Mr. Wheeler and me

I was talking to someone the other day and relating an incident from my childhood. As a result of that conversation I began to trip down memory lane a bit, and the result is this little missive I submit for your review.

I grew up in a neighborhood devoid of other children. My only brother, 19 years my senior, was gone from the home by the time of my birth. My folks, having me very late in their lives, lived in a row of rural homes that were inhabited almost exclusively by late middle-agers and elderly, whose own children had long before grown - and gone. So hopefully it’s made clearer to the reader why my best friend as a boy was a man my father’s age.

Robert F. Wheeler moved next door when I was four years old. The family that moved away had been close to us, and the “new” arrivals were initially viewed from a reserved perspective. But they were good people that became the epitome of what neighbors are supposed to be. Unlocked doors, unannounced visits, perpetually opened gates, countless shared meals, and shared life experiences characterized the relationship between our two families.

And while later the close relationship was retained among the subsequent generations, the original fulcrum of the neighborliness was, I believe, the friendship that existed between me and Mr. Wheeler.

He fought in the pacific campaign of WWII with the 1st Cavalry Division of the US Army; indeed he lost an eye in combat against the Japanese. Thus the man was an honest-to-gosh war hero and to a small boy he ranked right up there with Sparticus, Superman, and John freakin Wayne. But in actuality he was utterly boring on that front, as he steadfastly refused to glorify his quite glorifiable exploits to an impressionable youth. Instead, he introduced me to a host of other heroes he felt more worthy of juvenile adulation through a steady diet of literary sources as varied as he could manage.

You see …reading was our commonality, our touchstone.

I woke early every morning, usually around 4 or 4:30, and watched to see his study light come on. The moment it did - I was headed that way. No knock on the back door. Just breeze right in, say “Good morning Mr. Wheeler” and take a spot on the floor at the foot of his chair – the only one in the room; a room filled with books on theology, history, politics, the military, and a great medley of miscellaneous topics.

There was always a book or magazine he had set aside with me in mind. The admonition accompanying the text to be read was pretty standard: “Lay down there and read this, and then tell me about what you read.” I was only too eager to comply.

Mr. Wheeler read his Bible, or whatever other book was to his taste, and I read there on the floor. This was a ritual repeated for many years with the frequency of three to four mornings a week. With no distractions in the form of other youngsters, I was left free to devour the library that was Mr. Wheeler’s home. On rainy days, cold days, or just about any boring Sunday afternoon the woods and fields might lose their allure to the pull of Mr. Wheeler’s back porch where there was to be found 60 years of National Geographic - or 50 years of Reader’s Digest.

I have ever been the voracious reader, and I trace the habit squarely back to the encouragement by an old man to a young boy.

Mr. Wheeler was a devout Christian, but not merely the talking kind, He was the doing kind. He was without a doubt the hardest working retiree I ever saw. Yet his efforts weren’t expended in the quest of mammon, but in the assistance of others – of people in need. There was always some old lady’s clothes line that needed fixing, or someone in need of a ride somewhere – to a doctor’s office maybe. He abhorred laziness, wastefulness, and dishonesty. His was a frugal existence, determined as much by choice as by financial circumstance. A part-time job as a food warehouse “bug man”, and a disability check in exchange for an eye, produced a thrifty old gent who naturally eschewed eating to excess. Though if invited (or even if not) to a neighbor’s table, he could certainly bring himself to eat with gusto. By religious conviction he abstained utterly from alcohol and tobacco.

I never recall seeing him lose him temper. His grandson Robert, who is today a dear friend of mine, would dispute this. But Robert’s personality being what it is (Hey Robert!) it’s no wonder he can more easily remember Mr. Wheeler getting angry. I do recall one angry episode when I was a small boy. I kicked his dog – for no reason that I can remember. I just kicked him. And Mr. Wheeler for the only time I can ever recall, yelled at me. Lord knows…the time I dug up his entire yard looking for buried treasure; you’d think he would have gotten mad then. But he didn’t. He just insisted I go fill in all the holes. Neither did he get mad when he found me rooting through all his wartime memorabilia that was in a large chest in his garage.

Not to infer that Mr. Wheeler was without his faults. He’d be the first to tell you that no one on earth is perfect. Mr. Wheeler’s only fault was that he was tight with a dollar. And if the truth of it were told, I expect that was because his money came very hard in life. So there was a natural tendency towards thrift. His “thrifty” ways led to the only occasion where I got mad at him, but it taught me a valuable lesson about doing business that I never forgot.

