John Gupton lived life wide open, a practical joker with a big goofy grin. He worked hard raising cattle in Franklin County, messing around in hay fields or on horseback, and people liked him so much they swore he made work feel like fun.
But in his spare time, John drove a firetruck. Just like his father. Just like his grandfather. In the tiny community of Justice, the Guptons’ firefighting roots stretch back to 1959.
So when they rolled John’s casket to the Baptist church Sunday, ringed by dozens of firetrucks and ambulances, they passed out fliers that showed his picture as a baby, riding a toy red engine, then as a grown man wearing a Kevlar suit.
They spoke of his death on a fire call Tuesday in speeches mixed with admiration and hurt.
Then all 1,000 people crammed into the tiny cemetery bowed their heads at once, removing hats with braid and tassels, saying goodbye to their brave friend, only 24.
“He loved the fire department,” said his chief, Kelly Harris. “In a small community like this, it’s a family.”
Justice is too small to be called a town, a stretch of N.C. 581 lined with tobacco fields on either side. Between the fire department, where John spent his days, and Duke Memorial Baptist Church, where he’s buried, there’s hardly a landmark.
His parents run Gupton’s Grocery, where neighbors remembered him as a rambunctious and joyful kid behind the counter, not a trace of shyness in him.
“Everywhere you saw him,” said fire chaplain Correll Pittman, “the boy was a live wire.”
John worked for Franklin Beef, where he checked cattle on horseback, processed the meat and delivered it himself. At Sisters Cafe in Bunn, they called him The Meat Man.
“Always so kind and sweet,” said Heidi Long, who works there. “We knew his name.”
When he wasn’t working, he’d read up on cattle vaccines, said his boss, Dennis Boone. If he didn’t know how to do something, he’d Google it and learn. When he died, Boone got calls from customers all the way to South Dakota.
“Just a really good kid,” he told me, voice breaking. “Make it sound good for him.”
But he had a mischievous side, which mourners recalled fondly. Once, he hid a co-worker’s truck behind a ring of hay bales, keeping the gag alive for three days. The co-worker finally discovered John’s joke once the cows had eaten through to the tailgate.
The Rev. Dougald McLaurin told the crowd Sunday about speaking to John’s mother, Jackie, who told him, “He had that way of coming in and wrapping you in his arms and saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”
He then asked his mother how she’s kept going in the days since his death, and she told him, “I just envision him saying, ‘Mom, it’s OK.’ ”
On Tuesday evening, John was driving to a stove fire when his tanker truck overturned on Sykes Road in Louisburg. His funeral drew firefighters from around the state: Moncure, Battleboro, Princeton.
The church held the ceremony outside, the crowd being so large, but the sun shone so brightly that many of the mourners carried umbrellas, and nearly all of them fanned themselves with the program flier.
At least twice during the ceremony, a guest fell down from the heat, feeling faint. Each time, a dozen firefighters and ambulance crew staff ran to help. Had he been there, John would have done the same.