Joe College, you were so cool

My brother-in-law from my first marriage died early this morning. Robert N. College.

Most people just called him “Joe College.”

Joe came into the family shortly after I and Barb married. Her older sister had met him while working in the Beltway. He was quite a bit older than Jane, I’m guessing something like 20 years, and the family was aghast. He’d been married a couple of times before, and that didn’t fly so well with the straight-laced Yankees, either.

Joe was a character. He’d been in the Air Force Band and seen the world. After retiring from the military, he got into banquet management. I think he managed an officer’s club in the D.C. area.

Whenever we went out to eat with Joe, he  critiqued the operation, the staff, the food, ambiance. Of course, in most cases he was certain he could do a better job.

Fact is, he probably could have.

He dabbled in the ownership of a liquor store for a while, then settled into retirement.  He and his wife had one child, Stacy, just a year younger than my son. They grew up together in Conneaut. He was a good father, very protective. When she got cancer, he became angry with God and his faith seemed to end. Some people say that its wrong to get mad at God because he allows bad things to happen to us. Maybe Joe was saying how much he loved his daughter, who suffered through a year of chemotherapy. It is human to hurt when someone we cherish is suffering; each of us expresses that disappointment with life, or God, in our own way.

And so God answered the prayers of the rest of the family. And Joe, well, he just became more Joe with each passing day.

Always one to have an opinion about any subject, Joe probably went through a few barrels of printers’ ink in his lifetime as the presses churned out his letters to the editorsof the Conneaut News Herald and Ashtabula Star Beacon. Always signed them “Robert N. College.”

He reminded me of Jack Benny, he didn’t walk, he sauntered with dignity. And the way he stood with his arm across his chest, well, Joe even looked like Jack Benny, come to think of it.

He grew up in the era when people listened to old-time radio, and I always chatting about OTR and big band music with him. He had a bunch of open reel tapes he’d recorded, and we always talked about putting them on CDs. I guess that was in another life.

I always tried to get Joe’s name for the family gift exchange. He was easy to buy for. There was this certain brand of pants, with the elastic waistline, that he liked. And so I’d get him a pair or two of those, and a CD or DVD of some obscure program. I always looked for the Air Force Band broadcasts, hoping that I’d hit upon a recording of a performance in which he played.

Did I mention that he played trumpet? He did. He loved the trumpet, and as his years grew to a close he found purpose in being a volunteer who played Taps at the funerals of veterans. I wonder if there will be someone to play for him?

Joe liked Cadillacs. He had one that must have been 25 years old. It was a money pit. But he loved the thing. I don’t know if it was a status symbol or he just liked big, solid, American-made vehicles. None of that matters now, except it is one of those things likely to trigger a memory of him.

Joe and Jane were married more than 35 years, I’m guessing. It took him a few troubled marriages to find one that would stick, but when he found it, they made it work. I remember him saying, and there was a plaque that hung in their kitchen to this effect, “If a man has enough horse sense to treat his wife like a thoroughbred, she’ll never turn into an old nag.”

I guess it worked, at least I never heard much nagging. And Joe would call his wife “Babe,” I’m pretty sure I remember, that.  Yeah, she’d get disgusted with his beer consumption and complaining, but she tolerated it and loved him all the same. You got to do that in order to stay married. In the end, they both got a good deal.

Joe had lung cancer decades ago. They removed a big section of the lung and he promised to stop smoking. Worked for a couple of months; I think he blamed the cancer on playing the trumpet in the band. Could be, I suppose. Who am I to say? Sometimes, what happens to us is our fault; other times, it’s just the roll of the dice. No sense giving it much thought. I just remember what a scary time that was, what with having an infant and all.

Later, he had blood clots that brought him within an hour of so of losing his leg. By golly and prayer, he survived and walked around on both legs for quite a few years after that, but had to take blood thinners, which limited him to a beer or two a day. Talk about a tough decision, mobility or beer when you are in your 60s.

So now Joe is gone, just like my first marriage and the one after that. As I am grieving the loss of loves and the loss of Joe, I realize that I never really got to say goodbye to him. I’m guessing the last time I saw him was, what, four years ago? A  quick nod, I was going through a divorce then, and the family wasn’t thrilled to see my face. A quick nod. I guess sometimes that is the best way to exit this place.