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Schenk the Tank

Res Publica

August 2009

by Max Hiltner

There is nothing more uncomfortable in life than having to come to the realization that your eighty-year-old grandmother has a boyfriend. I was made aware of this awkward arrangement by my mother who informed me that the “couple” would be joining us for dinner. I had heard stories of this William Schenk character from my grandfather, his best friend, who had grown up with him and enlisted in the Navy with him during World War II. Schenk, as he is affectionately referred to, was a widower who became “involved” with my grandmother a few years after my grandfather had passed away. When the pair arrived I wasn’t sure whether I should fight the man in honor of my late grandfather or befriend him out of respect for my grandmother. However, Schenk made that decision very easy for me as he limped into my living room wearing a bright red handmade sweatshirt, in August, which had the words “Sweet William” stitched inside a piece of candy. With a big grin on his face and a twinkle in his steel blue eyes he approached me brandishing what appeared to be a cattle whip over his right shoulder. I was deeply disturbed at first seeing that my grandmother’s boyfriend was into whips, but he then took me outside and taught me the art of whip cracking. While mastering the craft, I was fascinated by the amount of life that this elderly man exhibited, and that same fascination still comes over me whenever I see him today.

A few weeks following the dinner I left for my sophomore year of college where I would occasionally reflect upon the crazy old man who brought a whip to our family dinner. In early May I returned home from school and received a phone call from my old friend Schenk. He asked me if I would work for him around the house to help get it ready to sell. I agreed at first because he promised to pay me one hundred dollars a day, but the summer experience proved invaluable. Schenk’s house was an absolute catastrophe; it was inundated with ancient relics and “As seen on TV” products. His home resided on twenty acres of land that had become overgrown and was in dire need of care. His decision to move to a condo came at the request of his children; however, taking care of his chores is what kept the man going. Riding alongside me in his golf cart, he would point out which trees to cut down and which bushes needed to be trimmed. As I worked I could see that it pained him not to be able to take care of the place like he had for the previous fifty years.

Every morning I would let myself into his house after knocking repeatedly only to find him ten feet from the door watching Fox News. Schenk would always make sure I had a doughnut and sat and talked with him for at least half an hour before he put me to work. He would tell me stories about my grandfather and how the two of them were the best of friends. It was during these talks that it became apparent to me that he wasn’t disrespecting my grandfather; he was honoring him by taking care of my grandmother. Schenk’s amiable personality and sense of humor immediately forced me to become enamored with the man. One morning he asked me whether or not I knew that he was a prisoner of war during World War II. I replied that I didn’t, knowing that he spent the war in Virginia working on aircraft carriers, he then recounted for me his brief duration as a prisoner of war, “Some blond bimbo locked me in a hotel room in Miami for three days, and when they finally found me I didn’t have a pulse.” He told the story with such conviction that one believed he was an actual prisoner of war prior to the “blond bimbo” part.

Every day, Schenk would insist on taking me to a nice restaurant for lunch, which usually took up about a quarter of my work day since he loved to tell stories. However, while I dined on fine Italian cuisine I couldn’t help but notice the struggle it was for him to eat. Schenk would always order soup because it was the only food that he could partially finish. He struggled as his palsy-stricken hand spilled all the soup before reaching his mouth. By the time lunch was over he had at best consumed five spoonfuls of soup. During the next couple months of work I noticed my old friend gradually began to wither away. My work days became consumed with running him to doctor’s office after doctor’s office. Eventually, a doctor insisted that he be admitted to the hospital immediately and, upon hearing the news, he turned to me with a wink of his steel blue eye and said “Now we’re gettin’ some action.” Schenk was well aware that he was not invincible, but he knew that I thought he was so he tried to reassure me with his humor that everything was going to be fine.

After Schenk was admitted to the hospital, I continued to work every day for him at his house. He would call and give me instructions on what needed to be done and what errands he needed ran. While running these errands I would enter various businesses under strict instruction to have the place put whatever supplies I needed on his tab. Once I mentioned that I was working for William Schenk everyplace had the same response. The person helping me would make an announcement to the rest of the employees and they would all join me in the front with huge smiles and recount their favorite memories of Schenk. This reaction floored me since he did all his business in Akron where these places had hundreds or thousands of customers. For a man’s presence to have such a profound impact on all of these different people was very humbling to me. I recall Schenk once telling me that he did not fear death. I now know why, for nothing could take away the impact that this man had left on all those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Max Hiltner is a junior from Wadsworth, Ohio, majoring in History.

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