we’re back in Duneland on Saturday nights. The biggest station out here is country, and reminds me of Indiana 105.5. Motorbikes blare up & down the 101 outside the house, soundtracking those evenings. There are couple bars down the street that remind me of the ones down the street back home ‘Country dragged us to when we didn’t want to go.

Like all those memories swirling about today, we’re better for them.

photo credit: 1) rocking horse photo – Timothy Gajdik via Facebook. 2) “Richest man in town” – Gag’s wife via Facebook.

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