There was a hedge that grew along the back property line of his yard, and it had been allowed to grow to gargantuan heights – completely untrimmed and lacking shape of any sort. If memory serves, that thing was probably twenty feet high. Mr. Wheeler asked me one Saturday morning if I would cut it all down and drag the cuttings down into the field behind the house; there to dry out and be burned in the Fall. He said he would pay me for the job, and I took it on faith that I would be paid a fair wage. But foolishly I didn’t settle on the price beforehand. Bad move on MY part!

The job was hot and hard and I cultivated a wealth of blisters on both hands with axe and clippers. I worked my tail off and the job took the preponderance of the day to finish. But late in the afternoon with the hedge cut down to near ground level, and a veritable mountain-sized brush pile awaiting the burning season, I presented myself to Mr. Wheeler for payment. I was very proud of the job I did for him, and as it turns out he was proud too. The praise he bestowed on me was lavish – the pay was a bit less so. I extended my hand with a grin, and drew it back with a frown. It seems my sense of price and his (being a depression era man) were far apart. I was looking for pictures of dead presidents on green paper. Instead I got three shiny new quarters. Oh the outrage! But I loved the old man too much to let him know I was disappointed. It drilled into my brain the resolution however to never agree to do work without resolving the price beforehand; for anyone!

When my mother outlived my father by eleven years, Mr. Wheeler was right next door for seven of those years as a great help to an aging lady in poor health. I lived twenty miles away much of that time, and my relationship with Mama was a rocky one at best. So there were innumerable times that Mr. Wheeler’s council delivered at the precise time helped to salve the relationship between my mother and me. He was one of the few people my headstrong and domineering mother would actually listen to. And if you knew my mother, you’d know how monumental a statement that really is.

His unexpected death hurt her almost as much as the death of my father.

As I mentioned before, his lifestyle was frugality defined; never did he eat to excess, and never even once did he imbibe alcohol or make use of any sort of tobacco. Even into his seventies he was the picture of health. You never saw him ill or even feeling under the weather.

In 1993 there came a period where he felt out of sorts. I expect that few people around him knew that was the case. Having grown up around older people I am well acquainted with their propensity to discuss their various maladies and ailments. But Mr. Wheeler wasn’t your typical oldster by any measure, and I am confident that few knew he was feeling bad.

He went to his doctor’s office, and while there he collapsed and died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was seventy-four years of age. The memory of the news of his death brings tears to eyes as readily now as it did that same day. I loved him as much as I loved my own father, and I count myself lucky to have known him for so many years.

His funeral was well attended. I believe there must have been nearly a thousand people there to pay respects to an old “bug man”, warrior, grandfather, and servant of God. Being allowed to speak at his funeral was something I am so very proud of, that I count that occasion among the most memorable of my entire life. The Bible verse I quoted at the funeral was Job 19:25-26. It is perhaps my favorite verse in the whole Bible.

“For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

If ever there was a flesh and blood man that has looked upon the face of Almighty God, it is my friend Robert F. Wheeler.


Anonymous said...

The old boy did you on the three quarters, but I'm sure he didn't realize it. I always ask what something is going to cost before I order it, having had a similar experience in my youth with assuming I knew how much shipping and handling were.

Anonymous said...

You aren't the only one he made an impact on. That grandson of his you refer has learned a lot from him now that he reflects back. It's the lessons taught at a young age we don't really learn until we are old enough to understand the underlying meaning. There are many memories that lead to understanding with reflection. I am a firm believer that you aren't just teaching children in the now but also life lessons each and every day.

The Other Mike S. said...

Great story. Sounded like a wonderful role model for a young guy. Thanks for sharing.

Rio Arriba said...

That's a very touching story.

Unfortunately, the femi-nazis who are in charge of so much family and education stuff in our society have decreed that men who are kind and attentive to children not their own are most likely pedophile predators. Thus in one stroke they deny many, if not most, male children the benefits of a mentor or a non-family, supportive friend. That's very sad, because so much of our transmitted culture gets lost that way.

But I think that's their idea in the first place.

Thanks for your story: they clearly lost that one!

Anonymous said...

Great post. If only we all had mentors such as that the world would be a better place.