Saturday, July 30, 2016

Remembering 'Big Johnny,' who inspired a love of history

My dad, John Banks Sr., died on July 22, 2016. He was 80.
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In 1972, my dad took our family on a vacation to Gettysburg. At a shop there on Baltimore Street, he bought my brother, sister and me three real, honest-to-goodness Civil War bullets, stoking my interest in history. Early on the morning of July 22, John Banks Sr. passed away from complications of a stroke, leaving a giant hole in our hearts. Here's what I wrote about him last week:

When I was a kid growing up in Mount Lebanon in suburban Pittsburgh, I never envisioned the day one of my parents would die. During that magnificent era in the Burg, we focused on playing street hockey down the road, following fabulous Pirates and Steelers teams and "jagging around" -- two words you only hear in Western Pa. Our parents? Hey, they were invincible, right?

Well, reality sadly struck at 2:45 this morning when Dad -- "Big Johnny," as he was known to much of our family -- died from complications of a stroke he suffered last week. He was a tough, old guy, stubborn as an ornery mule sometimes, but much beloved by family and friends.

He and Mom lived in the same, small red-brick house on Old Farm Road for 48 years. They were the deans of the neighborhood and much respected.

The Gettysburg shop where Dad long ago bought me
 and my two siblings real Civil War bullets. It's still there.
(Google Street View)
While his death brings great sadness, we also have much to celebrate, admire and treasure. He and Mom raised three kids and sent them all to college. (I even graduated, surprising more than a handful of people.)

A longtime NRA member, he loved to hunt deer, a Pennsylvania pastime. He supplied my college roommates and me with venison steaks more than once.

He had a tremendous head of snow-white hair. Oh, man, he wanted it to look just right.

While I have zero aptitude for anything mechanical, he was a genius tinkerer. He could fix anything.

He had a temper, but he wasn't often profane. I only heard him use the "F" word twice -- the first time after I wrecked his recently fixed car. I deserved the tongue-lashing.

When I was 12, he and I regularly played catch in our back yard after he came home from work. The giant, brown telephone pole served as the "batter," and he used a massive, ancient catcher's mitt to attempt to stop my wild throws. What a saint!

The past several years he took on immense responsibility. Mom suffers from Alzheimer's, a soul-crushing monster of a disease. He always thought he had big shoulders and could carry the load.

If there's a blessing in his passing it's that we all got to say our goodbyes before the end. He and Mom tenderly held hands. His eyes brightened when our daughters said they loved him over the speaker phone. I brought along from Connecticut the rock he and his brother carved their initials into when they were teens growing up in Quakertown, Pa. I think he liked seeing it.

The very end was rough. But through the haze created by the medicine, he was able to communicate.

"Don't worry about me," he told my brother. "I love you all." Hell, that makes me cry reading it.

Rest in peace, "Big Johnny." We love you, too.

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