Tuesday, October 02, 2007

My Life And Times With John Riley

I'd like to think that everyone has had the opportunity to know someone truly amazing. I have been lucky enough to have known four. I married one, was sired by one, was taught by one, and befriended the last. These four people have had a profound effect on my life in both large and small ways.

These people are not "amazing" in the same sense that David Copperfield can make large things disappear. These people are not "amazing" in the same sense as say Jimi Hendrix, Albert Einstein, or Mother Tersea. These people are amazing in their own right.

Let me tell you about one.

In my thirty-some odd years of treading this little ball of mud we call our own, I have never met his competition, let alone his equal. Don't get me wrong, I've had the privilege of meeting some of the most wonderful people in my time, and I include all of my Readers in this category, but I think everyone could name at least one person of exceptional quality.

Mine was John Riley. It was funny in the fact that only people who didn't know him called him John. Anyone who knew him called him Jack, just like the uncle he was named after. His middle name was from his other uncle, Riley, the wild one. John Riley was a free spirit, an adventurer, a philosopher, a craftsman, a warm and generous person, and a free thinker. He knew five languages (English, French, German, Latin, and sign language) and had seen three-quarters of the world before he was eighteen.

He was born on Dec. 25th, 1927 and he often bragged that he came in with the last of the Model T Fords, as well as weighing 129 lbs. for most of his life. He was tall and slim and had the look of a young Abe Lincoln about him. In his later years he cultivated a wiry, red beard with stripes of grey that he parted in the middle.

He quit high school before his junior year and worked in the war factory, then returned to finish and go on to college at Ohio State University to their prestigious veterinarian school, but before returning to high school, he managed to take a trip to Europe. As part of the "Lend-Lease" program the government arranged to send American cattle to Europe to help replenish their livestock that had been virtually wiped out after six years of war. They were looking for ranchers and farmers to look after the cattle on the ship as it made it's way from port to port. So John Riley signed up to be a "Sea-Going Cowboy".

He went to England and the continent and saw what six years of total war could do. He used some of the French he knew and learned some German along the way. He went to Nuremberg and saw the horror there. If I remember correctly, he got his tattoo in Poland, a small curved Chinese Dragon done in blue India ink that crawled down his right, upper-arm for the rest of his life. Even in his later years, when the veil of freckles from spending most of his working life in the sun had obscured the details and you could no longer tell head from tail, he still cursed this tattoo as the dumbest thing he had ever done. At the end of the trip he even made a short stop in Russia, but only for the afternoon, just long enough to poke around the docks for a bit and listen to the Russian sailors speak their strange tongue.

He came home and went back to school. He went to college for a while, but said it wasn't for him. I think he ran out of money, but he never said that. He could have done it. He was certainly smart enough to be a Vet.

He told me about his first real job. He was an ambulance driver and worked for the local funeral home. At the time, all ambulances were attached to one funeral home or another, not to different hospitals or fire departments. He got a complementary apartment in the funeral home itself and was "on-call" all the time. He told me about one time when a 15 year old boy had been riding his motor-scooter and had been struck by a car and had split his skull. The boy's father was there and helped John Riley scoop him up and load him into the ambulance. The local hospital couldn't help the boy, as he needed a neurologist, and the closest hospital that had one of those was in Columbus. I know from lots of personal experience that the site of the accident to Columbus takes at least an hour and ten to twenty minutes, and this is on the freeway and the traffic can be thick. John Riley made this trip in seventeen minutes, but he explained that there were a lot fewer cars on the road at the time. As they pulled into the hospital E.R. the dad turned to John Riley and said "You don't fool around do you?" John Riley looked at him and asked "Did you want me to?"

At some point around this time, John Riley took various jobs such as cake decorator for "Riley's Bakery", going to wielding school in Chicago and meeting a giant Swede, and motorcycle racer. It was all flat-track at the time, and he made the skid-plate for his left foot out of a bumper of a Model-T Ford, so he could put his foot down on the sharp left-hand corners. I still have it. He went to Daytona twice, and only rode Triumph motorcycles.

