When I was 16, my folks split up. The divorce left my mom a wreck (she says “basket case) with three emotionally wounded sons. I’m not sure how she met Charles Knuth, probably as an acquaintance of my folk’s longtime Friday night card game partners Jim and Ginna Greenslate. But she drew strength from his quiet steadiness, married him, and he took us into his home. (Interestingly enough, he had bought the house from the Greenslates, which for years had been the site of those card games while I sat up late watching Universal monsters on the Friday Night Creature Feature and my brothers slept in the parlor that would become my bedroom.)
To a boy gun-shy of father figures, Chuck seemed something of a hard-ass. Partly it was his military background: He’d been an Army sergeant during the Korean conflict, serving as a diesel mechanic in Korea and an instructor in Germany. But mostly it was my dread of any hint of dressing down. Slowly I came to understand that his criticisms were never unfair, never angry, never quixotic, and always instructive. His words of “well done” were equally dependable.
I’m thinking that evenhanded delivery of censure and praise was also acquired from his military days. Because I came to learn that Chuck himself was damaged goods. His stoicism kept hidden for years that he was estranged from his own family: His dad had been a wife-beater, Chuck was the eldest, and they had come to literal blows. Chuck had also been divorced three times, though to his credit he never spoke ill of those women.
During the two years I lived in his house, Chuck taught me more about practical life than I’d learned in my first sixteen. He trained me to repair appliances, to replace auto parts (including an entire transmission once), to care for tools, and to place a light where I wouldn’t be working in my own shadow. But he also commended my academic achievements, my bookish nature. Because he supported every interest expressed by the people he loved. Not for thanks (he was uncomfortable with praise), but simply in loving service.
One morning I offhandedly mentioned maybe learning guitar someday. When I got home after school and my part-time job at Kroger, I found a guitar, songbook, and learning tape lying on my bed. When I told Chuck thanks he mumbled “sure-don’t-mention-it” and stuck his face in his newspaper. Another time when I’d been experimenting with cartooning, I came home to find art books, drawing pencils, and sketch pads on that bed. He did the same throughout Mom’s various seasons of interest: weaving, beekeeping, starting a bakery (at 50), and the rest. Chuck bought her a loom, set up beehives, and went to the bakery every morning at 4:30 to bake sugar cookies before heading to his own job.
It is impossible to do anything but thrive in that sort of environment.
Not that we never had disagreements. Chuck rubbed many people the wrong way with his forceful opinions, especially in later years. But he acknowledged firmly held, reasoned opposition. He and I disagreed about politics, about labor unions, about religion (his was fire and brimstone, mine the atheism of a lapsed evangelical.) But it was always clear that he loved me and was proud of me. Over the past few years health issues have kept me holed up in rural Nebraska and him holed up on his farmstead in rural Illinois. But we’ve talked regularly by phone, comparing weather, home projects, livestock, his new lawn tractor, my old Jeep, and family. Always family.
Chuck died this week, about six months short of his ninetieth birthday.
I’ve seen it coming. And still I’m devastated. I believe in no Heaven where I’ll see him again. The universe has taken him back into itself.
And yet … it hasn’t. I’ve always been skeptical of the sentiment that our loved ones remain with us in spirit. I’ve taken it as wishful thinking. But with him gone I find this indelible stamp he has left on me. His being is a part of my being.
In one of our last phone conversations, I said, “I’ll do my best to call you again this weekend.” Chuck replied, “Don’t lay that obligation on yourself, Les. You call me when you can call me.” We said our goodbyes and I love yous and hung up.
I sit here weeping. But inside I feel an echo of him saying, “Don’t burden yourself with grief, Les. Just remember me when you can remember me.”