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Archive for November 12th, 2018

I came across this blogpost that first ran back in 2009. It’s about a fellow that was in my family’s orbit as teenager. He would probably be classified as marginal, someone who didn’t fit into most categories or social classes. Sadly, these marginal folks are most often quickly forgotten. But sometimes they leave a deep impression. Take Fat Jack, for example.

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I came across this old photo from the early 70’s and was instantly sent back in time. The two gents in the shot from a Christmas season long ago are my Uncle Joey (holding the Seagrams 7 bottle– I’m not sure that he was just mugging for the camera) and Jack Reynolds, who everyone called Fat Jack , Jackboy or, as my Dad would say, Jackeee.  You need to pronounce all three e’s to get the full effect.

In 1972, we moved from one edge of our county to the other, to a little remote brick house on a high hilltop plateau where the wind always swirled and the view south went for many dozens of miles, across a multitude of hilltops down across the border into northern Pennsylvania. It was exquisitely quiet there, often many hours passing before a car might appear on the narrow road.

My aunt Norma and her husband, Bob, ran a large dairy farm just over the ridge and Fat Jack would often be seen there tinkering with the equipment, his short, round body rolling around in the dirt under tractors in his ever present filthy bib overalls, crudely cut off at the cuffs to accommodate his short legs. On his feet were his ever present dime store canvas sneakers.

Jack and his dad lived at the bottom of the hill in a  home that his father had started building in the 50’s. When Jack’s mom died, they had only finished the basement and that is where they stopped. The father and son lived in the small walkout basement, that had a dark and dank appearance when you drove by.

At the time when I first met him, Jack was in his early 20’s and didn’t have a driver’s license. But he could seen chugging up the hills on an old Ford tractor pulling a wooden trailer with a large collection of his tools and paraphernalia. I can still vividly see him in my mind with his little rig of tools chugging along the cow pastures to my aunt’s farm.

Jack absolutely loved and was fascinated with tools. Any kind. Any spare money he earned went directly towards buying tools, the tool department at Sears being the primary recipient of his spending.

Jack couldn’t read or write very well, if at all. But while he couldn’t read the words, he could read diagrams and schematics like a first language. That was vital to his natural ability for figuring out how things worked. It was an ability made him a valuable asset to a farm where there are always things in need of repair. Bob, as well as several other local farmers, was always asking him to work on this or that at the farm.

But if Jack didn’t want to do something for whatever reason, he would just say “Nope” with his stained and gapped with missing teeth grin and pick up his tools. But he’d stick around for the conversation and maybe a meal.

When we moved up on the hill, Jack started coming to our house to do a few repairs there. He took an instant attachment to my dad and my dad took to him as well. He became a regular fixture at our house, fixing things around the place and more often than not eating dinner with us or drinking a beer with Dad. He had an appropriately large appetite for both food and drink. Bob called him my father’s third son.

Jack was not big on hygiene.  That’s actually a gross understatement. His overalls were always dirty and oil-stained from working on machines and engines. His hair was a greasy mat under the stocking cap that seemed permanently attached to his head and there was often a pungent odor that was a mix of used motor oil, fried food and sweat.

Night after night he would plop himself in one of my mother’s upholstered chairs in our living room to the point that there was a dark, greasy line on the arms of the chair where his ample belly would rest. My mother kept a pristine house so it drove Mom crazy to the point she would bellow at him–she wasn’t shy about yelling at anyone in her house. Jack would just grin.

And though she might have been mad but she would never think of not letting him sit there or at our dinner table. She had a soft spot for marginal people as well.

Eventually, after his own father died, Jack parked his tractor and started driving an old yellowish Ford Econoline— the kind with the flat front sort of like the one the gang drove on the Scooby Doo cartoons!– van packed with his tools. He didn’t have a license but that didn’t stop him from buzzing around the hills around us, being well known to most of the farms in the area. Dad, who was with the Sheriff’s Department, turned a blind eye. Dad would eventually help Jack get a driver’s license and as well as helping him find work as a maintenance man at a local nursing home.

For a while, Fat Jack seemed to be thriving.

Fat Jack passed away sometime in the 1980’s when his Econoline slid off the road not too far from his basement home and hit a viaduct. In the impact, his tools were thrown forward against him, killing him. He probably would have appreciated the irony of it. His funeral was a large affair at Mt. Saviour Monastery which was a short ways from his home. He had also did a lot of work over the years for them.

His basement home is no longer there, long ago bulldozed over and there remains no trace of Fat Jack anywhere but in the memories of a handful of people who got to know this strange little character.  I know I haven’t fully captured the man here but I just felt that he deserved a few moments of recollection.

Everybody does, don’t you think?

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