My step-father passed away recently. I felt compelled to write this piece.
I had a dad for the first ten years of my life; I don’t remember much of the man.
He was tall, granted I was a child so everyone was. He had a permanent 5 O’clock shadow. He kept a collection of electric razors next to his mahogany-red leather recliner, he’d sit in the chair buzzing away at the stubble whenever he was home. And he drove a dark blue ‘66 Corvette, which sparked my love of muscle cars. I remember riding in that fast, loud, sports car as he sped through a toll booth and threw change at the basket without slowing down.
That’s about it. Not much to go by as far as fond memories of my father.
When he passed away in 1970, he left our mom alone with six children, three older, two younger. For the next seven years our mom raised us without help.
During these formative years, we had a lot of unsupervised time to ourselves. I for one, and I don’t think I’m going out a limb when I say I was not unique, did things that I’m not proud of. Made a lot of dumb choices, went down some roads that I wouldn’t have if there were a strong male figure present during my teenage years.
When I was a junior in High School, our mom adopted a boy who needed a stable home. We already knew him, and he was my age, so he fit right in. What’s one more when you’re raising six already? Seven teenagers, one house, one parent working full time. Although we did bicker and play hard, we learned to look out for each other.
That’s about the time our mom met John. He had two children of his own, (cue the Brady Bunch theme music here.) The youngest of the pair, a boy, was named after him. So we, the wise-asses that we were and continue to be, called the son, Little John, and our mother’s new beau, Big John. A name that stuck with him for the next four decades.
A paragraph ago, I mentioned that we were a group of seven fatherless children growing up in the early ‘70s. Let that sink in for a moment. The 1970’s in the United States. There was a lot going on in this country back then. When mom and Big John met, we were a rock and roll, authority thumbing, foul-mouthed group of teenagers. Although we loved and feared our mom, each of us at some point realized that we were bigger than her, a stern smack on the butt no longer held us in check. I should also point out with some personal embarrassment, that I began to like the taste of soap. That punishment no longer worked either.
Big John worked for the telephone company in a management positon. I don’t think we ever knew what he did for a living. Whatever it was, that job wasn’t the relevant information to a bunch of wild long-haired kids. Big John’s previous job was. He was a Drill Instructor for the US Marine Corps. (Cue the Halls of Montezuma music here.)
You can see our dilemma.
“Feral, (in a suburban neighborhood kind of way,) teenagers, meet, (stereotypical symbol of authority,) USMC-DI Big John. Our first few years were not smooth.
Despite the rough introduction, this was the family that Big John met, and still decided to marry into. A year later, we had an addition to the family when mom and Big John had a baby of their own. In a way, our little, ‘Buglet’, pulled us together. But this story’s not about her, or us.
It’s about how a man, who after devoting himself to our country, devoted his life to a woman with seven children, to our family. And as we learned more about what drew our mom to him, we found out that his desire to help others extended beyond our combined home.
Big John was a volunteer fireman in our town, and an active member in the BPO Elks, serving as the Exalted Ruler in the local lodge. He was a good man to all who knew him.
He was our step-dad for longer than my father was my dad, four times as long. He was with me through the years following high school when I was deciding what to do with my life. Helped me go to a trade school, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. Introduced me to slow, odd-looking Swedish cars. I’ve owned six Volvos since then, and was proud to show him every one of them.
When any of us got married and had children of our own, he was the man they knew as grandpa. When we lost the youngest of our original six in a car accident, he was there for our mom. And when we lost our mom to cancer, he was there for us. And we were there for him. Mom took care of all of us, and when she was gone, Big John needed us to help him. He was more than just a step-dad or Big John, as endearing as that nick-name had become. I’m sorry now, that I never said it to him, but he was my dad.
Big John passed away this morning. We’ll miss him in our lives, and keep him in our hearts.
Rest in peace dad.
John J. Kmetz, 04/20/1939 – 02/11/2015.