'Uncle Joe!' he said, when I finally got the front door unstuck, unlatched and opened and he stood towering over me like a Paul Bunyan, eyeing me from beneath that woodsman's fur-lined head-gear.
Suddenly my brain re-coiled, realizing as I did that it was none other than Abe Johnson (Father Abram) from up New York State who is so much in love with the human race that he calls every man 'Uncle' and every woman 'Sweetheart,' (excluding his wife, of course).
'I just couldn't stand it being shut up any longer and with spring busting out all over I told my wife I just had to make a sortie out through the midwest and see some of my Pennsylvania-Buckeye friends,' said Abe, extending his burly paw for a lengthy handshake. 'So I up and kissed the good wife, hopped into my puddle hopper and headed out just to tell everyone of these kind hearts and gentle people that of Abe still loves them.'
'I stopped by Uncle Elmer's at Enola, Pa., and found him looking better than he did last summer raring to go to the summer reunions,' snapped Father Abram in his best Holland-Dutch brogue. 'Came on out into Ohio saw the Milt Deetses, Milt and Sarah who I call the 'Corn-husker Buckeyes', then dropped by Uncle Homer Holp's and Uncle Arthur Bowman's, visited a spell with my friend Ed Troutman at Brookville, and thought I couldn't pass through without visiting Uncle Joe. Next I'll go on out and see Uncle Roscoe Shiver-decker Shivvie's the best guy and he'll make me stay overnight. I can just hear what he'll say 'cause he'll be so surprised to see old Abe standin' at his door.
'After I leave Shivvie's, I'll go on up through Kettlersville and say 'Hello' to Uncle Red Fishbach and look over his museum, then I'll go by Uncle Elmer Egbert's to visit with his family. I was so sorry I didn't get out to Uncle Elmer's funeral, and will want to give my sympathy to Mrs. Egbert, another 'sweetheart' of mine the dearest lady who I know is so sad and misses Uncle Elmer as much as I do then I want to console Jack and Frances who live just across from Uncle Elmer's on Amsterdam Road where we always held the Buckeye Threshers each fall and I ran Uncle Elmer's big Case Engine,' rambled my Dutch friend Abe as he plotted his friend-visiting course over a ham sandwich and cup of coffee at my table that spring day. 'After I leave Uncle Elmer Egbert's place, I'll head north to see my Michigan sweethearts, Uncle Percy Sherman and Mae Phipps. And, oh yes, if I only had the time, I'd like to drop by the Blakers but I don't think I can make them all.'
'Father' Abram Johnson is the kind of guy that sort of gets under your skin. You couldn't hate him even if you tried not even if he was a Democrat and you a Republican, or vice-versa he's so warmly human and so universally in love with that family of vertebrates known as the human race. I firmly believe that, if he were even to fall victim to cannibals on African safari and about to be boiled in oil for dinner, he'd rise right up out of the steaming pot and say one last word to the head cook 'Uncle I love you.'
According to Uncle Abe (gee, he's got me to calling him Uncle, too) there's nothing, absolutely nothing in this world that deserves as much love as a Case steam engine, unless of course it's his good wife, Mary, and the rest of the kind hearts and gentle people that make up his 'love people world.' Mention any date or year of any event in Abe's life, and he associates it in his mind with some development or evolution in the manufacture of Case engines.
'I was born in 1916 that was the year the Case engine manufacturers changed over from lap-seam boilers to butt-strap boilers,' reminisces Abe. 'That was the same year most manufacturers made the switch to the butt-strap boilers, so you see it's always easy for me to recall things that have happened in my life, so long as I can equate them with changes that were being made in the Case engines.'
When asked to equate another year, suggesting 1912 at random, Father A bram rolled these pertinent facts off the tip of his Holland-Dutch tongue, 'That was the year the Case Company made the largest number of engines. It was the best year for Case and the human race.'
Resting up a few hours before shoving off for the Shiwies and Egberts, Iron Man Abe tamped the smoking in the bowl of his lilliputian corn-cob pipe and puffed the dying embers of his special mixture of Sir Walter and Bond Street back to a ruddy glow. 'Here try some of this,' he chuckled 'The coarse Bond Street with the finer Sir Walter helps the draught like in an engine firebox, it's easier to keep the fire up with a few big lumps tossed in with the finer coal.'
Blowing smoke-rings out his 'stack,' like a 40-horse Case, Abe Johnson relaxed a bit while pulling throttle and switch-levers on my little HO model railroad running models of old-time NYC and PRR steam locomotives over an intricate 14-degree four-way crossover of the New York Central-Pennsylvania Railroads, modeled after the complex rail operations of my hometown, Union City, Indiana. Out-smoking the locomotives themselves, there he sat Iron Man Abe Johnson the King of Cases, groping for that educated feeling of Johnson-Bar-on-quadrant for a change.
