Frederick’s ‘Big John’ worth remembering

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By Tony Bender

Special to the American News

This guest column was written by Tony Bender, owner-publisher of Ashley Tribune and Wishek Star newspapers in North Dakota. He is a former resident of Frederick and Aberdeen.

Jimmy Dean didn’t write that song about “Big John” Schlosser. But he should have. And they don’t erect many statues to folks in small towns. But they should.

That’s the thing about small towns: They grow bigger-than-life characters like John. Maybe it’s the air, the soil, the sky … maybe it’s the elbow room that allows a man to stretch out without bumping into something. All I know is Big John will be remembered for as long as things are worth remembering.

I can see him now sitting on a bar stool at the Ponderosa Bar in Frederick, population just enough. Not that John was a barfly. He wasn’t. But the Ponderosa was like Frederick Day Care. I played pool there as a fourth-grader. For 50 cents you could stuff the pockets with bar rags and play all day. The Ponderosa’s gone, too.

I remember him on that stool at the end of the bar right next to the jukebox. Maybe it was 20 years ago. Maybe 25. Why do I hold that particular vision to the fore? There are others to be sure, but I wonder if our eyes are wiser than we are, cataloging people and things we must remember. Things that we don’t realize at the time are fleeting.

Memories are a garden always in bloom.

He had a head the size of a watermelon, long hair, but not hippie hair. Just hair that was always in need of a haircut and, later on, thinning on the top. Maybe 6-3, but he looked taller, and thick with a chest that barrels would envy. Imagine Jerry Garcia, only bigger, and with his fingers intact.

He had this way of looking at you over his glasses, which insisted on slipping down his nose like a kid on a playground slide. I thought about that look when I got the news June 24 that Big John had died, age 63: The look of a mischievous professor with a beloved pupil. Not love, though. Jesus to God, no, we were men and men don’t love, they like. Like.

John made you feel welcome, that he was glad to see you. And if you were his friend, and a lot of us were, you got that look.

He was smart. Read science magazines. Thought about things. A philosopher of sorts.

When I’d come back for a visit from more exotic places than Frederick, sometimes arriving in the wee hours of the morning, I’d stop at John’s place before I went home. He was a touchstone. Things changed, people came and went, but John was the constant.

We gathered not quite a year and a half ago for John’s birthday, but mostly to say goodbye. As I greeted disparate but familiar faces from the past, I didn’t realize then that John was a hub connecting spokes that reached out into a wheel spinning like the earth in his orbit. We were all connected to one good man.

So what made John worthy of songs and statues? He didn’t cure cancer. Didn’t write the great American novel. Didn’t climb Everest. Didn’t pull children from a burning building. But he would have. No, John was a great friend, and the farther you get down this trail, the more you understand how precious that is.

They don’t build statues in the public square to friends. But they should. It’s OK, we’ll craft monuments in our minds. Mine will be leaning toward me, twinkling eyes peering at me over his glasses, hair askew. And my statue speaks: “Bones!” As if my sobriquet were a celebration.

I loved Big John. Loved.

A while after I’d called my mom to tell her the news, I walked out into the rain to roll up my car window in a downpour. I think the sky was crying.

Tony Bender, guest column
“Big John” Schlosser