He was a giant. Figuratively, if not literally. My old man probably stood about 5'9" in his stocking feet. But even when he was dying of cancer, when his voice boomed — you listened.
I don’t know how he did it, managing to keep a roof over the heads of his wife and seven active and hungry kids (born in the span of 12 years). He was a maintenance worker at Alcoa in Bettendorf, Iowa when I first recall knowing him. He also worked a couple overnights a week at the Sweetheart Bakery in Clinton, where we lived, the benefit from that being there would usually be a bag of donuts and sweet rolls on the kitchen table when we got up on Saturday morning.
He was a tough guy. He was from the wrong side of the tracks. My mother’s parents were horrified when this hoodlum with the t-shirt with the pack of Chesterfields rolled up in the sleeves and his tight, hip-hugger jeans with the cuffs rolled up came down to the nice part of town to ask their daughter out. He spoke not a word, except to ask, “Marl here?” My grandfather and uncle Herb once decided not to answer him until he spoke a complete sentence to them. I’m not sure if he ever did.
They met in 1949. It was love at first sight that Dad almost ruined by his location for a first date. He took her to the Lyons Theater to watch a Three Stooges festival. Okay, even by today’s standards, that’s pretty dumb. Nobody likes the Stooges more than I do — but a first date? With a girl? Girls hate the Stooges!
But, surprisingly, there was a second date, then a third, and so on. And on June 17, 1950, John Schmalfeldt and Marilynn Hanger became man and wife.
Oddly enough, the first kid didn’t come along until 1952. That was my sister, Cindi. Then in 1953, Jack popped in. In early 1955, it was me and Bob — two for the price of one. Joe joined us in 1957, Becki in 1962, and I think I have a sister who was born in 1964, but she wants nothing to do with this family anymore so to hell with her.
Oh yeah. He was a tough guy. When I got beat up by a gang of kids in my early teens and lost my glasses, Dad said, “Let’s go find your glasses.” He grabbed a baseball bat and we walked back to where I was beaten up. I don’t think Dad was going to use the bat to organize an impromptu baseball game with the thugs. We didn’t have a ball.
He liked pretending to be the tough guy with us, too. Mom was the actual enforcer. There was none of this “wait ’til your father gets home” crap at our house. If you had a spanking coming, Mom wasn’t shy.
Dad was more the fear of punishment. If you were loudly misbehaving, he’d make you lay down on the floor by his feet while he read his book or watched the TV until he decided you had learned your lesson. Oh, he’d often threaten to chop off our heads and spit down our windpipes, but to the best of my recollection, he never actually did that.
One Christmas morning, Dad was acting like a real jerk. As Cindi, Jack, Bob, and I were older, it seemed most of the presents were being handed out to the littler kids. When all was said and done, the four of us felt gypped. Dad called us into the bathroom for a private ass-chewing.
“Now look,” he said. “I want you four to march into my bedroom. I have a stereo in there for your mother. I want you to bring it out and give it to her and with bright, smiling faces, say, ‘Merry Christmas, Mom.’ And if you drop it, or screw this up, you will rue the day I conceived you.”
Fine. So not only did we get screwed, present-wise, but the old man was being a jerk.
So, as ordered, we marched into the bedroom. On the bed was a stereo. But the label said it was for Cindi. Next to the bed, three shiny new Stingray bikes! Green! With banana seats! We turned around and the old man was standing in the doorway with his cup of coffee and that half-grin that we all, happily, inherited from him. “Now, let’s see which of you will be the first to break something,” he said as he walked back down the hallway. We heard the “crunch” as he stepped on one of the younger kids’ toys that was hiding under wrapping paper. No one said a thing.
The last time I saw him was when he was in the hospital in 1982. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1981 and had most of it removed. But he was terminal. He sure didn’t act like it.
Bob, Joe, and I stood at the foot of his bed. Dad told us he loved us. Then he said, “Now, be a help to your mother and don’t mess up the house. If you do, when I get home — and I will come home — I… will… beat… your… little… asses!”
He would have, too!
On Feb. 15, 1983, I was assigned to the USS Towers (DDG-9) home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan. I ran the ship’s onboard radio and TV station. An ensign came by my compartment and said the Executive Officer wanted to see me. It’s never a good thing when the XO wants to see you. I made my way to his office, and sat outside as I heard him chewing out a chief petty officer. The CPO left, and he called me into his office.
“Bill, I’m afraid I have some sad news,” he said. My first thought was, “He knows my first name?”
He handed me the telegram that told me my father had died on Feb. 13. I would be granted 30 days emergency leave to go back to the States and they would get me onto the first plane possible.
As I packed my stuff, my mind flashed back to a night when my Dad, my brother Jack, my brother Bob and I were all sitting around the kitchen table playing poker. Oh. We were also drinking. Quite heavily.
Suddenly, Dad stopped dealing.
“Boys,” he said with as much seriousness as a man with a belly full of Jim Beam could muster, “When I die, as someday I must, I don’t want a big, fancy funeral. I want to be cremated. And I want all my boys to sit around the table with my urn right there in the middle. And I want you to raise a toast of good bourbon and say, ‘Here’s to John Matthew Schmalfeldt, one sweet son-of-a-bitch.” And every now and then, open up the lid and drop in a shot until I get good and muddy.”
Well, I was in Japan. I didn’t have access to the urn. But I did have friends, and the enlisted men’s club did have Jim Beam. I gathered my friends, we sat around a table and I poured a shot for each of them… and one for my dad.
“Shipmates, here’s to John Matthew Schmalfeldt. One sweet son-of-a-bitch!” I said. Then I downed the shot. Everyone else downed theirs as well. Dad’s sat, untouched.
Until it was time to leave, however. I drank it. Dad hated to see good bourbon go to waste.
There are so many stories about my Dad. Many of them, slightly-fictionalized (to varying degrees), are in my book Hunky Dunk. But the man was larger than life. Even now, 27 years after his passing, I feel his presence every day.