By Alison Minard
WHITE OAK - When he is not defending our country, Army Maj. Jason Johnston can be found building a bookshelf, remodeling his house or hunting wild game on his family's lush 65-acre farm. It's where he can rest and recharge between deployments, while spending time with his wife, Sheila, and two daughters, Fiona, 12, and Gillian, 10.
Jason, who is stationed on Fort Bragg, has made a career in the military. He was born in Charlotte but grew up in Colorado.
"I've been in the Army since the week after I turned 17," he says. "What started out as a desire simply to serve like my grandfather did, combined with the need to be able to afford college and gain additional life experience, became a career toward the end of my first enlistment. I realized then that the Army was a path where I fit in, and there was a great deal of satisfaction in doing reasonably well. That, combined with seeing new places, moving every few years and the opportunity for professional advancement, have kept me going."
And the rustic beauty of Bladen County, where Jason, an avid outdoorsman, has time to hunt, fish and explore miles of woods and wetlands with his two daughters, between deployments.
"We all like spending time together," says Jason, who has hunted since he was a small child. Turkey, deer and quail are plentiful right in his own backyard, and being able to hunt on his own property is a benefit that he and his family enjoy.
"Spending family time together is easier now," Sheila says. "Deployments often take Jason away for long periods of time, and hunting and fishing used to take him away, too. Since we moved to this farm, he gets to be home more between deployments. There's no pressure."
Dad and daughters now hunt together. He looks forward to hunting during quail season with his youngest daughter, Gillian. "The hard part is finding the quail," Jason says. "They fly like darts through the trees."
He prefers to hunt with a 12-gauge shotgun, a .30-06 rifle or a Hoyt compound bow, depending on the season. He plants a half-acre of chufa to attract deer and uses broadcast feeders and piles of corn to help channel game through the property.
Last spring, Jason and his older daughter, Fiona, spotted a wild turkey late in the morning, across the open field behind their home. The father-daughter duo, dressed heavily in camouflage, pursued their game all morning across the sprawling farm. Fiona made bird calls with her hand to attract the large brown gobblers out into the open.
"We tracked them for three hours," Jason says. Then, they kept quiet, stayed low, and waited, until a bird appeared in the clearing. When a bird was finally in his sights, a single, booming shot rang out from Johnston's 12-gauge, shattering the morning stillness and taking down a very large turkey.
"Fiona's eyes were so big!" remembers Sheila. "Jason plucked it, I cleaned it, and we stuck it in a pot with a whole stick of butter."
"Now that we, as a family, have decided on the place to settle, we've put all of our efforts into building it into a comfortable home and a place the girls will want to return to after they leave for college," Jason says.
Over the past several years, they have been working hard to make their dream a reality. Their plan includes a restoration of the land, two houses and several barns. Their dream, Sheila says, "is to transform it into a Kentucky-style horse farm. Jason is giving the girls the hunting experience, and my dream is to give them the horses. I grew up on 80 acres of land with horses, where my father worked as a veterinarian and an M.D.
"Horses are my hobby," she says. "The farm is a gift from God."
When they purchased the farm, along with a 1970s red brick ranch home, two years ago, they didn't buy only one house. They also bought the house next door - a much older, and smaller, two-bedroom house built in the early 1900s.
"The seller wanted to sell both properties together and sold them for the exact amount of money that I could get with a VA loan," Jason says. The $600,000 side-by-side properties, located just miles from Bladen Lakes State Forest and Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, was a deal too good to pass up when it was reduced to $400,000.
"The smaller house could be used as a guest house or as an art studio, but right now it is used for storage," Sheila says as she reflects on its possibilities. Several old barns and abundant flora and fauna surrounded them. In addition to 25 acres of cotton, gracefully strung like pearls, there are pine trees, dogwoods, crape myrtles, beauty berry bushes, Bartlett pears, muscadine and scuppernong grape vines, and a weeping willow. Gillian and her sister pluck juicy grapes from the grapevine and fresh pears from the tree when in season. "We made some awesome grape jelly with the grapes last year," she remembers.
Fishing is easy with a spring-fed pond stocked with carp, bass and bream. A portion of Harrison Creek also runs gently through the property. Swimming, kayaking and fishing in their 18-foot Tracker are other pastimes the family enjoys. The pond is the site of a newly built duck house, where a passel of Muscovy ducks (17 in all) waddle down to the water's edge for their daily feeding, and where a small duckling the family has named "MD" has recovered from a broken hip that he suffered at birth. With help from a veterinarian on post, the little duckling was able to rejoin friends gliding across the pond. Exercise is the best thing for him, they were told by the vet.
"Little bones grow quickly," Sheila adds. It is an early and valuable lesson in farm living.
Living in the country is a big change from the city life they had lived previously in Monterey, Calif., while Johnston completed his master's degree at Naval Postgraduate School and where Sheila taught piano. Now, she is teaching her own girls how to play. They also are learning the violin.
