A Memorable Memorial by Dave Bachmann

Today, our town held a memorial service for my husband, Bob. It was a touching ceremony, well attended and, despite my having been married to him for 49 years, a bit of a surprise. For you see, I learned something about him I never knew.

Oh, one more thing. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Bob was a big man. And not just physically either, though his 250-pound, 6-foot 4 frame was difficult to overlook. No, it was Bob’s big heart that made an impression on everyone. The good Lord’s blueprint for Bob was one-of-a-kind.

Bob was a fireman. A lot of his co-workers didn’t like being called a fireman, preferring the more modern term of firefighter. But Bob had wanted to be a fireman from the time he was a child, and he was damned if anyone was going to call him anything different. He served with distinction for thirty-five years before he retired. If you can call it that. Bob continued volunteering at the fire station, taught CPR at the high school, sorted clothes at the Good News Thrift store and worked weekends at a No-Kill Shelter.

I once asked Bob why he continued working so hard. He laughed and said, “Honey, you don’t retire from life until it retires from you.”

We were high-school sweethearts and got married as soon as we graduated. Bob was the first man I ever kissed and, though he’d be embarrassed to admit it, I’m pretty sure it was the same for him.

We shared a love for antiques and spent many a weekend spelunking. Well, that’s what we called it, anyway. Most folks call it antiquing but that term always seemed a little too hoity-toity for Bob and me. The term spelunking seemed to fit what Bob and I did, scrounging around the dark corners of antique stores and all.

I was into furniture and jewelry of the Arts and Crafts Period. Bob? Well, Bob was into toys. I know, it’s hard to believe. Here was this big, hulking fireman, roaming around antique stores, on the prowl for toys. And not just any antique toys either. Bob collected the wind-up ones.

He had quite a collection of them, too. His study was filled with wind-up monkeys, wind-up drummers, wind-up you-name-its. And no matter how many he bought, his study never seemed to get full.

I guess that should have been my first clue.

The whole town of La Verne turned out for Bob’s funeral. While that sounds impressive, keep in mind that it’s a small town and when you bump into someone on the street it’s either a relative, a neighbor or a friend. Having said that, I was impressed at Bob’s service by the number of people I didn’t know, particularly young people.

That should have been my second clue.

It was an informal affair, an open mic for anyone that wanted to say something on Bob’s behalf. And there were plenty that wanted to. The mayor, chief of police, fire chief and members of the city council all rose and read prepared statements, praising the accomplishments of Bob. It was moving, memorable and… well, a little boring.

At least, it was until a young Latino woman came forward and began to speak.

She was clearly nervous. But her voice was clear and grew stronger as she told her story.

 “My name is Marguerite,” she began, “and I met Mr. Bob…. Mr. B as we call him, “the day my sister and I were caught shoplifting.”

At this, she paused, looked down as if embarrassed by what she had just said, then collected herself and continued.

 “You see, when the owner of the store caught us shoplifting batteries, my sister started to cry. She has asthma and was struggling to breathe. That’s why Mr. B was called. After he checked her out and calmed her down, he turned to me and asked in Spanish, ‘why in the world are you stealing batteries?’

I explained that we were homeless and living in the back of my parents’ camper. We needed the batteries to power our flashlights so we could do our homework after it got dark.

Well, Mr. B listened patiently, nodded and went inside the store. When he came back, he told me that the owner had decided not to press charges and handed me a box of batteries. Then he drove my sister and me back to our camper…” and here, Marguerite paused before adding with a broad smile, “…in a fire engine!”

I smiled. It was just like Bob. Doing good with a flair.

 “But that’s not all. Before he left, he gave me this,” and she held up a metal, wind-up elephant.

 “He gave one to my sister, too – a wind-up penguin. And when we came to the service today, I met a bunch of other kids. Mr. B had given them wind-up toys, as well. You see, whenever Mr. B responded to a fire, an emergency or, well, a difficult situation like mine, he gave them a wind-up toy. And not just any wind-up toy, either. They’re antiques. Mr. B said the plastic ones they sell in the stores weren’t good enough for us. He said that he wanted to give us something that would last forever.”

Here, Marguerite paused and gazed at the coffin. I could see there were tears in her eyes. And, frankly, there were tears in mine as well. But what she did next, I could never have imagined.

 Marguerite stepped away from the podium, took up a position behind Bob’s coffin and motioned to the assemblage with a sweep of her arm, “Alright. C’mon up!”

And with that pronouncement, young people began standing up all over the room and methodically picking their way to the front. Five, ten, a dozen young people, looking down, shy, not accustomed to this attention, standing quietly next to Marguerite, waiting, waiting, waiting.

 “Mr. B,” Marguerite announced in a confident, strong voice, “this is for you,” and with that, she wound up her elephant, and placed it on the coffin.

The elephant shuddered, as if confused about what it was supposed to do. And then its legs began slowly rising and falling as it ponderously moved forward.

One by one, the other youths wound up their antique toys and placed them carefully on the coffin. Soon, lions, monkeys, chickens, cows, every assortment of farm and jungle animal, were clambering this way and that, filling the room with a cacophony of clacking metal springs and wheels.

I looked around to see how others were reacting. Their mouths agape, they stared, astonished and maybe even a little horrified by what they were seeing.

And then, I thought of Bob and smiled. He would have loved this… this tribute, from all these young people he had helped, who were now honoring him the only way they knew how.

That’s when I started laughing.

The site of all those wind-up toys prancing about, the wide-eyed young people looking anxiously at me, the grief, the joy, the ups and downs of the last few days, came to a sudden, glorious crescendo and I laughed. Loud, long and unabashedly.

That was all it took. Like delicate, fragile flowers after a summer storm, laughter began sprouting up all around me. Soon, the whole room was standing, applauding, and laughing.

What had been a solemn affair became a celebration. A celebration of a man’s generosity and kindness to others, thanks to some antique wind-up toys. 

 Of course, being what they were, the toys began sputtering out, along with our laughter, their brief but glorious performance having momentarily brought together those of different backgrounds and upbringings into a community of shared loss and renewal. Finally, one loan monkey remained, clashing his cymbals together, oblivious of the fact that his peers had expired, until he too halted in mid-clash, leaving the room in a delicate silence.

Marguerite gathered up the spent toys, gently placed them in a box and brought them to me, a reverential offering for the man, husband, friend I had lost. “These are yours now,” she quietly spoke.

I looked at the toys, the young people and thought of what Bob had done. And I knew what I needed to do.

That was six weeks ago.

It’s called Fireman Bob’s Antique Wind-Up Toy Foundation. I am the Director and Marguerite is the Senior Research Manager. Each weekend, we tour the antique stores in an ever-expanding arch around our little town, looking for… yes, you guessed it, wind-up toys. By my last count, we had collected eighty-three of them. Then, during the week, we catalogue the toys, package them in groups of 12 and deliver them to police and fire departments to give to children whenever they respond to a call.

I thought I had retired years ago but now I’m working harder than ever and having a ball doing it.

It’s like Bob said, ‘You don’t retire from life until it retires from you.’

 And this old gal’s just getting started.

 Dave Bachmann has had stories published in The Liguorian, Chicken Soup for the Soul and Potato Soup Journal.