As time progresses, and every so often, thoughts of the past come to mind. I am blessed with good memory, so when this happens I recall a lot of details about the events, experiences and people that have either positively or negatively influenced me in my lifetime. But a sharp memory brings both blessings and curses, especially when memories happen of past events I’d rather forget.
Nevertheless, most of my memories bring joy and laughter and in many ways a level of wisdom that can only be acquired through the experiences I’ve lived. And when I think of my childhood and about my clan’s history and heritage I am proud of my past and of the life journey I travel.
Even so, there are times when I ponder why I made some decisions over others and whenever I engage in one of these reflective inquiries the most frequent conclusion I arrive at centers on a specific person who influenced me one way or the other to move in the direction that I moved. I can certainly attribute my tenacious commitment to life-long learning directly to the influence of my father – my self-discipline which was imposed on me by my Marine Corps Drill Instructors – my compassion and loyalty to family and my ability to express love and empathy taught to me by my dear grandmother, Bertha May Tillbrook.
Perhaps the people with the most influence over all of our lives are the ones present during our formative childhood years. I am the product of a broken home – after 12-years of marriage my parents divorced – I was six, my brother was three and my sister, 18-months – I don’t know the reasons for our parent’s divorce and I reckon it really doesn’t matter anyway – I just know my mother relinquished custody of my siblings and me to my father, which forced us to move in with my grandmother Tillbrook.
I see and remember my grandmother Tillbrook not as a mortal but as a saint. Her love for us was endless and her discipline was swift and fair. But her kind and gentle heart would always shine through her frown and my love for her will forever live throughout eternity. She raised us for several years before my father remarried but my grandmother’s influence continues to shape the way I think and do things even to this day.
There are many other family members who significantly influenced me in my childhood, including my father and mother. But I’d like to tell you of one uncle in particular who had a tremendous influence over me; even though you can count the number of times we were together during my formative years on two hands with fingers to spare.
My first memories of my Uncle Don are when my mother, Arlene Francis (Bachman), told me that I looked a lot like him. Over my early childhood years I remember hearing this comment from many people, so when I came of age to worry about how I looked I was happy to know that people thought I looked like my Uncle Donald Bachman.
Through the lens of my child eyes I thought he looked a lot like his father, my grandfather, Paul Bachman.
Donald Bachman was athletic and strong – he walked with confidence and pride – his hands were rugged and capable, but he was quiet and reserved with deep blue eyes that reflected thoughtful intelligence – I heard stories about him – that he was a good baseball player, an avid hunter, a knowledgeable woodsman, a skilled carpenter, and that he liked to laugh, to joke around, and to sip homemade shine – these were my first and lasting impressions of him and they turned out to be accurate ones.
As I matured my interests expanded to many things but always first on my list was the outdoors – I loved to hunt, fish, explore and to seek adventure – sports of all kinds interested me – I liked competition and testing myself against others. Growing up in the river hills of southeast Pennsylvania you had to like baseball and for me I couldn’t wait to play the game and would do so at every opportunity.
I loved to throw things, all kinds of things – stones, marbles, crabapples, and any kind of ball – as long as I can remember I always had a strong arm and could throw things fast and far – whenever I had the chance I played football and basketball, but baseball was my passion.
As soon as I came of age I tried out for the neighborhood little league team sponsored by the Salvation Army – I made first string as one of their pitchers – one Saturday my father, Harry David Parmer, also known as “Henner,” drove me to the baseball fields near the Armstrong Cork Factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where I joined the rest of my team mates.
As I walked into the dugout my coach told me to warm up because I was the starting pitcher. Now on the mound and throwing my final warm up pitches, I looked toward home plate where the umpire was talking to the coaches. As the meeting adjourned and the umpire turned my way I immediately recognized the umpire – it was my Uncle Donald.
I had heard through family conversations that my Uncle Donald had played baseball when he was young – that he was a good player and that he had been scouted by several major league teams, including the New York Yankees. I remember playing catch with him during one family reunion at Long Park in Lancaster – his athleticism was evident, even to a young boy as I stood there trying not to embarrass myself – he threw the ball fast and hard with accuracy that was impressive, all the while encouraging me, teaching me through example. I reckon we played catch that day for no more than 10-minutes, but in those few minutes I received a lifetime of knowledge and a burning desire to excel.
The first inning started and I struck out three opposing batters with my Uncle Donald behind home plate looking at me with smile on his face – he stood motionless behind the catcher as he watched my pitches scatter around the strike zone. At the beginning of the second inning he walked to the pitcher’s mound and stopped in front of me. He kneeled down where he could look me straight in the eyes and said, “Good luck, little Henner.” He then grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it and walked back to home plate.
