Monday, February 16, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 3

It has been said by more than a few people who know our family well, even though there are three pastors among these five brothers, "John is the really nice one." And, I guess it's true. You will never meet a kinder man, a more selfless guy, than my big brother John. I like to think the rest of us must have done a really good job on John for him to turn out so well.

For me, John has always been the classic big brother, the one who did for me lots of things that big brothers are supposed to do for their little brothers coming along behind. I'll tell the stories and you be the judge. I think he did well.

Believe it or not, John was also my baseball coach for two years, after Pete and Jim. How lucky could I be? Three brothers in a row. No wonder I never made it to the big leagues. John used to make me pitch to him at practice just so he could hit the ball in the lake in deep right field at the old Little League field. He did splash a few in the water, but he also nearly took my head off with a few scorching line drives. I think I was considered expendable.

More than any of my brothers, John was my protector. More than once as I was growing up, it was John who put the fear of God into my tormenters. No bully wanted to mess with John.

On the other hand, John nearly killed me himself a few times, usually by drowning or hypothermia. At the pool I may have accidently splashed John and the girls he was trying to impress with an well-placed cannonball or can opener. And I may have been warned to stop or face the consequences, but what's a little brother to do when you get a chance embarrass your brother like that. So I gave him one more big cannonball and swam fast for the far ladder, but not fast enough. Just as I reached up for handrail, John's vice grip caught my ankle and I was instantly on the bottom of the pool, so suddenly that my mouth was still open from trying to yell. No air, no nothing.

Changing seasons, my buddy, David, and I were enjoying a winter afternoon of neighborhood snowball fights when John came home from work at Vincents. He was dressed for work, of course, and I thought this was a great chance to hit my brother with a big snowball when he couldn't come after me. This proved to be a gross miscalculation. Even after John's warning, I nailed him in the back of the head as he went in the door. David and I were still laughing about it when John came back out the door. Before I could get away, he had me by the ankle again. Holding me up with one hand, he yanked my coat off with the other, then my sweatshirt, and finally my t-shirt, before sticking me head first into the snow drift. I was beginning to understand why bullies didn't mess with John.

John was the only one of my brothers to ever talk to me about girls and sex. We laugh about those conversations now. We both decided it would be best not to share any details from those talks, but at least he tried to take care of his little brother.

John was the best athlete in the family, having done a great deal of weightlifting in high school, he became an outstanding football player. A few years back when Windsor High School announced their 50 year all-time team, I think John and his son, Andy, both made the team, the only father and son on the squad.

I guess due to all that weightlifting, John had trouble with pinched nerves in his neck and shoulders. This was back when football players were actually taught to use their helmet as a weapon, lead with their face mask, make contact head on. Several times, John would make a big hit in a game and literally knock himself out. He would be motionless on the ground, coaches would roll him over, bring him around, he would come out for a play or two and then right back in the game he would go. So much for safety. There was no stopping him. He was an intense competitor.

When I went out for football as a freshman at Windsor, John was off to college in Bolivar. A few weeks into the season I got discouraged and maybe a little lazy and decided to quit the team. I was at home the next day when John came home. He asked Mom what I was doing at home during practice time and she told him I had decided to quit football. John found me out in the yard and gave me the most intense, Lombardi-like speech I have ever heard. I can still see his face in my mind, the anger, the disappointment, and the fire in his eyes. "You don't have to play football forever, but once you go out, you don't just walk away. You don't quit! You don't let your team down. You tough it out. If you don't get to play much, work harder, get better, but you don't give up. My brother is not going to be a quitter!"

I was back at practice the next day, paid the price for missing practice, and never considered quitting again. A back injury and spinal condition ended my football career later on, but an important life lesson was learned from a big brother who wouldn't let me walk away.

Through the years we have always given John a hard time about being Mom's favorite. He denies it, of course, but always with that tilted head grin of his that makes us question his sincerity. Pete thought he would drive the point home with some snazzy t-shirts for all of the siblings except John. But wouldn't you know it, Mom took care of "Johnnie" with a t-shirt of his own. Can't blame Mom really. He is the nice one.

In his career, John is a great example of the old adage, "Bloom where you are planted," able to bounce back from some serious setbacks and career changes. He's had to deal with uncontrollable circumstances - being a loan officer during the farm crisis of the 1980s, working for a manufacturer that failed after 9/11 - tough situations that would defeat a lesser man, but John keeps bouncing back, moving on, making the best of it.

For the past ten years John has worked for Remax and he has done well in real estate, enjoying it more than any of his previous work. No surprise to me. John is just the combination people are looking for in a realtor - integrity and trust, savvy and service. I guess even in real estate, "John is the nice one."

None of my family will ever forget Monday evening, June 26, 2006, when we almost lost John in the tragic building collapse in Clinton. One man died and and ten were trapped in the rubble as rescuers worked to shore up the remaining walls and dig down to reach those who had been buried in the debris. John was the sixth man brought out about 2:30 the next morning. I remember standing over him in the emergency room, all scraped up and filthy with dust, his clothes ripped and shredded, but he looked pretty good to us, a little shaken but safe and sound. For John, and for the rest of us, that night was a stern reminder of how fragile life is and how suddenly it can come to an end.

So John has been closer to the edge than I have ever been and he is the wiser for the experience, more in touch with the things that matter and less bothered by the things that don't. That's something else very precious I can learn from my big brother John. I am very grateful.

"Really? John Hill is your brother?" 
"Yes, he is."
"Great guy. Do anything for you. I think the world of John."
"Me, too." 

3 comments:

Don Wideman said...

Thanks, Drew! It is good to hear a little brother express appreciation for his elders. And, I always thought that you were the good one. Or so, you told me.

Wm Clark said...

Another excellent one. I am imagining that as you write these stories of these great guys you were lucky enough to have as brothers, you are probably seeing a few new things in each of them that may have slipped by before.

Anonymous said...

Having roomed with John in college, I can verify all of this is true. It is good to know about all the head injuries he suffered from football. Knowing what we know now about what concussions can do long term, this helps explain a lot! Great guy. Great stories. Who doesn't love John? Your mom is right. He is everyone's favorite.