On a trip to Colorado Springs to visit grandkids and friends we ran into an old friend, Johnny Schmitt, from back East. John is 84 years old now and in good health. In fact, of his 12 siblings, mostly boys, and all but one still living, 10 still reside in the Hudson Valley of New York State, where I grew up. John and a brother are the exceptions. He left home at age 18, joined the military and became a dental technician – first in the U.S. Navy for five years, and then in the U.S. Army for another four. Not satisfied yet with his accomplishments, he applied to, was accepted and graduated from Nursing School in Albany and then spent another 20 years as a Registered Air Force nurse. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel and moved to Colorado Springs. After a number of years he tired of the snow and cold and finally made his home in Green Valley, south of Tucson.
John’s parents had emigrated from southern Germany to the Hudson Valley many years earlier. The father insisted that John, one of the oldest, needed to learn a trade and help contribute to the family’s coffers. After all, 13 mouths to feed was no easy task. They had been former neighbors in Germany to my Uncle Tom. They knew of Uncle Tom’s farm in eastern New York – a mere 10 miles away, and that he was a hard-working, successful dairy farmer. Tom and John’s parents agreed to have Johnny come and live with them on the farm every summer, and to work for one dollar a day along with room and board. John was 13 years old at the time. He soon learned that Uncle Tom was, what we referred to as “a slave driver.” He pushed Johnny to the very limits of the youngster’s physical stamina. It seemed he just couldn’t work enough to please my uncle and he spent time with us going over things we knew years ago about Tom. He then fell into melancholy mood for a moment and let us know of how tough it was for him back in the days of his youth. His eyes glazed over briefly. We understood and empathized with him and he took it all in.
Moments later he lightened up again. We sat for almost three hours at a restaurant laughing and reminiscing about by-gone days, as much as our fading memories could recall. Then he started: “Once, when he was gone for the day, I started up his new John Deere tractor and I drove it all over the whole farm; over hills, through gullies and woods and creeks for hours, mostly at full-throttle! I had a ball – I was free! God, I was TOTALLY FREE! Then, all of a sudden the damn thing started to sputter and shortly after that it ran out of gas! I was mortified! I had to walk more than a mile back to the house and own up to my ‘un-authorized’ adventure to Tom’s wife. When Tom got home, just a few hours later, she went on and on to exaggerate my crime. He was furious, yelled at me, mostly in his half-German and broken-English accent, to a point where I half-expected him to have a heart attack. He got over it in a couple of days!” He had my wife and me laughing hysterically until we had tears in our eyes as he told his stories.
Then suddenly he again became serious and reflective. “Bob, the truth is: I learned a lot about life, about work, about motivation and mostly – I learned about CHARACTER. I worked for Tom for four summers. I can tell you that the man taught me SO much! He was a GOOD MAN and, believe it or not, demanding as he was at times, I kinda loved him! He taught me so much about the rewards of hard work, about honesty, about integrity, and – about God! To this day I still think I got more from Tom than he got from me; end of story!”
What a WONDERFUL TRIBUTE to pay a man, a stranger he had gotten to know and appreciate over four summers of working for him and just growing up. It said a lot about John’s character as well!
We said our goodbyes. His wife Pat and my wife smiled. It was a most-fulfilling encounter after many years apart. We’ll meet again soon!