We played seven long innings that day and eventually won the game – I pitched four of the seven innings and didn’t have too much to do with anything of significance in the eventual outcome – we certainly didn’t win the game because of my great pitching that is for sure. The fact is some of my pitches during my four innings appeared to me to be a good distance from the strike zone. But my Uncle Donald the umpire apparently saw them differently because he called them strikes nonetheless.
I’m not suggesting my Uncle showed favoritism in any way. I just remember some of the pitches were a wee bit off from where I could see them. And to be honest, the best part about the whole experience that day had nothing to do with pitching or winning a baseball game. The best part of that day is the memory I have when my Uncle Donald came over to our bench at the conclusion of the game and congratulated us for our win – he once again kneeled down to my level and grabbed my shoulder and said, “You have a good arm, little Henner.” He looked me in my eyes and smiled and then turned and walked away. As I watched him leave a rush of pride came over me – it felt good hearing his praise – I’ll never forget his words and how I felt after he said them. That is when I knew that I wanted to be just like him.
The number of years that separate us in age is not great, so in many ways I saw my Uncle Donald as a big brother. He had a youthfulness that other adults in my life did not. Perhaps that is why I so cherish the memories of the few times I spent with him, especially when hunting, like the trip to the Susquehanna River hills when I was 12.
Unfortunately, my father had no interest in hunting nor did he have an interest in firearms. His life changed dramatically after my mother left his side – his work and the responsibilities that go with being a single parent took up most of his thoughts and time. So, I reckon he got pretty tired of me begging him for a gun and of my constant requests to go hunting. Up to that point in my early youth I hunted with bow and arrow, many times with arrows I made myself. So on a day like so many other days when my father walked into our house from long hours of work only this time carrying a single-shot 16-guage shotgun, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
As he handed it to me he told me it belonged to my grandfather, Paul Bachman, and that Pap Bachman had agreed to loan it to me until I could buy one of my own. I held that old shotgun in my hands and inspected it closely. It was magnificent and I couldn’t wait to take it to the field where I could shoot it. This is where Uncle Donald enters the picture – Dad made a call that evening and arranged for me to spend a Saturday afternoon with him, so he could teach me how to use the shotgun safely and effectively. After that call the days couldn’t go fast enough for Saturday to arrive.
It seemed like we walked for miles and for me it was a chore-keeping pace with my Uncle Donald – the Pennsylvania woods behind his house were thick and the river hills steep – but that didn’t impede his movement – he moved effortlessly with a keenness that made you realize he was in his element – I struggled at times just to stay by his side always trying not to appear weak and always very conscious of the fact that I wanted my Uncle to see me as tough and capable, just like him.
Suddenly he crouched down motioning me to do the same – his stare was skyward when he ordered me to shoot – a crow flew overhead – I put the 16-guage to my shoulder, took aim and pulled the trigger. The blast echoed through the timber and the recoil from the shotgun threw me off-balance causing me to fall backward on my butt. Both of us watched the crow continue to fly, unaffected by the shotgun blast.
My shoulder hurt from the recoil but my embarrassment of missing and falling on my butt overwhelmed me. But then it all didn’t matter that much because my Uncle Donald looked down at me laughing uncontrollably, “Good shot, Henner. Next time lead him a little more.”
That was how I remember my first shot from that old 16-guage shotgun while hunting with my Uncle Donald – learning from him was a joy – he was never critical like so many other adults – always encouraging and positive and with a subtle country boy sense of humor – even when failure was the result. His way of teaching is one lesson I learned from him that I’ve always tried to emulate in my life.
In 1964 I graduated from high school and immediately left Lancaster County to join the United States Marine Corps. Decades passed before I spent any time with my Uncle Donald again – I finished a 24-year career in the Marines that included two wars, married and fathered two sons, and entered a second career in law enforcement. It wasn’t until 1996 when my two sons, Jake and Mitch and I traveled to Lancaster for a deer-hunting trip with my brother, Dale, and his two boys, Jason and Brent that Uncle Donald again influenced my life, and as it turned out, the lives of my two sons.
Months of planning had finally culminated to reality and all of us couldn’t wait to get into the field. It just happened that Dale and Uncle Donald had developed a close friendship over the years, so when Don heard I was bringing my boys to Lancaster to hunt he invited us all to his property in Lebanon County and opened his home to us as kin.
None of us got a deer that year, in fact, none of us even had a shot at a deer. But that didn’t matter because the hunting trip paled next to the experiences we Parmer boys had together with our Uncle Donald. He played his banjo, told stories, showed us his carpentry work, introduced us to his two dogs, Gunner and Maggie, and shared more stories and history about our father and family than we ever knew existed.