It was a long, rather rambling story that kept flowing from the loquacious Holland-Dutch lips of ye Iron Man Johnson, demanding no respite from hastily-jotted pencil scribblings on yellow paper on my part. There were the young years as a farm lad, hanging around Dad's big steam engine whenever there was threshing to be done. Then there was the time when a certain young man, Abe Johnson, was big enough to reach for the paternal throttle and begin running the iron monster the years when steam really got into his veins. Later came the tractors and combines, and Abe Johnson was known throughout his area as one who did custom work for the farmers, when the season for getting in the grain crops rolled 'round. The years came and went, and Abe swapped farm work for truck work driving on the New York highways.
'I drove truck loads of fruit from the finest New York orchards down into New York City,' reminisces Abe. 'Those were my bachelor years. After I delivered my load, to while away the lonesomeness, sometimes I'd see a burlesque. I'd pick out the girl on the stage who seemed to have the nicest personality, and at the stage door afterwards I'd offer her a bright red apple, saying, 'This is the finest apple from the finest New York orchard and it's for you'.'
'I was surprised,' says Abe, 'how many seemed to really appreciate something genuine like that as a gift from a man.'
Later, Iron Man Abe found Mary, the woman of his choice. The ensuing years to the present time the Johnson throttle hand has been engaged in running heavy cranes and machinery for building contractors in New York State. For a long time Abe Johnson had missed the feel of a steam throttle, and it was beginning to itch his right palm a bit for the lack of it.
'The first steam engine reunion I ever went to was at Montpelier, Ohio,' recalls Abe. 'There I saw Mac Kellar sawing watermelons on the top of white oak logs, and no sawdust on the melons and I got to thinking 'How's that for double-heading?' Then I got around the engines and that was it. Now, wherever I see a cloud of steam and smoke hovering near the earth somewhere, I can't resist running over to get a whiff of it.'
'The Lord must have had a sense of humor, making all these steam engine guys and like the engines not a bad one in the bunch,' chortles Iron Man Abe. 'You know these steam engine reunions are wonderful. Both the engines and the engineers are getting a little older, but they've always got them steamed up and they're learning to take it a little easier and relax and visit more. Yet, anytime I want to climb up on my Case and run around over the grounds, it's all steamed up and ready to go. You remember the story in the Bible about the little boy with the two loaves and fishes that the Lord multiplied and fed the thousands? Well, I think even the Lord was a sort of picnicker at heart and He'd approve of our steam engine reunions.'
'When I attend the Williams Grove Reunion, I always feel like I'm really in God's country,' sighed Abe with a glint of nostalgia in his eye. 'They always have such a good show, and there are so many of my friends the Pennsylvania Dutch that congregate there.'
'A fellow should take time out to visit with friends,' philosophizes Iron Man Johnson 'We often wait too long. After all, what's there to working all one's life without friends? I always worked at my job, but the other fellow made the money. It's not how old you are but how much time you got left that counts.'
'Well, I'd better be shoving off in my bucket o' bolts and heading toward the Shiverdeckers and Egberts,' said Iron Man Abe, heading out toward his pick-up truck where he paused a spell to thumb through his address book of 'dear uncles ' and 'sweethearts' the kind folks and gentle people who own steam engines, all of whose addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and wedding anniversaries he has so meticulously listed. 'When's your birthday, Uncle Joe?' he asked, jotting down the facts 'n 'figures' of my life. 'I love to send cards to my friends. You'll be getting one. I even send them all Easter cards.'
'Ed Troutman sent along this barrel,' mused Abe, pointing to a brand new empty hogshead with shiny brass hoops, lolling in the bed of his truck. 'Ed wanted me to take it back and fill it with my special New York brand of cider which I like to bring along to some of the shows. No cider like my special cider does a lot for friendships on a hot, dry reunion day.'
'Come visit us, anytime, Uncle Joe,' he said as he started his engine and grasped my hand. 'Every steam engine man is welcome to come up to my place at Marion, New York, without asking and stay as long as he likes. 'Well treat you royal and my wife's the most wonderful hostess the Lord ever made,' he yelled, waving a lengthy goodbye.
And thank you Iron Man Abe Johnson Father Abram Uncle Abe for keeping the steam up in the mighty Case, as well as the fires of friendship kindled under that rarest of old-time American customs neighborliness. May everyone be your uncle and your sweetheart.