The world lost another human icon not long ago. It was in September of last year and most people, including me, didn’t even hear about it. In fact, I didn’t even know he was still alive–it had been that long since I’d thought about him, over forty years to be precise.
Wait, that’s not entirely true. I did speak of him back in early March when I was prompted by a class of seventh graders to share an embarrassing moment growing up. But often when we speak of the past we do so without regard for the present. The most precious of events are frozen in time, locked in a kind of memory vault. Preserved. Guarded. Untouchable. To hold them any other way only reminds us that time is always in motion, bringing us each one day closer to our own (unheralded) mortality. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I met John Siemer only once. It was in the late 1960s, or early 70s, I was seven or eight, perhaps…I hardly even remember anything of the occasion other than the few seconds I’m about to share. But I knew him well nonetheless. As Engineer John of the Cartoon Express, WKJG Channel 33 of Fort Wayne, Indiana, he’d come into our home five days a week via a grainy color television set and my younger sister and I were held spellbound.
TV was different back then. It was fresh and clean and safe, mostly naive in its portrayal of family values (at least in hindsight. Today’s shows seems to swing the other way) and what Engineer John did for the local market–for kids anyway–was deliver that goodness first thing in the morning. But even more special than watching the show from the living room floor was being in the studio in person, something my parents surprised my sister and I with shortly before the show ended.
There is not much that remember of that day–that’s the other thing about memories, they’re often just snippets–but I do remember during the show Engineer John came walking over in his overalls, train engineer cap and red kerchief and began asking each one of the kids in the audience what we wanted to be when we grew up. To my elementary-age self this was not just a question, but something way more monumental. A question so gravely important, it would set whatever cosmic, unnameable things into motion, that my word would then cast to stone, making them permanent, unalterable. My answer would define me.
I wrung my hands together and began to think. Fortunately, I was seated near the back row next to my sister, so I had time to prepare. But Engineer John was moving through the audience very quickly, kids rattling off their answer into the microphone with little or no deliberation. Ha. Did they not know that the wrong word spoken at this moment would be catastrophic? I studied my lap and tried to focus, but nothing would come to mind. I was drawing a complete blank. I couldn’t think of one job, much less MY one job. Astronaut tried to sneak it’s way in but I stopped it as it seemed like that was what every boy was saying on account of the recent moon landing. I started to panic.
When Engineer John finally came to me, I looked into his broad smiling face and I looked at the mic. I fumbled for a word, any word. Fireman, I said.
Fireman? What was I thinking? My best friend’s dad was a fireman, but other than the fact that he drove a purple El Camino I knew nothing about him. I felt relieved, but not in a good way. What had I just done?
I didn’t have time to reflect on the possible consequences as in the very next moment something even worse was about to happen, something only a little boy and older brother would find embarrassing. Engineer John had moved on and was addressing my sister. And what would you like to be when you grow up? he asked.
She looked at him, all fiery-red hair and freckles. Tarzan, she answered.
Everyone laughed and they looked up the bleachers at us and I felt the earth spinning, it was the future realigning itself to this sudden and drastic change.
Tarzan? John Siemer repeated.
My sister nodded, That’s right.
Well, all right, he said and moved on and I did what any self-respecting older brother could do. I hung my head.
* * *
For forty-some years that was all there was to this story. Just a single moment of innocence and simultaneous embarrassment. This week there was written a second chapter.
We were having friends over for Sunday lunch, after an afternoon of biking. I’ve mentioned them before on this blog. Their daughter has type 1 and the mother and I became acquainted through Without Envy before they even moved here. We all became close friends once they arrived. Seated around the table we were talking about Fort Wayne, where the father, like me, had once lived, and for some reason I mentioned the Engineer John show.
That’s my brother-in-law’s father, he said.
Engineer John, he was my brother-in-law’s dad. He died recently.
I looked at him and for a moment I felt like a kid again, sitting with royalty (don’t let that go to your head, A).
I guess I was wrong. Memories do sometimes evolve. And, thankfully, so too do little boys’ (and girls’) wishes.
RIP, Engineer John (Siemer).