Don Imus Has Heart

In New Mexico—--far west Texas to you and me—--my old friend the radio jock runs a ranch for kids with cancer. And you thought he was all talk.

February 2002By Comments

WITH THE DECLINE OF THE Village People, there aren’t many crazy cowboys left in New York City, and Don Imus and I like to keep it that way. We’ve been friends for almost thirty years, and we spent the first half of that friendship determinedly trying to destroy ourselves. I don’t know if you’d call a man who drank a tropical-fish aquarium of vodka everyday an alcoholic, but then this is coming from me, the man who snorted the glitter off Loretta Lynn’s titter. So who would have thought we’d now be spending our time determinedly trying to help others? Two years ago Don, along with his wife, Deirdre, and his brother, Fred, started a ranch for kids with cancer in that beautiful part of far west Texas some people call New Mexico. Three years ago I helped create the Utopia Rescue Ranch, a sanctuary for stray and abused animals, located near Kerrville. Don and I confine most of our efforts to the spiritual casino. In other words, we don’t do much work—we just raise money. It’s more satisfying than what we used to do, which was just raise hell.

Don, of course, has millions of radio listeners across the country who tune in faithfully, and you can also see him on MSNBC every weekday morning during the ungodly hours of five to nine. If you don’t listen to him, you should. One good reason for doing so is that he’s almost constantly promoting me. This does not seem to bother his fans in the slightest. Many of them are outpatients, insomniacs, blue-ball truckers, or spiritual shut-ins, but their numbers are growing, making Don one of the hottest early-morning commodities since my fairy godmother’s reheated coffee.

Don's dark, twisted, troublemaking take on life and its myriad shortcomings can be highly addictive, not to mention that his outrageous brand of humor tends to sail dangerously close to the truth. For instance, when President Bush held a press conference a few months back with the pope, Don said, "This ought to be good since neither of them can speak English." He has one of the best horse-manure meters in America for weeding out the phonies, the hypocrites, and the pompous asses among us, as well as an almost encyclopedic knowledge of country music, the blues, history, current events, animals, and course, people.

Don's version of our long, heroic friendship, however, is somewhat different from mine. He contends that our relationship always seems to warm up considerably whenever I publish a book. This, I can assure you, is not entirely true. Our friendship also heats up whenever I've got a new CD or whenever I'm performing in New York. This should not be terribly surprising. After all, what are friends for?

This past summer I got the chance to visit the Imus Ranch, which is near Ribera, about forty miles east of Santa Fe. It is a four-thousand-acre working cattle ranch for kids terminally ill with cancer and is, among other things, the only vegetarian cattle ranch in the world, proudly sporting a large herd of Longhorns that will live out their days happily, never to be slaughtered. The Imus Ranch is completely organic and serves meals according to a strict vegan diet. I think it's important to be a vegetarian because it's a way of being kind to animals. Of course, it's also a way of being morally superior to other people. Unfortunately, in the history of the modern world there have been few male vegetarians. The list includes Gandhi, Imus, Dwight Yoakam, Woody Harrelson, Hitler, and myself. Any way you look at it, this is not a particularly strong group.

My only major complaint about the Imus Ranch, in fact, was that I had to sneak out of my building every time I wanted to smoke a cigar. I did, however, get to ride a horse for the first time in many years. Usually, I ride two-legged animals. On this day Don, Fred, Deirdre, ten kids, and I rode for several hours across the rolling hills of New Mexico beneath a majestic mesa. We passed sheep, buffalo, cattle, chickens, goats, donkeys, and an old Western town that would rival any set in Hollywood. Behind the town's facade are the ranch offices, guest houses, infirmary, and recreation room. Afterward we stopped for lunch at the hacienda, where Don and Deirdre stay with the kids. Don told me the hacienda was his idea, a way of recreating the ambience and spirit of the television series Bonanza. I told him that only a mental patient would think of doing something like that. Nevertheless, almost one hundred kids do that each summer, and their numbers are growing. It is important to note that the kids do all of the ranch chores, and they are never treated like cancer victims.

Don may seem like a strange figure to have undertaken a venture like this. Numerous times I've wondered at his death-defying survival and, indeed, questioned his very sanity. I remember several times when the two of us quite literally saved each other's lives, or maybe we just thought those were our lives. But never have I been prouder of Don or seen him riding taller in the saddle than that morning last summer when he led those little kids on a trail ride over the hills of New Mexico. All of us, I suppose, could be said to be terminal. It's just that some of us are more terminal than others.

After twenty years of hell-bent self-destruction, Don has risen like a phoenix, and I'm actually beginning to believe that he may have nine lives. His most recent brush with death, however, wasn't all his fault. In June 2000 Don was thrown by a horse—interestingly enough named Destiny—and broke seventeen ribs, punctured a lung, and shattered his clavicle. It took the paramedics two hours to reach him, and they pretty much thought he was a goner. Those two hours, Don later told his radio audience, were the longest two hours of his life. A listener called in from White Plains, New York, and told Don that the longest two hours of his life were anytime Kinky Friedman appeared on the show.

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