The main thing that Tom Schlegel and I had in common was the fact that we both were the only men in households full of women. His father passed away in the great influenza epidemic of 1918 when Tom was only 6 months old. As a result he grew up on the Kansas prairie with his mother, his grandmother, his sister and an aunt. Later, he moved to Pennsylvania, married a local girl, and had two daughters. I married one of those daughters, and together we had a child of our own – Tom’s only grandchild – a girl.
So naturally, when Tom and I got together (once we could finally get away from all the women) we settled into the comfortable world of manly things. We drank beer from frosted mugs while eating popcorn and watching Kansas play basketball on TV. We changed the window screens, we went to buy paint, we carried boxes up from the basement, and we talked of sports and politics.
Tom was smart as a whip. Sharp as a tack. He was a stickler for detail… An engineer for his entire career, he once built a computer from a Heath Kit in an era when no one even knew what a computer was. He amassed an incredible collection of postage stamps related to engineering and the space race and he read voraciously. He was always prepared and always on time.
Tom had a limited collection of stories that he liked to tell and it seemed for so long that we were destined to hear every one of them over and over again, every time we visited: how he used to work for the Santa Fe railroad digging postholes, about his football career as a linebacker in a leather helmet, how his grandmother snored like a down-shifting truck, and about old Chief Burnett, the Pottawatomie Indian Chief who warned the city of Topeka, Kansas never to destroy the small mound outside of town that had protected the site from tornadoes since ancient times.*
Recently however, when it became obvious that he no longer remembered those stories, or no longer thought them important… I realized that I missed them.
Eventually, Tom started moving away from us through a long series of doors to which only he had the key. At first he’d look back each time he reached one, wondering why we hesitated. But towards the end, he finally just turned and went shuffling off, stooped over like an old Indian, complaining that he was always rushing – though in reality, he really had no where to go.
Tom Schlegel is gone now, and with him passes a generation. He’s gone to a better place where his clouded eyes have again cleared and where there is again much to be done. He is reunited with his bride of 53 years and with the long line of ancestors past, present and future, in the oval picture on his wall. But wherever Tom has gone, whatever lies over there on his side of the final door, we can be sure of one thing: Tom Schlegel has surely gone to a place where there are a lot of women.
* In 1960 the City of Topeka leveled a portion of the mound to build a water tower and housing development. Six years later a vicious F5 tornado, with winds of 200 mph came directly over the mound, destroyed the water tower, and ripped a 22 mile swatch of destruction through Topeka, killing 16 people and causing $100 million in damage.