The Korean War begins and John Riley becomes a soldier. He goes to boot camp and gets through and graduates in a class of five hundred, and the Army loses his orders. For two months he works as the camp librarian and awaits his orders. He is treated as a veteran by the new recruits. The other four hundred and ninety-nine guys ship off to Korea. Of these, four hundred and ninety-five get killed. Four of these guys make it out. John Riley's orders come and he is shipped to Germany.

In Germany he is assigned to a combat/supply outfit. He is to be the commander's clerk and driver. He reported to the commander on arriving and the commander asked him if he was a mason and John Riley answered yes. The commander told him that there would be a lodge meeting that evening and would he pick him up at six. After that, John Riley was "in". After that, the company no longer had to stand inspection. John Riley did it for the whole outfit. He had a bunk and locker made up, and dyed all of his gear the same color, as well as have all of his uniforms custom tailored, and they passed inspection every time from there on in.

As company clerk, he had access to all the right paperwork. There were two kinds of passes. There was an "A" pass and a "B" pass. One was good for four days of the week and the other was good for the other three days. John Riley had both passes and shortly after arriving bought a bicycle. He bought clothes locally and kept these in a small bag on the handlebars. He would get out of sight of the base and pull off and change and be able to go where service men weren't allowed. He had learned to speak German a few miles from here and his accent was perfect. The locals knew who he was, but as long as he accepted them as they were, they sheltered him, wouldn't turn him in to the military police, and helped him out. They treated him very kindly.

He befriended a local widow. Her husband had been a forrest ranger in the Black Forrest. One day the Nazis came to power and he went to work as usual and never came home. She had two small kids and her husband's father to look after. They lived near a plane factory and the Allies had bombed the area so much that their house was sunken four feet into the ground and they had to dig stairs to get to the front door. The Army issued Lucky Strike cigarettes with every C-Ration and John Riley owned a beret. He packed this hat with cigarettes and escaped searches at the gate to the base and gave these cigarettes to the widow, who sold them on the black market and kept the family fed. When his hitch was over, she bought him a going away present. A heavy, full lenght black leather trenchcoat, with matching hat and gauntlets, to ride his motorcycle with. The Army lost his dufflebag on his trip home and he got it six-months later, only to find the hat and gauntlets gone. I still have the coat.

He was educated on the ideas of the Enlightenment. He used to say that your freedom stopped at the end of his nose. He could quote long passages of Shakespeare and Kipling. He loved the music of Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Hoagy Carmichael. He read three newspapers everyday and could have made a million dollars on Jeopardy. He was a fountain of dirty jokes, a fact that I didn't become aware of until I was much older. He could swear in the most creative fashion I've ever heard. He was overly fond of his pipe and fresh Virginia Burly tobacco. He drank coffee by the gallon, and he loved the color green. He figured it must be God's favorite color too, as he had made most of the world that color.

He died June 21st, 2001 at 9:31 a.m. I thank God he didn't see the horror of 9/11. He was the greatist man I've ever known, and I was lucky. He was my Dad and I miss him every damn day.


  1. What a beautiful post, Doc. You were lucky to have such an amazing dad.

  2. Here's to you John Riley, or rather Dad Shaw, as you preferred me to call you.


  3. What a wonderful tribute to a great man. Well done Doc.

  4. OK, I can't comment on this until I get this off my chest: when you say "John Riley", the first thing that comes to me is the Irish folksong (in this case, sung by Judy Collins):


  5. Well, having read the post and listened to Ms. Collins sing, it would seem that your own Mr. Riley would be a perfect match for the song, no??

    Damnit, I'm gonna speak truth and make the Devil smile here: John Riley is the sort of man I've always wanted to be, but somehow never managed to, probably out of horrible anxiety attacks and a general fear/loathing of other people.

    Now I'm 39, damnit, and the chance to do such things seems less and less opportune.


  6. Thank you all. It has taken me five years to write this, and there are still so many stories to tell.


  7. Hell of a post.

    ps Is that date right? You said he didn't see 9/11, but he died in 02?

  8. What a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. Just amazing, and one of the best pieces I've ever read. Thank you for writing it.

  9. I saw that this was a long post, so I waited until I had a block of time to read it. Amazing! Thanks for sharing it.

  10. What a wonderful man and lucky too for having someone like you to tell his story so beautifully. An awesome tribute Doc.


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