More importantly, he introduced us to his lovely wife, Mary Jo, and daughter, Beth. I was so pleased to see that he had found peace and love after his divorce from his first wife, Polly. They had a hard go of life after they lost their only son, Clint, in a workplace accident. Both were heartbroken and the marriage failed as a result.
Now as we broke bread together at my new Aunt Mary Jo’s dinner table we laughed and enjoyed a time that will forever be cherished by my two sons and me. To this day my sons Jake and Mitch talk of their Uncle Donald and of our experiences during that hunting trip. Years later I think my son Jake summed it up best when I asked him what he remembers about that 1996 adventure. He responded, “Uncle Donald is a soft-spoken man who communicates volumes with a few words and the nod of his head. I like him a lot.”
My other son Mitch has said many times that he wishes he could have lived nearby so he could have grown and learned under Uncle Donald. It is not hard for me to understand this wish. Mitch obviously is wise enough to recognize a man he can instinctively trust and learn from.
I am always amazed at how much knowledge my Uncle Donald had of Lancaster County and its history and of things that some describe as the “old ways.” It was during a more recent visit to Pennsylvania when he invited me to go trout fishing with him that I recognized that no book could ever compare or match the knowledge of my Uncle Donald.
I got an early start that morning driving from my brother Dale’s house in Lancaster to Lebanon where Don and Mary Jo lived. When I drove up their driveway Don was already at his jeep with a cup of coffee in hand. He looked up with a smile when he heard my car and waved as I came to a stop. After a few minutes of talk and a refill of coffee we loaded my gear into the jeep and off we went.
It was a beautiful sun filled day, cool with a tint of fall in the air. Don said he was taking me to a special place where he fished and hunted over the years. Even though I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, my sense of direction in that area was poor, especially on the many country roads that lace the entire state. So, I was totally dependent on my Uncle Donald to get us to and from wherever we were headed.
As we moved along the country roads Don quietly responded to my many questions, always smiling and throwing in an occasional joke. I mostly asked about our kin because I only had snapshots of memories of the Bachman-Parmer clans from my childhood. Don filled-in many details that enabled me to see the quilt-like history of our two families and how we shared a common heritage and proud bloodline. It’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself by understanding your kinships, their relationships, and where they all came from.
After an hour on the road, I finally asked Don where he was taking us. He smiled and said to a special place. He then continued his tour-guide dialog telling me about roads, buildings, hill-tops and history, and about the people he knew in the small towns we traveled through and of many other tidbits that seemed to always be on his mind.
Another hour passed when I saw the sign announcing we were in Fulton County and directions to the turnoff to McConnelsville. As we turned on the road to McConnelsville the grade descended and then the view of the valley below opened up. It was beautiful – the panoramic view embraced my senses – it was my Uncle Donald’s special place.
The stream was narrow and shallow – seemed to me barely enough water for even a small trout to survive – but the surrounding woods and farmlands were spectacularly beautiful – the clean air and country smells brought a comforting peace that stimulated memories of my childhood – a crow flew overhead and I watched my Uncle Donald look upward – his eyes filled with intensity – the look of a hunter.
We walked through the stream moving deeper into the woods dropping a line here and there quietly laughing and telling stories, always with anticipation of hooking a Brookie or for that matter anything that would take our fly.
As we continued to move up stream I became less interested in fishing and more attentive to the woods around us. I saw lots of deer tracks one set belonging to an obviously large buck. I called Don over to where the tracks were located – he looked intensely at them before looking at me saying, “You’re right little Henner, you know how to read sign.” I was suddenly a boy of 12 again in the presence of the man I wanted to be like and he was telling me that I had succeeded.
We caught no trout that day but it didn’t matter and on the way home the drive didn’t seem as long – in fact it went by way too fast now that I think about it.
Years later I realized my Uncle Donald taught me many things in life but the most important lesson he taught me was how to be a man. I wish now that we had spent more time together but we already know we cannot recapture time that has already passed. So I thank God for my memories and for the time I had with my Uncle Donald and for gifting me with our common bloodline.
I am certain that God has a special place that he will personally show all of us – perhaps even more special than Uncle Donald’s beautiful valley in Fulton County – and I’m equally as certain that Uncle Donald will be waiting with God at this special place to share it with all of us in his own magnificent way when our time comes. Personally, I look forward to that experience with childlike eagerness.
And with that in mind I wish you a fond farewell, Uncle Donald – may God greet you with His hand on your shoulder and with a smile on His face in His peaceful valley where the crow fly’s – until we meet again.