The couple met at a church youth group when Jason was 15 and Sheila was 18.
"We were good friends for eight years before we dated. We used to go fishing together, and wrote many letters to each other," says Sheila. Eventually, they married, and nine days after their 1995 marriage, Jason left for a military deployment.
"We had our honeymoon in the barracks at Fort Carson, Colorado," Sheila says.
Five years after that, Fiona was born, and the new dad was able to make it home just in time for the birth.
"Into my seventh year in the military, I decided to become an officer, and from that time forward have never looked back," Jason says. "The Army created such a busy life for me and my family that before we knew it, I had been in for 20 years and there was no sense in getting out or starting something new. I have enjoyed working with the guys around me in every position I have ever been in, and there is a lot of gratification in that. After talking to civilian friends and relatives, I don't know that I could attain that level of satisfaction in a civilian job."
Johnston completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and then did his Advanced Individual Training in Monterey, where he learned to speak Russian. Then, in Washington, D.C., he also learned to speak Croatian at the Defense Language Institute. He has also been stationed at Fort Riley, Kan.
But it was years later, while living in Monterey, that they found their dream home in North Carolina. While searching through hunting and game property listings online, Jason and Sheila traded emails back and forth until they figured out that they were both interested in the same piece of land 2,300 miles away. Neither at the time knew that the other was looking at the exact same property on the Internet. Taking it as a positive sign, Sheila flew directly to North Carolina to check it out while her husband finished school. Ultimately, she gave him a hardy thumbs-up in favor of buying the property.
"Jason fell in love with the property once he saw it," she says.
Soon after discovering their new paradise, things took an about-turn. Just weeks after moving in, Jason was deployed again, and Sheila and the girls were left to get settled in a new home on their own. Then, a few months later, Fiona was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disorder, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. "It was a very stressful time," recalls Sheila.
As they adjusted to the new lifestyle and the challenges that it created, things slowly improved and the girls began to merrily adapt to country life.
"I like having animals, and I always wanted a farm," says Fiona, whose health is improving now. She is learning to care for dogs and ducks and chickens.
For Gillian, the joy also is about exploring the land. "We have lots of land and cool old stuff," she says.
To help them unearth some of the farm's hidden secrets, Jason gave his wife an unusual and special gift for Mother's Day - a metal detector - so that she and the girls could have fun exploring the farm.
"We found an old worn-out farming disc, blades, a mallet, an ax head and a wheel, so far," says Sheila.
There were other surprises. It wasn't until after they moved in that they discovered a small cemetery containing a single grave, mysteriously located between the two houses. A humble granite headstone, surrounded by a worn, black iron fence, reads: "Sara Martin, age 50, died July 30, 1887."
Her exact identity, 125 years after her death, is still a mystery to them. They are hoping to learn more about the history they've inherited as time will allow. Until then, every sudden gust of wind, creaky door or bump in the night fuels the imagination.
Exploring the pack barn revealed some hidden gems, too, that were later put to good use. It was similar to an old-fashioned Christmas morning as the girls uncovered a fishing rod, an old 1960s-style record player, a toy truck and a large oak antique table, hidden in the dark corners of the weathered barn. Sheila cleverly added wheels to the legs of the table and moved it into the kitchen. Hunting for antiques and thrift-shopping for unique items to furnish the home has been the fun part, she says.
This year, while focusing on remodeling projects, the Johnstons also are home schooling the children. They are doing most of the remodeling themselves, and the project list is endless.
"We have multiple projects going on at once, and it's hard to compartmentalize all of it because it's all connected," says Sheila. "I am by nature just someone who takes something on and does it."
She is someone who knows how to wield a gun or a hammer and, when needs dictate, pay the bills, feed her family and look after things on her own if Jason is away. She has, in the past, owned and operated her own design and greeting card company and was previously employed at L-3 Communications in Fayetteville.
"Everything in life teaches and trains us," she says.
With Sheila's training and background in design and graphic arts, she and Jason have no trouble envisioning the farm's potential as they plan out their next remodeling strategy. She admits that finding the time to work on projects isn't always easy.
"We work on things when we can. It will take years to build, and it just takes time," she says. "We're trying to get as much done as we can before Jason is deployed again."
Jason taught himself how to install a garbage disposal, built floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases and laid down new hardwood hickory flooring. Outside, a patio deck and an extra-large dog house and dog kennel also have been completed. The tobacco barn and pack barn sit half-empty, waiting to be reborn.
"I like to get things done, and I enjoy seeing the results of what we're trying to do," Jason says, "but sometimes it's overwhelming."
Indoor renovations have included the mud room, living room, foyer and kitchen and dining room.
"We wanted to make the kitchen more open so that even while I'm cooking meals, we can all hang out together," says Sheila. "The basic house has good structure and bones. Doing it ourselves means allowing ourselves to make mistakes and to learn from them.
"We just work through it."