If your work was the last thing on earth that someone would see, what would they think? What would you think?
By Jim Mundorf
I work with Longhorns. That's what I tell people when they ask. I hate when they ask because I don’t really have an answer that’s easy to understand. Most people have never heard of what I do because nobody else does it. I’ve said I always wanted to be the best at something, so I picked something nobody else did. I just figure people think I'm lying to them, when I tell them I make my living from Longhorns. If someone told me a story like mine I wouldn’t believe them, but its the truth. I’ve worked with horns for the last 12 years and the vast majority of the money I've made in my life has come from Longhorns.
My horns come from Texas beef packers. I drive down there and load up trash cans filled with rotting, stinking horns. I bring them back to my shop in Iowa where I sort them out and pair them up. Then I pull the bones out of them, clean them, polish them, and build mounts and sculptures out of them. When finished, I take pictures and post them on my website to sell, DroverHouse.com. Eventually they are shipped off to some unknown person in some unknown place. That’s my business, taking something that most people wouldn’t touch or even come near, cleaning it up, finding the beauty in it and selling it to people who want it in their homes.
It’s a strange business, selling online. I ship pretty much everything I sell. My customers are names on order forms, or phone calls just long enough for me to get an address and credit card number. There are no familiar faces, no handshakes, no pats on the back. They all say thank you, but until they open the box and unpack it, they never can be sure. That’s what I’ve always wanted to see. The look on their face when they first lay eyes on it. A customer's reaction, a little bit of feedback. Of course the best feedback is making sales and the orders always seem to keep coming, but I’ve always felt like something was missing. Then one day I got a phone call that made me realize how wrong I was and how important it has been for me to miss it.
Phone calls are a welcome distraction in the shop because they usually come with an order. This one was different. The woman’s voice was nervous and shaky, “You might think this call is kind of strange, but I just felt like I should give you a call.” she said. “I get weird calls all the time,” I replied, hoping to put her at ease. “A few months ago my mother, Mary, had ordered some Longhorns from you,” she went on as her voice continued to shake. “She was so excited, she had sent me the pictures. When she got the horns she hung them on the wall. Then she went into the bathroom. She slipped and fell and hit her head…and…she died.” She was choking back tears now as I just stood there in stunned silence. As my mind raced, she knew what I was thinking, and assured me that the horns had nothing to do with it. She just felt that for some reason, I should know that the last thing she did on this earth was hang my Longhorns on the wall. Then she really started crying and I could tell she wanted to get off the phone. I awkwardly stumbled over how sorry I was and told her goodbye. I slumped onto my stool at my workbench and there I sat. Surrounded by horns and leather hides and saw dust and wood chips. “What the hell?” I thought, “What the hell was I supposed to do with that?” The scene replayed in my mind. A woman in an empty room, steps up on a stool holding a Longhorn mount. She hangs it on an empty wall and steps down off the stool, stopping for a moment to look at the horns on the wall. Then she turns and walks towards a doorway. There is no expression on her face, no signs of what she might be thinking. “What did she think?” I thought to myself, “What if she didn’t like them? What if there was something I had overlooked? What if she wished something was different?” The questions poured through me. “What if her last thoughts on earth were regretting buying my work?” I knew that probably wasn’t the case. She may not have been thinking about the horns at all, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt selfish. A life had been lost, I shouldn't be worrying about my work, but I didn't know her. All I knew is what her daughter had told me, that she hung my horns and died.
I went back to work, or tried to. That’s the problem with working alone in the middle of nowhere. There’s no escaping troubling thoughts. You can try to keep busy and pretend nothings bothering you, but getting this off my mind was impossible. So I gave up and sat down at my desk, determined to find this Mary. I searched my email and quickly found her. She had called and asked for two of the largest mounts that I could get. I got them together and emailed her pictures. That was the email she had forwarded to her daughter. She called me back and placed the order. A quick phone call from an unknown person in an unknown place.
I searched for her obituary and found it. Mary had been born and raised 60 miles from where I was sitting. She was two months younger than my own mother. She worked as a nurse that specialized in working with shaken babies. “I’ll be damned!” I thought as I leaned back from my desk, “She’s practically a saint.” I couldn’t think of anything nobler than working with the most innocent that had been abused by the ones that were supposed to love and care for them. I felt a connection with my customer and started to understand her daughter’s phone call. Mary was relatively young, had probably been a great mother and had done so much good in her life. Her dying so suddenly must’ve been awful hard to swallow. I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for her daughter to call me. Mary had been gone for months, and her daughter must’ve been searching hard for ways to get over it to end up calling me. I hoped it helped her to tell me, even though I had no idea what good telling me was going to do, or what I was supposed to do with this information. I sat and thought about it for a long time. I didn’t get anything done after that phone call that day. I couldn't stop seeing Mary walking towards that doorway. I couldn't stop hoping she was happy with my work. I walked to the house in the dark, knowing that I would always wonder what Mary thought as she took those last steps.
The days and weeks passed by and Mary moved to the back of my mind, but she never left it. As I finished projects and shipped out orders I found myself asking, “What would Mary think?” Anyone who ever creates or works on anything ends up asking themselves the same questions about their work, is it good enough, or can I do better? Should I take it apart and fix it, or should I just call it good? These are questions I had always asked myself, but now I had a new one, what would Mary think? Would she be happy taking those last steps, or is there something there that might bother her? Would she think my work is worth what she paid, or would she have a little regret about something? Is there something I could do better?
Years have passed since that phone call and I still think of Mary. I am no longer troubled by what she thought as she walked toward that doorway, but as I finish my pieces or come across problems, I still find my self asking, "What would Mary think?" I no longer wish for familiar faces, or handshakes or pats on the back from my customers. I'm glad I've never had that. Mary's story has shown me how important it has been to not see those reactions, how I've been able to build something by trying to impress people and never knowing if they are impressed. I have sold thousands of Longhorns over the years, to unknown people in unknown places, and very few customers ever told me what they thought. Some of my customers have been very famous and important people, but my most important one was Mary. It is her opinion of my work that has mattered the most to me. I sure hope she liked it.