Very few things remain constant throughout one’s lifetime.
Those, like me, who are reaching what others often call the “Golden Years,” certainly know that as well as I.
We’ve seen televisions come into our homes (and the original two or three local channels evolve into sometimes hundreds through cable TV), radio evolve from predominantly AM to FM channels, the nation’s network of two-lane roads replaced by four-lane interstate highways, telephones evolve from crank dial wall phones to wireless networks. We’ve seen airplanes take over for railroads, filling our skies with far-away dots and vapor trails (oh, how our lives have changed because of the ease of reaching continents around the globe), we’ve seen our home-cooked meals replaced by countless restaurants and carry-out fast food joints.
Oh, the list goes on and on – all in the name of progress. But, there’s at least one thing that hasn’t fallen victim of the passage of time.
Thank God for heroes.
I doubt there’s anyone – man, woman or child – who hasn’t had someone to admire, someone they’d like to become, or someone to idolize.
Many folks find their heroes on athletic fields or arenas; others find them in government, parents and teachers.
I’ve had such heroes, men I’ve admired throughout a lifetime. Many were professional and collegiate athletes. Others, quite naturally, were some of the educational leaders who’ve touched my life and, of course, parents fill the hero roll for a lifetime.
As years go by many of our childhood heroes become simply distant memories.
Through it all, though, one of my heroes still enters my mind from time to time bringing a smile to my face. That always leaves me wishing I could travel back in time for just one more face-to-face meeting, just one more heart-to-heart talk.
Even before I could speak plainly, my Uncle Jack was a special man to me. As I learned to speak, I’d wobble up beside the man in bib overalls, reach out chubby arms and call out “I want up, Apple Jack.”
Jack was the oldest of 11 children born to Charles (Charley) and Harriett (Hattie) Knox. Grandma was just 16 when she gave birth to Jack. In my life, Jack was always around. He was married briefly, but it was a doomed relationship (I’ve read a few of her letters to Jack, always sent to my grandmother because “I know Jack will never answer me.”).
Jack enlisted in the Army when World War II broke out and fought in the infamous “Battle of the Bulge” across Europe in the cold of winter. Although he was awarded a medal for his bravery, Jack never talked of the war, never told me or any other of nephews and nieces stories of the brutal conflict, his and his Army buddies’ courageous forays into enemy territory, often going behind enemy lines to blow up bridges in an effort to stop Hitler’s forces from advancing.
I asked my Mother once why Jack would never open up about his service during the War. She said, “I think your uncle saw too much destruction, too much death, and he just wants to forget.” I respected that and finally stopped questioning him about the war.
But that didn’t stop me from idolizing my mother’s oldest brother, the man who ran the plow, the planter, walked the fields to remove weeds, operated the old two-row combine pulled behind an old John Deere tractor (all us kids called it a “Johnny Putt-putt”), and then hauled the year’s harvest to an elevator.
He enjoyed playing a mandolin and guitar, often accompanying my grandpa Knox’s fiddle renditions of “Turkey in the Straw,” “The Wabash Cannonball” and “This Old House.”
And, there was always plenty of homemade wine – Jack would brew 50 gallons at a time. Mostly the sweet stuff would be either dandelion wine or garden beet wine. It was both tasty and potent – if you took a second cupful, Grandpa would take your car keys away.
While Jack was overseas in World War II, he fathered a daughter. He unsuccessfully tried to find his daughter after he’d returned to the Iowa farm. There was a time I was determined to find this cousin I’ve never met, never known, but I, too, have given up the search.
Jack’s been gone now for 30 years. I have all the memories – Jack giggling while playing with kittens, Jack playing the guitar and mandolin, and sitting on Jack’s knee. I recall riding on the back of Jack’s Harley Davidson during one the regular Sunday afternoon hill climbs behind the farmhouse.
With me on the back of the Harley, Jack never made it all the way up the hill. But we’d both laugh after I slid off the back of the cycle at Jack’s frantic command – “Jump, Billy, Jump.”