I'm wandering off course today to pay my respects to my uncle, Jack Wehrle, who died yesterday a day short of his 85th birthday. Jack had been in poor health for a number of years after suffering a debilitating stroke about 15 years ago. He'd been in a nursing home in Florida for a long time and his health had been slowly deteriorating for the last few years. A couple weeks ago, he had a foot amputated after a pressure sore developed on his heel and it became infected. That was the beginning of the end of Jack who died at 5:00 yesterday morning.
Now, Jack wasn't really my uncle - he married my dad's first cousin, Virginia (aka "Muff") - but he was closer to me than any real uncle I had. Actually, he was a second father to me. He was a guy who shared my love of sports, especially baseball, and who loved to have a good laugh.
Growing up, the Wehrle household was a second home to us (as was our house to the Wehrle family). It was like having a second set of parents and having two more sisters and two more brothers in our family.
Jack was the tough love guy of the family. When I was younger - pre-teen years - he used to flip me shit relentlessly. But in a joking way Jack was known for. Now, I was too young to understand he was joking. At first, I really hated it. However, when I got old enough to understand that if Jack wasn't flipping me shit, then it meant he didn't like me. Given the amount of playful crap I got from him when I was younger, he must have really liked me.
In a lot of ways, I connected with Jack a lot better than I did with my own father. At least through my teenaged years. Jack used to take me to baseball games in St. Louis to see his beloved Cardinals play. Jack grew up in Eureka, MO and we'd go stay out on the family farm when we'd go to Cardinal games. Now, it's not to say that my own father didn't take me to baseball games when I was growing up, but Jack got into watching the games with me. My father would take a book and read while the game was going on.
The stories and memories of Jack are numerous. Not to bore those of you who didn't know the guy, I'll keep some of my more favorite stories brief and to the point.
There was one time in the late 60's when we went to St. Louis along with my cousins Sarah and Tom Wehrle. After seeing a Cardinals game one afternoon, we ended up going over by the Gateway Arch to see if we could go up to the top. The sign outside the main pavilion said there was a two and a half hour wait to go up into the Arch. Jack said, "Well, there's no way I'm sticking around that long to go up in that thing."
I very innocently said, "Well, my dad would wait."
Jack about came unglued. He yelled, "The hell he would!! Jesus Christ, your dad wouldn't wait fifteen minutes in line for anything!"
And Jack was right. My dad wouldn't have waited.
And you know - to this day - with all the trips I've made to St. Louis, I've never been up in the Arch.
Jack always used to make the greatest fried chicken in the world. Looking back, it's no wonder he had a stroke. He used lard and beef suet to cook the chicken in. But, damn! It was out of this world. He used to make it, seemingly, about once every other Sunday. But it was an artery hardener from the word go.
I think I got my love for beer - and beer hunting while I'm on the road - from Jack. I remember stopping at a liquor store outside of St. Louis after a Cardinals game one Saturday afternoon when I was about 14 so Jack could buy cases upon cases of Busch beer to take back to Iowa. This was long before Busch was available in Iowa. I think that's one of the reasons I love to find beers on the road that aren't available back here. I always thought that was so neat.
I remember he always had a small refrigerator stocked with beer. It was on the screened-in porch for a number of years, until all the neighborhood kids (well, and me) started stealing beer out of there. He put it in the basement after they did a full remodel of the kitchen/den area in their house. It was always full of beer. It's probably one of the reasons why I have my beer fridge these days.
As I got older and became of age to drink, whenever I'd walk into the house the first thing Jack would say to me was, "You know where the beer is, Willy. Go grab one."
Jack also taught me that it's better to drink whiskey with water rather than with pop. After a particularly hard night of drinking "sophisticated" drinks mixed with pop when I was in my early 20's - and subsequently upchucking for a good portion of the wee hours of the morning - Jack explained to me that I didn't want to drink pop with hard liquor. I've never had a sweet mixer with liquor since. He was a helluva teacher.
Jack always used to give me his old editions of The Sporting News, back when TSN had all the baseball games and box scores in it. For my 14th birthday, he bought me a subscription to The Sporting News. He said in his growly, yet knowingly playful voice, "There, now you don't have to take mine from me."
Before Jack and Muff moved to Florida 12 years ago, he gave me a load of his old baseball books that he had in his sports library. About 15 in total, I believe. They're all sitting on a shelf downstairs in our family room. Honestly, I haven't read them all, but I will.
I used to throw these big beer parties in my parents pasture from 1974 through 1979. Each year, I'd borrow Jack's pickup truck to haul things such as dirt, beer kegs and garbage. We even hauled a pig in it one year. Don't know if I ever told Jack about that.
One little funny story from using the pickup for the parties - I had given it back to Jack one evening a couple three days after one of the parties. The next morning, he drove it to work at the Maytag Company and parked it in the parking lot. One of the higher executives was parked near Jack and he saw something hanging from the antenna on the truck. The executive said, "Say, Jack! What's that on your antenna?"
He looked at it and said, "Christ, I don't know. Will used the truck for his big party. Maybe it was a flag to signify that it was the command truck, or something."
He and the executive walked closer to the truck, and upon closer inspection he found that it was a pair of pink women's underwear tied to the antenna. We found them while cleaning up the pasture after the party and put them on the antenna for posterity. Jack told me he about shit on the spot.
But, in a nutshell, that was Jack. Anything I asked from him, he was always quick to help me out.
I last saw Jack in 2000 when I went to Florida on a business trip. I took a day to go up and see him in his nursing home. Even though he had a little trouble, he eventually recognized me and I think he was happy that I showed up. But it really wasn't the same Jack that I knew. After he had his stroke, he did little to rehabilitate himself. By all accounts, he should have been dead years ago. But that stubborn streak, plus being a feisty old ex-Marine, kept him hanging on for a number of years.
Since he was the longtime office manager for Maytag, it sort of struck me as somewhat ironic that Jack died just hours after the Newton, IA Maytag plant shut down production forever. As my cousin Tom said to me yesterday, "Jack was a company man through and through. He died just after they shut down operations in Newton."
As much as it was a sad day for the citizens of Newton, it was equally sad for me to lose someone in my life who I looked up to as I grew up, and someone who I really enjoyed visiting with when I got older. As close as I got with my father after I got into my 20's, I was just as close with Jack for years before that.
Semper Fi, Jack. I'll drink a sixer of Busch beer in your honor today. You'll be missed...