Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The Free Spirit

His name was John, but we always called him by his nickname 'Butchie'. He was tall and lean and reminded me of the late great Hank Williams of country music fame. He played the piano and the accordion and who knew what else. He had taken to music easily and enjoyed it almost as much as he enjoyed the beer he consumed in large quantities.

He came into my life when my sister, much to the dislike of my family, married him.

"Don't marry him, " she was told time and time again. "He's not the marrying kind and you'll be sorry."

But she was young, just graduating from high school, and the words were ignored. He often arrived for a date on his motorcycle dressed in a leather jacket and he drove up to the front porch revving the engine and making what must have been great exciting sounds for a young girl.

Butchie was known in all the bars around town and well liked for his music, his devil-may-care attitude and beer drinking and she must have enjoyed the excitement. And so they were married and children followed. I joined the Air Force and after spending two years in the Philippine Islands where I discovered what a college education can do. Most of the officers were college graduates. So I decided to set aside money each month to pay for college. And dutifully, each pay, I sent a portion of it to my sister for her to deposit in the bank for me.

When my overseas tour of duty ended, I eagerly awaited getting home to see, among other things, my growing bank account. I visited my sister soon after arriving home. They were renting a small house and at that time had two children. We talked for a time and I caught up with the local gossip and then I asked for the bank book.

"I saved all of it, " she said, avoiding my eyes, and handing me the book, adding softly "except for the several hundred we needed when Butchie wasn't working."

She saw my immediate anger and quickly added, "But I'll pay you back, I promise."

She apologized for not telling me, but said she had hoped to pay it back before I returned. And promised again and again repayment before I would need it for college which was still a year away.

Well, she was my sister and I believed her.

I stayed at their house for the afternoon and when Butchie came home from work she asked me to stay for dinner. He did not say anything about the loan. Perhaps he was leaving it up to my sister to handle the problem.

It was Saturday and after dinner Butchie suggested he and I go out for a beer. He named most of the bars in town and we settled for the 'Brass Rail'. The place was alive with music and crowded. The dance floor was full and the pleasant rhythm of the polka and the dancers feet reverberated in the bar.

We were lucky and found two empty seats at the bar and settled in. He put some money on the bar and we ordered draft beers. He was now working for another brother-in-law of mine at mining coal and driving one of the company trucks for a living. We talked about nothing in particular, and the bartender filled our glasses as they emptied. The music was pleasant and I was enjoying myself. At some point, he asked if my sister had mentioned the loan and he also promised to repay it. We drifted into silence and I watched the dancers that crowded the floor through the smoke filled air so that I did not pay attention to what he was doing.

Suddenly, and for no reason that I knew, he was arguing with the heavy set woman sitting on the stool next to him. I did not know what the disagreement was about except it had something to do with her smoking and they were getting louder. They were calling each other names and I did hear him refer to her as fat.

"My husband is here. Wait till I get him, he'll show you. You can't say that to me."

She waved to someone across the dance floor and motioned them to come and they waved back.

"Maybe we should just go, " I suggested.

But it was too late. He was coming toward her and us. He seemed to be at least six foot six and weigh three hundred pounds. He was probably one of the miners who could shovel a hundred tons of coal each week. He lumbered toward us. He looked angry that he has been disturbed from whatever he was doing. I noticed that the table he had been standing near was occupied by several other equally large people. "Let's go," I said again, while thinking to myself here we go.

She was still mad and waving her large arms at him. I was seeing it all in slow motion, my mind was racing forward.

"What the hell do you want?" he asked her in a loud booming voice. He was standing next to her, just behind Butchie.

"This guy called me names and told me to go to hell." She ran off a litany of things he had said to her all the while pointing at Butchie with a cigarette filled hand.

This huge giant turned toward us and was about to say something, his hands raised up and ready.

Then he began laughing and slapped Butchie on the back.

"Well I'll be go to hell," he boomed, "Butchie, you old son-of-a-bitch. What the hell's going on here?"

The tension was gone. They were old friends. They had worked somewhere together and had drunk endless beers together.

"Just a friendly argument, " Butchie said in a casual way, "Nothing serious."

"But he said all those things to me," she continued, the cigarette pointed at us.

"Butchie's okay Honey, I worked with him. He was just kidding."

He talked to her for a moment, his arms around her shoulder calming her. Then turning toward us and in a low voice he said: "don't worry."

Butchie and his old friend joked and laughed and then he went back to his friends. And we had another beer and left.

My sister eventually repaid the loan long after divorcing Butchie and long after I had graduated college.

I always asked about him at the annual family picnic.

"He's still around, " my sister would say with a smile, and roll her eyes and shrug her shoulders.

And several years later at the family picnic, to everyone's surprise, he showed up to see his children, two grown daughters. He still looked the same and drank as much as before and laughed and told old jokes.

"Is he ever serious about anything? " I ask my brother-in-law whom he woked for as Butchie leaves in an old run-down car.

"Only when he's asking for money, " he says and we all join him in a laugh.

just dropping by to say hello
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