Big John (1924-2014)

He was, as they say, a character:  the most out-sized personality in a family of 11 children. . . a member  of the Greatest Generation who survived a grenade attack in the Pacific, and was picking shrapnel from his body decades later. . . a barrel-chested gym rat with a booming voice and a penchant for cigars. . . a charmer who knew how to dance and woo the ladies with a cheeky smile. . . a thrice (or was it four times?) divorced man from a staunchly Catholic family. . . a spinner of yarns that could be repeated ad nauseum, yet managed to remain entertaining through the skill of their teller. . . one of those guys around town that anyone you met seemed to know.

My uncle, John Kraly, loomed equally large in our sprawling extended family, populated as it was with the spouses, children, grandchildren, second- and third-cousins of all those brothers and sisters. You knew it the minute he entered the house, with that voice (amplified in volume thanks to the hearing loss that dated back to his war injuries) proceeding him. We kids might try to duck away, but there was no escaping Uncle Johnny’s taunts to perform some feat or to admit something a kid would rather not say out loud. In my child’s mind eye, he is a much larger physical presence than his true stature of about 5’9”. I swear I remember him egging on some older cousins to hang me upside down from the second-story balcony, standing by blowing smoke and chuckling at his influence. Other cousins swear they learned to swim great distances underwater, just to get away from his yells across the pool during compulsory family swimming lessons. His tales of combat could be terrifying in their blunt detail; his casual use of politically incorrect epithets could be wince-inducing; his stories of fighting, dealing, and carousing his way across the Pacific Islands could go a bit over the top. It was like having one of those guys from a WWII caper film across the dinner table.

The adventures began early, as he grew up during the Depression in the Eastern European enclave of Strawberry Hill, a corner of Kansas City where the houses were small and families big. He roamed the streets with colorfully nicknamed buddies like Tiger Mike, engaging in Our Gang-style mischief that would get a kid arrested today. (According to John, he almost did, getting picked up by the cops for some infraction or another, and being shipped off to a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps.) He forged his exasperated father’s signature to enlist in the Army at 17, and everyone threw up their hands at the thought of trying to stop him.

Yet none of that tells the whole story. Yes, he was one tough bird, but with a tender center. He worked until retirement as a mail carrier, became the devoted father to four children, taught every other kid in sight how to swim (because he never forgot the childhood friend who drowned in the river) or lift weights at the Y (because the same fitness routine had helped him regain his own strength after the war), carried on the cooking of traditional Croatian recipes, and was an on-call handyman who seemed to spend every weekend fixing something at someone’s house with my dad or other men in the family.

Uncle Johnny may have begun every story about me with the fact that as a newborn, I had the biggest feet he’d ever seen on a baby. “Like pontoons!” he’d exclaim. But he was also an ardent, surprising supporter of my work as a journalist. Maybe it was the storyteller in him. He commented on every weekly column I wrote in my first job with a smalltown newspaper, and made a point of gathering and passing around copies of stories from my next, somewhat-elevated job at a city newspaper. He was always on top of the news, it seemed. Even after I moved to New York, he’d astonish me by asking my opinion on something the mayor had done (from Dinkins to Giuliani to Bloomberg) or a city law that had been passed. And he never failed to ask about what I was working on.

But most of all, he was my mother’s little brother, with a bond between them that entailed equal parts affection, admiration and irritation. He was born right after her, in the latter half of the family pack. Louise was the responsible one, making sure he got to school on time, but catching on to his tricks early, when he’d throw tantrums as she tried to hurry him along — always outside the store where he knew he’d get a treat to calm him down. Decades later, he looked out for her in his own way, coming to the house in the days after my father died to offer comfort, but also to retrieve the handgun he’d passed to dad against her wishes. I watched as he slyly reached under the sofa where it had been stashed and slipped it in his jacket. He didn’t want Lou to get hurt with it. She was always “Lou”; it was always “Hey, Lou,” or “Say, Lou.” He shared personal news with her that he didn’t want others to know, understanding that she would keep his confidence. As his ears deteriorated even more over the years, her voice was the one that he always seemed to hear clearly over the phone.  And in her last days, as she began to succumb to the dementia that would swallow her, his was one voice that always perked her up, even if it was for an, “Oh, no, not another Johnny story.”

His life story may have been relatively small in scale — first-generation American, Depression-raised, war-scarred, modestly rewarded in civilian life — but Big John never was. Oh yes, John Matthew Kraly, after you they broke the mold.