Father Time marched on Wednesday evening and took a good friend of mine with him. John was old enough to be my father, not that the difference in our ages ever mattered. I first came to know John 20 years ago. Like me he shared a deeply rooted love of trains, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as the Pirates.
Over the years we took trips together to some of our favorite train haunts: our hometowns of Cumberland and Belpre. We also ventured to places like: Grafton, Elkins, Huntington, Parkersburg and Clarksburg, West Virginia; Ashland and Russell, Kentucky, and Marietta and Williard, Ohio. And no matter where we went John always ran into someone he knew. My father-in-law was like that as well. Beats me how he knew these people, but he did. We rode several trains together and had a blast. When I would visit Belpre, he and Jean opened their home to me and my wife. Their home was small, but warm, friendly, and any guest was made to feel welcome.
Living over three hours from each other, we didn't see each other every week or even every month, but we talked quite a bit on the phone, and later on by email. One thing about John that will always amaze me Is when I would talk about a trip I'd just taken, or was about to take is that he seemed to know the best route to take without looking at a map. For a while I was convinced he invented Mapquest. Let me give you an example. Once, Me 'n Goody Two Shoes were taking the kids to visit her brother and his family in Columbia, South Carolina. I mentioned the impending trip to John on the phone one day. "Oh," he said, "you gonna go I-81 and hit I-77 and go down?" When I indicated that I-81 bored me to tears (still does), he came back with. "Well then, you wanna go up to Morgantown, take I-79 and jump on West Virginia Route 19 south all the way to Beckley, take I-64 over and hop on I-77. It's more scenic that way. Make sure you stop at Hawk's Nest." How did he know these things? I asked him that question many times. He just laughed. After that, whenever I heard 'I've Been Everywhere' I always thought of John.
John was a walking encyclopedia when it came to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Western Maryland Railway, as well as dozens of other smaller roads. He was knowledgeable when it came to coal mining and logging, local history, and history in general. Over the years I asked thousands of questions and he had answers to all but a handful. I learned so much from John, but aside from his love of trains, I was always impressed by the way he carried himself. He was a gentle soul who often talked fondly, and proudly of his wife, children, and his grandchildren. I never saw him depressed, sullen or angry and I never heard him say a discouraging word about someone else.
Over the years, he opened his extensive photo and video library and shared it with me, giving me hundreds of photos and several dozen VHS tapes. I tried my best to reciprocate as best as I could, but I couldn't compete with forty years of chasing trains all over Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. So I gave up trying. However, if I shot something interesting I made sure he got a copy.
Another thing that impressed me about John was that he was a techno-geek. At an age when most people shy away from new technology, (my mother and step-father bought a computer then never used it,) John was embracing new technology and revelling in it. He was in his 80's and he was playing with computers like a teenager. He used Picasa to help organize the photos stored on the computer, he backed-up thousands of other prints on compact discs. He even had a device that converted VHS to DVD. He never ceased to amaze me.
Last Sunday, Goody Two Shoes and I photographed Western Maryland Shay #6 and the Western Maryland diesels assisting #6. After getting back home and uploading our pictures my first thought was to call John and tell him about our day. I ended up leaving a message instead. I tried again the following day, but hung up when the answering machine picked up. I told myself that he and Jean probably went to their son's place in North Carolina, as they often had. But in the back of my mind a little voice told me that something was wrong; he hadn't emailed me in a while, and we hadn't spoken by phone in a month or more.
John had cancer, you see...since May of '07, if I remember right. He was always upbeat about the whole thing when I would ask how he was getting along. To be honest he made it sound like it wasn't that big of a deal...like it had been caught in time.
Yesterday, on my lunch break I called my wife at her office, like I always do. "How ya doing?" I asked, like I always do. "Waiting for you to call so I can go home," she always said...but not yesterday. Instead, I heard; "well, Hon, you got the phone call you've been dreading. John's gone...last night."
I was numb the remainder of the day. I'm still numb, and sad. John was a good man and good friend, and I will miss him. Now, the grown adult in me is able to accept the finality of his passing, and the tears I've cried the last two days are not all sad ones. I've found some quiet moments to pray for Jean and his children, and grandchildren, and to thank God for giving me a truly wonderful friend. But, see, there's a selfish child in me that now wonders who I'll turn to when I have a question about the railroad, the Steelers, pass on a joke, or brag about my new grandchild. And to be honest, the selfish little kid is having a hard time with it all at the moment.
Bill Price and John in 1989
Me, John, Skippy, Dwight, and Dave in Ridgeley in 1989.
John in Huntington in 1990
Freezing at Kessler Curve in West Virginia, in 1991
John in 1955, before I was even born.
John snapped this photo of me in 1992 during our train trip from Parkersburg to Ravenswood.
My favorite photo of John. Shot on the Ravenswood trip in 1992. He was in a rather reflective mood and I just pulled the camera up and fired.
There is one or two other things I probably should say about my friend and the empty space his loss has left, but they're personal, and I choose to keep them that way.
Goodbye, John...'til we meet again.
"And I've been knocking, but no one answers, and I've been knocking most of the day. Oh, and I've been calling, Hey Hey Johnny, can't you come out to play?"
From Empty Garden, by Elton John