John was big and strong enough to intimidate, especially, well, OK, short people like me, though I saw him never enraged. I had noticed him working as a drywaller helper, where he was much appreciated, since he could apply drywall-mortar on eight foot high ceilings without using leg extensions, or stilts as he called them, because he was that tall. My brothers John, Sidney and I worked for Well’s construction, the same company John worked for. The big drywaller was a happy man who often sang at the job, current hits he learned from his beat-up radio, but also hymns and religious songs which he boomed out over the entire workplace, snapping his fingers for rhythm.
I met John and his wife in 1960 in the parking lot of the our church in Richmond, where he carried a toddler on one arm while holding a baby bassinet, with an adorable baby girl tucked into it, on the other.
“You the guy I seen at Wells?” he said. Nodding affirmatively, he put the basket down.
“I need your help, I forgot my collection money and I wondered…” I put the basket with my baby son next to his, let my hand sink deep in the pant pocket and with a flourish produced two silver coins, a uarter and a fifty-cent piece, which I handed him with an allure of ‘where are friends for anyways.’ John probably never realized that those coins represented my own collection money making me now the one forced to put an empty hand onto the offer plate. John’s wife Rita invited us for coffee after the service and from thereon in we became good friends and stayed friends until both he and his wife, and also my wife, passed away.
John and his family joined our church, even though their home-church was State Reformed, and our members were practically all from the Christian-reformed church of the Netherlands. Don’t ask me about the difference of those denominations, I only knew that ‘they’ could swim and skate on Sundays, and we could not.
There was one more difference though, John and Rita were accomplished dancers, which was abhorred by our church leaders – imagine, especially young males and females touching one another while making ‘sensuous dance moves’ would surely incite evilness – and therefore strictly forbidden for the Christian Reformed youth.
Then, during a birthday party, John and his wife started to waltz in the confines of their home, our wide open eyes following them as they were graciously sliding through the living room. We were impressed and jealous of the exhibition and at a next party clumsily tried our hands at this forbidden excersize, and fell in love with it.
Then, one snowy night right before Christmas, as John with his family in their car were returning home from visiting Rita’s parents, they got broad sided by a truck, injuring every one of their family, but John was wounded the most. When he after a three month stay in the hospital came home had his right leg been amputated above the knee. We knew then he would never tape ceilings again even though the was fitted with an artificial leg, but he was alive!
The party to celebrate John’s homecoming from the hospital was subdued to say the least. All eyes were on him, yet trying not to be obvious. John refused to use crutches but carried a cane and made it a point to walk near walls for extra support. Singing, always a big part of our parties, was this evening not heard, talk was sparse and hushed as all eyes were pointed ,like a compass needle is to the north, to John’s artificial leg. To have something to do we just took another drink, and perhaps another one. Everyone was ill at ease, including John.
All of a sudden he grabbed his cane while wrestling himself up from the chair.
“Come here woman” he shouted to Rita, “I want to dance with you!”
The two of them improvised a dance right for the situation. One arm around his wife to steady himself the big man remained stationary while with the other hand he held the cane, using it to beat the rhythm. Then he started singing. He opened up all the registers of his strong voice to render the popular hit of the time, Big Bad John, while we backed up the beat by clapping hands and stomping feet.
And I think, there was not a dry eye in the room.